At night, Woodhouse’s toads congregate at seeps formed from two slow leaks in our front yard water lines like fat tourists at popular foreign spas. The highest number I’ve counted at one time is six, but I suspect more toads visit the puddles to replenish moisture lost during the day. Unlike lizards and snakes, toads don’t drink through their mouths. They absorb the water they need through their skins, so a toad may soak quietly for several minutes to quench its “thirst.” Whenever we consider repairing those leaks we reflect on the toads, on how much they appreciate the puddles.
An equally impressive contingent of Woodhouse’s toads inhabits the back yard where they oversee the health and beauty of our vegetable garden. This summer — our first living in Utah’s southeastern corner — our garden is the biggest we’ve had in many years, and it’s perfect. By “perfect,” I don’t mean that its rows run ramrod straight, that it’s growing ahead of the neighbors’ gardens, or that its layout shines as being gloriously inspired. By ”perfect,” I mean that for the first time in … well, ever … my garden is pest free. I have not had to dust, spray, or dispatch my nine-year-old daughter to pick off or otherwise persecute larvae like I had to do every summer I gardened in Utah Valley.
Next to the garden sits our well box, a weathered wooden exoskeleton housing the well’s pump. A fence swift lives in this box. During the desert morning when the sun strikes the earth in wide, cool angles, the fence swift emerges from the well box to bask and watch me work in the garden. I have forbidden my children to harass this lizard. The other fence swift, the one that lives at the corner of the house – that poor animal has endured three captures, once by me in a moment of nostalgia. But the well box fence swift – I want it to feel safe to skitter to the garden for a quick bug snack should the urge strike it.
Beside the two fence swifts, an elegant pinstriped lizard, the desert whiptail, prowls the perimeter of our house in search of food. More nomadic in its hunting habits, the whiptail’s range takes in both fence swifts’ considerably smaller territories and all the toads’ turf, including the garden.
A few days ago as I thinned the carrots I straightened to ease stiff muscles and found cliff swallows from the colony in the canyon a half-mile away swirling around me like leaves in a whirlwind. Cliff swallows snap up flying insects while at the same time performing eye-dazzling acrobatics. The swallows looped through my garden for more than half an hour, at times skimming only a foot or so above the plants.
In the early evening, just as the neighborhood black-chinned hummingbirds belly up to the nectar bar (designed and crafted by my nine-year-old) to brawl with each other and sip sugar-water nightcaps before buzzing off to their nighttime roosts, the nighthawks sweep over the desert on boomerang-shaped wings. Nighthawks fly like wizards, dipping, whirling, and diving while emitting shrill buzzing cries. Occasionally, one descends the twilight to hunt through my garden, flying at chest level. At the back of my garden stretches a pasture fence barely visible in the deepening dusk. That is, I can barely see it. After traversing my garden at high speed, the nighthawk flips itself up and over the fence with a single wing beat.
Other helpful predators help me dress and keep our garden. As well as the reptilian dragons mentioned we have dragonflies large enough to cast shadows. Two days ago I looked out the window in time to see a kingbird sitting at the top of a tomato cage leap suddenly into the air, climb straight up with a few casual wing strokes, nab a bug, then fall lightly back to the tomato cage’s top rung. We tether our dog at one corner of the garden to discourage the gray squirrels, the black-tailed jackrabbits, and the cottontail rabbits that would have their way with the voluptuous vegetable plants if the dog wasn’t there to provoke them into thinking twice.
I am happier in this vegetable garden than I’ve been in any garden before, even though compared to the Garden of Eden it is a fallen place, indeed. So many creatures hunting, killing, and eating each other. But in my opinion, the unblushing innocence and still beauty of the Garden of Eden isn’t enough for humankind, anyway. God knows it, and, regardless of the means by which man and woman leave it, God never intends the world to abide in easy and static beauty. Peace of the sort that we romanticize exists in the big “G” garden arrests development. Peace, defined as the absence of tensions and perhaps even of choice, keeps us childish and dependent.
I say that understanding peace’s allure and benefits. After years of turmoil and emergency, when I walk into a nearby canyon, sit on a rock, and listen to a mourning dove’s traditional ballad and at the same time to a mockingbird singing near a desert spring striking its own watery notes, I feel restful and time-suspending peace descend like heaven in a kind of reverse rapture. Yet even while I enjoy its pleasant and restorative effects I feel a stronger call, a restlessness that testifies such pleasure is not enough and not my final destination. Peace: If you listen closely, you hear disquieting themes piping through its soothing melodies.
LDS nature writers (if any) ought not to settle words upon calls to return to Eden or to lament its passing. LDS ideologies support the concept of life as it is being more full than it once was yet still not full enough. In such LDS ideas as eternal striving, LDS nature writers ought to find good ground to pioneer narrative pathways about the unfolding of human prospects in the likewise unfolding natural world. Nothing about mortality is settled yet or has achieved the glory of its final form — not how life is, not the nature of our stewardship here, not the fiber or potential of relationships or the facts of our nature as revealed and explored through our relationships. Simple relationships have gone unnoticed. Complex ones unimagined. Science, like cutting edge mythology, enables the deepening of human engagement with the truth and with the infinite. Religion, also in the business of exploring the infinite, cultivates communion and community, striving to balance the three-way tug ‘o war between the one, the many, and God. Together, science and religion provide well-stocked ships and enthusiastic crews at heady and exhilarating departure points.
Given our growing LDS scientific, religious, and cultural communities, LDS writers of nature literature ought to abound. In fact, given the LDS perspective of there being a mustard seed God in each of us one would expect more LDS writers to be chronicling its development in the garden, where new and brain-orienting events and relationships blossom every day. However, doing so requires surrendering all desire for peace as an end in itself and striving instead for the satisfaction of never-ending work and the confidence in and stimulation of creative powers pushing us toward the next good thing. Lack of this element of stewardship — this constant change of heart that sees all things anew now and again – may be what makes LDS writers of fine and convincing nature literature as rare as toads along midsections of Provo’s University Avenue.
Back to the garden. The broccoli and Brussels sprouts plants have never looked lovelier — broad, voluptuous blue-blushed leaves layering upward, all perfectly shaped and free of pest damage. And the bean plants’ unbroken heart-shaped leaves, green as life. Tonight my daughter said of the corn’s swelling blades, “I like what corn looks like.” I gazed at the corn stalks’ chartreuse leaves fountaining up from our brick red soil. “Yes,” I said. ”I like the look of growing corn, too.”
As I hurried to finish hoeing before darkness ended my work, I heard the weed barrier into which I planted my peppers rustle ominously. Three big toads emerged from openings around the pepper plants and took stock of their prospects for the evening. I knew one lived there, but two more prompt surprise. Apparently, toads like weed barrier. Provided I see no ill effects upon our toad population I’ll use more next year to increase the garden’s popularity with our warty horticultural partners. Only next time I’ll separate the sheet with paths. Since the toads made their presence beneath the weed barrier known we’ve been afraid to walk on it, even to weed out the clever morning glories that grow in the dark beneath it till they find a place of emergence at the pepper wells. I’ve used weed barrier before where I lived in Utah Valley but the toads had long gone. I couldn’t learn through experience about this interesting link between a human invention for convenience and toad habitat. Weed barrier and Woodhouse toads. Who knew?
Well, hmm. I guess I know. Now.