Readers’ Voices: Some pretty timely thoughts on the common toad

  • The common toad (Bufo bufo). Lill-Jansskogen, Stockholm/via Wikimedia

For the Gazette
Published: 4/25/2020 12:31:49 PM

In western Massachusetts, cold weather, like the pandemic, is apparently not going away anytime soon. It snowed last Saturday. Still, there are signs of hope.

A stretch of the Northampton Rail Trail runs beside the Barrett Street Marsh, the big freshwater swamp just west of Stop & Shop on King Street. When I was out on the trail a few days ago, getting exercise and escaping from sequestration, the marsh was loud with the sound of spring peepers, an unmistakable mashup of piping whistles and jingling sleigh bells. The toads’ greeting to April made me pull up my bike to stop and listen.

When I got home, I turned for amphibian information to George Orwell’s “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” a modest little essay published 74 years ago, initially in the left-wing English journal Tribune, then in The New Republic.

The common toad (Bufo bufo, the European cousin of my North American Pseudacris crucifer) utterly fascinated Orwell. He reports on the toads’ rambunctious mating habits (“a phase of intense sexiness”) while also taking note of their huge and beautiful golden eyes, and the long strings of water-borne toadspawn which resulted from the sexiness.

The essay is easy to find on the Internet and I recommend it to all to enlarge their knowledge of toads and of Orwell, a writer too much thought of as the despairing, dystopian author of “1984.” Orwell was much more than that. He knew and loved all the natural phenomena of England — loved in part because they were English — and he wrote about them both as they appeared to his exact observant eye and as they were transformed by his imagination, often to comical effect.

After a toad’s long winter fast, he writes, it “has a very spiritual look, like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent.” His essay is funny throughout, attuned to the oddity of writing about toads in the first place, let alone comparing them to Lenten ascetics, and it is full of dry English understatement (“the toad, unlike the skylark and the primrose, has never had much of a boost from poets”).

“Some Thoughts on the Common Toad” is also full of what readers needed just after World War II: hope. “Every February since 1940 I have found myself thinking that this time Winter is going to be permanent. But Persephone, like the toads, always rises from the dead.”

Writing about hope, and about the enjoyment to be had in noticing natural phenomena like spawning toads and the vivid green of an elder tree leafing out on a blizted London bombsite, sometimes got Orwell into trouble with the sort of people who read Tribune and The New Republic. They wanted a more determinedly political angle on things, were wary of “sentimentalism” about Nature, perhaps even of taking pleasure in the ordinary processes of life.

Orwell meets these objections with robust common sense and reaffirms the value of enjoying Nature. It is precisely from the pleasure we take in the ordinary processes of life, he says, that we build our politics. By retaining a love of things like trees, fishes, butterflies and toads, “one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable.”

These seem words for all of us to remember now, when looking out from our separate rooms we behold cold and deserted streets, the desolate landscape of a pandemic dragging on and on and on. At any rate, I remember Orwell’s words.

Outside on my bike, wearing my face mask, I think about the peace and decency that, somewhere, sometime, lie ahead of us. I look for signs of Persephone rising in this cold April of 2020, and there they are. The forsythia is bright butter yellow under the maples, the maples have buds about to open, and in the Barrett Street Marsh the peepers, flatly refusing any sort of social distancing, are calling to their mates and loudly calling us to welcome the spring.

Jefferson Hunter is Helen and Laura Shedd professor of English and film studies emeritus, Smith College.

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


Copyright © 2020 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy