Dreaming Amphibiously

Late summer session continues this weekend. Click here for details.

(Becoming a Naturalist, part 9)


Metamorph of Woodhouse’s toad (Anaxyrus woodhousii) at Hitchcock Nature Center. Photo by Laura Connelly.

Botanizing with my naturalist school colleagues under a dark sky, a raindrop fell on the dry soil at my feet. But as it bounced along I realized that it was a tiny toad, not a droplet, but a toadlet. When it finally began to rain, the dry earth came alive with yesterday’s tadpoles. Aristotle believed that frogs and toads and salamanders were generated spontaneously in the clouds and flooded the land during summer storms. It made sense; the toadlets at my feet increased with the falling rain.

Our local toads emerge from lowland waters during the third or fourth week after the solstice and travel overland to their preferred habitats. We find four species in our Loess Hills: plains spadefoot (Spea bombifrons), great plains (Anaxyrus cognatus), American (Anaxyrus americanus), and Woodhouse’s (Anaxyrus woodhousii). We seldom see bombifrons. Fossorial in habit, they live deep in the soil and only appear during rainy summer nights. Woodhousii is our common toad of the high ridges. They aspire to the heights and the distance they climb as tiny metamorphs is inspiring. We sometimes find them hopping about the wooded ravines and wet meadows with their lowland cousins americanus and cognatus, but the bald hills belong to them.

If not spontaneously generated, toads and frogs are no less spontaneous generators of imagination. They are magicians of metamorphosis, emerging from the primal mysteries of water and muck to awaken the dreamer and the naturalist within. They call to us in the night and into the woods on rainy days, singing the songs of lost youth and long summers, of muddy feet and sleeping with the windows open. Even in nature-deficient lives, they are the fairy-tale agents of witches and damsels, of nightmares and fantasies and midsummer dreams.

Thoreau was captivated by the singing toads of New England nights and knew them as dream-frogs. In his journal on May 3rd, 1852, he described their dream-song as a “bubbling sound, such as children, who stand nearer to nature, can and often do make, this and many others, remembering their frog state.” They were still singing two days later: “My dream-frog turns out to be a toad…. Their piping was evidently connected to their loves…it is a dreaming, lulling sound, and fills the crevices of nature.” He then concluded: “The music of all creatures has to do with their loves, even of frogs and toads. Is not the same true with man?”

What did Thoreau dream as the dream-frogs sang outside his window? Did the amphibious love songs make him dream of nature personified, whom he professed to love as a maiden? Was he transported back to his bubbling and froggy childhood? Did he return to the primal frog-state of humanity? Or did he simply dream of toadlet multitudes, soon to emerge from the vernal ponds to overrun the woods of his rainy-day walks?

And the dream-frogs are dreamers themselves, as he wrote a few weeks earlier: “I have heard within a few days that particular dreaming sound of the frogs which belongs to the summer. Their midsummer night’s dream.” They are not only dreamers, but visionaries:

The frog had eyed the heavens, from his marsh, until his mind was filled with visions, and he saw more than belongs to this fenny earth. He mistrusted that he was become a dreamer and a visionary. Leaping across the swamp to his fellow, what was his joy and consolation to find that he too had seen the same sights in the heavens, he too had dreamed the same dreams!  

Of what would frogs and toads dream if not of waves of progeny flooding the woods on rainy summer days? We might be quick to dismiss Thoreau’s visionary amphibians as fanciful literary devices the way we might dismiss Aristotle’s amphibious storms as quaint folklore. But for Thoreau, nature was the realm of wild dreams and visions. A naturalist dreams the dreams of toads, of wild places flooded with new life.