Toads of Yesteryear

This is a summary of today’s post.

  • Check out our first book, The Garden Interior: A Year of Inspired Beauty by clicking here or pasting www.TheGardenInterior.com/Book into your browser.
  • Today we are talking about all sorts of things: travel to the magic city of Hong Kong, blue herons in blue skies, and lovely, helpful garden creatures like toads, frogs and tortoises. We speculate on where they have all gone and what it all means, and we talk about a young man who walked across Europe in 1933 and wrote three enduring books about it. What other garden blog offers you so much?!
  • Also, please check out the new photos posted in “Weekly Garden Photos” (button on right), for some bright new images of the spring garden in the gorgeous garden month of June.
  • And in the “Book Reviews” section (button on right), we are reviewing Gardens Private and Personal, by Nancy D’Oench and Bonny Martin, photography by Mick Hales. This is a classic garden coffee table book, compiled in 2008 by The Garden Club of America and rich with photography gorgeous visual stimulation, and delight.
  • Meanwhile, I am also telling what it was like to be one of the first civilians into Kuwait City after Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when the oilfield fires were still raging.  Check it out, under the caption “Personal Snapshot: Kuwait” (button on right).

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If you happen to have friends who live in the very cosmopolitan city of Hong Kong, it is very likely they are going to get plenty of visitors from around the world. Well, this month it happens to be our own sixteen-year-old son. What a lucky boy. With only a little trepidation, he flew the sixteen-hour non-stop route from Newark to Hong Kong. Our friends have generously taken him on a trip to Xi’an to see the terracotta warriors and the tomb of the first Chin emperor. He, of course, is having the time of his life, and we are getting daily updates via email and text. They were dehydrated by the heat today and naturally could not drink the unsafe tap water, so he had to drink beer and got a little tipsy, he was happy to report.

Here is a blue heron up close and personal; how I admire their beauty and great patience.

Here is a blue heron up close and personal; how I admire their beauty and great patience.

Suffering ourselves from the oppressive heat closer to home, we decided to get a break from it and drive down to Stone Harbor to stay at our friends’ cottage at the seaside. We passed through mile after mile of southern New Jersey’s vast blueberry belt. I noticed a stunning blue heron flying over the blueberry fields in a perfectly blue sky and I thought to myself, well, you don’t see that very often: blue in blue over blue. In other wildlife news, last night we were sitting out on the patio here at the beach, sipping wine after dinner and talking, waiting for it to get late enough to go down to the beach for the fireworks display, when I felt something large and rather solid drop past my shoulder. Startled, I looked down at the ground and there, to my surprise, was a toad, literally the first I have seen after living in New Jersey all these years and the first I have seen anywhere in a long time. This little guy apparently lives in the moist gutters of the cottage roof (I would guess, as that is where he fell from) and likes to come out in the evening and take up his position near the outdoor light that attracts bugs, the fat lazy thing.

The advent of summer brings out gorgeous displays in public gardens, like this one of cannas, alyssum, geraniums, and rudbeckia in Kelowna, B.C.

The advent of summer brings out gorgeous displays in public gardens, like this one of cannas, alyssum, geraniums, and rudbeckia in Kelowna, B.C.

Honestly, where have all the toads gone? Said another way: Où sont les crapauds d’antan? Probably there is something wrong in their ecosystem and I don’t want to be an alarmist, but no doubt our own species is somehow implicated. Toads do not have many friends, though it is hard to see why, but for an unreasoning prejudice against their appearance and thousands of years of superstition against them. One of their great champions was the celebrated botanist and naturalist of the eighteenth century, Joseph Banks, who loved to nuzzle with toads. He wrote in a letter to a friend, “I have from my childhood, in conformity with the precepts of a mother void of all imaginary fear, been in the constant habit of taking toads in my hand, and applying them to my nose and face as it may happen. My motive for doing this very frequently is to inculcate the opinion I have held, since I was told by my mother, that the toad is actually a harmless animal; and to whose manner of life man is certainly under some obligation as its food is chiefly those insects which devour his crops and annoy him in various ways.” And quite right too.

Irises are in their great season in late June, and who could ever get enough of them, with their gorgeous flowers and huge color range?

Irises are in their great season in late June, and who could ever get enough of them, with their gorgeous flowers and huge color range?

Really, one sees toads and frogs and even turtles very seldom these days. Their habitats are so under attack and are everywhere shrinking, and I think the ubiquitous use of chemicals, particularly insecticides, is very hard on them and their habitats. Perhaps our children or grandchildren will rarely, if ever, see them except in zoos. It is a sad thought. But just the other day, Cosimo found a magnificent tortoise the size of a large grapefruit bathing in a pothole at the foot of our driveway, no doubt lured out of hiding by this tiny accumulation of moisture in what has been a pretty dry season. I haven’t seen one of those since I was my son’s age. Cosimo was thrilled and worried by this strange creature, dancing around it and barking excitedly, getting close to examine it in extreme curiosity, then darting back in alarm or amazement. He was enthralled; we all were. In the end, we decided to move it carefully to our backyard, which borders on acres of untouched woodland, where it should be perfectly safe and which is no doubt where it came from.

And here are some more irises, with some brilliant blue lupines in the background. What a combo!

And here are some more irises, with some brilliant blue lupines in the background. What a combo!

After all the excitement about the tortoise, I was finally able to go back to the patio and pick my current book back up. Recently, I saw recommended A Time of Gifts, the first of Fermor’s great, three-volume memoir of walking from Holland to Constantinople at age nineteen in 1933, across what is now a completely vanished world, of course. Imagine walking across Europe at that young age and in that time, walking across Germany just as the Nazi terror was coming to power, strolling observantly through a wonderful world that was about to perish forever in flame and death. These books were first published in England late in Fermor’s life, the first one in 1977, but somehow I completely missed them until now.

Now that our planet has tipped over the axis of the summer solstice, roses are coming into their season of great glory.

Now that our planet has tipped over the axis of the summer solstice, roses are coming into their season of great glory.

I am enchanted by the reveries he invokes. The way the books were composed is most interesting. They grew out of his travel diaries, written at an age when he was open to the wonders of the world as a young man, boy almost, with considerable observational gifts. Then the diaries were put away—and much of the original material was lost through bad luck in World War II—and the books themselves were written much later, when the boy had become an old man, a great writer at the height of his powers. And in the books, you can hear both voices, see both points of view, read the one writer enthusing about a wonderful experience while understanding it is being told by another writer who knows all of that world disappeared forever in an evil conflagration. So you get both perspectives, one feelingly perceived by an adventurous boy and the other well-crafted by a gifted older man, both writing about a beautiful and bucolic world the boy perceived and from the perspective of the older man who knew it was a doomed world. Enthralling.

Columbines and sage are a great pairing, and most columbine colors look fantastic next to sage's deep purple.

Columbines and sage are a great pairing, and most columbine colors look fantastic next to sage’s deep purple.

A few days ago, I was likewise sitting on the patio, engrossed in Fermor’s memoir. I had been cleaning up the yard and watering everything thoroughly, so I could be away from the garden at the beach for a week in high summer. I had just sat down on the patio for a moment to rest when my attention was attracted by a lot of bird commotion, and suddenly, a harassed blue jay flew right down into the patio. He landed in the dogwood and prepared to drink thirstily from the fountain, but was followed by an angry escort of no fewer than four irate wrens, a couple of robins, and a scolding scarlet male cardinal. Whatever the jay had been doing, it had not met with acceptance by our resident bird population; probably bothering nestlings, I would guess, or perhaps they were just escorting him off the property based on prejudice and his kind’s (deserved) bad reputation among the avian gentlefolk.

Anyway, besides toads and tortoises and so on being so rare in our present age, it also occurs to me that not many young men are walking across Europe these days. They are no doubt too busy with more important concerns like Xbox and Facebook and suchlike diversions, but I can’t help thinking the world would be a better place than it is now if we had in it a lot more toads and tortoises and even just a few more dreamers and wanderers like Fermor.

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