Wearing the Skin of Dreams

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 20) by Jack Phillips


Plains Spadefoot (Spea bombifrons), new metamorph. Harrison County Iowa, July 17th, 2017. (Photo by Robert Smith.)

I very seldom remember my dreams and when I do, they survive only as fragments. They are also quite ordinary; for all the surreal and fantastically supernatural events and weird juxtapositions that are the stuff of dreams, mine are oddly normal. That is, when I remember them. But why would I? Even as a child, my dreams felt like a typical summer day, governed by local geography and populated by wild creatures of my acquaintance.

A prompt assigned by last week’s nature writing workshop leader jarred loose a dream-fragment that never would have survived for more than 50 years if not for the waking event that followed. We were asked to write about an experience wherein nature and not-nature collided, an event when wild nature broke into our ordinary lives. First we would hike alone, then write. The toad that crossed my path probably had something to do with my remembering.

One summer night when I was maybe 7 or 8 years old, I dreamt that a box turtle appeared in my driveway. This would have been only slightly out of the ordinary, as the eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina) was occasional in eastern Nebraska in the early sixties and in my woodsy neighborhood. Upon waking, the completely realistic dream compelled me, still wearing pajamas and the film of a dream, to bolt out of the house to see if were true. To my astonishment, in the very spot where my dream-turtle had appeared, was not a turtle, but an oversized toad. I fed her a cricket.

At some point during my childhood, I came to believe in something true and wild beyond the schoolyard and the regularly-mowed lawn, and I could find it in boundless nature to which dreams and other freedoms belong. Yet those dreams took me to places more familiar than exotic, beyond the outfield fence but not too far, with wild creatures not too strange, wandering the woods just on the other side of the creek. A waking dream or asleep could be a new path into those woods. I held this belief until I reached the age of knowing better, which I suspect has yet to arrive.

My mother always insisted that her children shower before bed after a day of dirty adventures, which was every day. But there are some souvenirs that soap will not scrub away, like bug bites, berry stains, pokes and prickles, and the residual smell of pond. The adhesive properties of amphibious slime endured for days. Under clean pajamas, the skin of the day became the skin of my dreams.

Such was the case with daydreams a well. Even after school started, the skin of free afternoons and weekend safaris bore the smell of frogs and fish. With chin on fist or hands in face, the faintly-scented patina of semi-permanent slime helped me endure my classroom captivity. Thoreau wrote of the “slime and film of habitual life” as the obstacle to reconnecting with nature. But that depends on your habits and where you get your slime. The wildness within us, nourished by dreams and daydreams and dreamy summer days, is sometimes only skin deep.

The morning after the workshop, I went to work wearing my habitual bug bites and carrying a notebook. My colleagues and I entered a steamy woods under the sentry of barking treefrogs. It smelled of young earth. Leopard frogs, hard to classify even when still, rocketed to escape our nightmarish advance. Slender chorus frogs, invisible at rest and even in flight, made merely dashes against the dewy green. With each step, the earth twitched with toadlets, barely more than tadpoles. A seldom-seen plains spadefoot (Spea bombifrons), with the skin of a frog and the body of a toad but belonging to neither, was seen. Secret spadefoots emerge on warm and rainy nights, and like a slippery dream, on the morning after.