I was puttering in my garden yesterday and found a circular clay object, left by the previous owner, that said, “Toad Abode.” I don’t know if toads used to live in our courtyard, but I haven’t seen them in the nearly three years we’ve lived here. That was not the case when we lived in San Antonio, and those little creatures will be forever etched in my mind.
One summer we decided to get rid of a dead tree that had disgraced the back yard for several years. Memories hung in its hollowness, children sitting in its branches, the imprint of the rope from which a tire swing had dangled. Now all that was left of the tree was the trunk, and it stood in the way of a flower garden I wanted, provided a haven for termites, and offered no shade but its shadow. It was time for it to go.
We debated the best way to approach the demise. Lacking a chain saw, my husband, George, tried to use his band saw instead. After ruining the blade, he abandoned that idea. Next, he tried his axe and chipped away at it Saturday after Saturday, but after pitting the blade with little damage to the tree, he decided that wasn’t an option either. We left it alone for awhile after that, figuring it would eventually keel over in the next strong wind. But neither zephyr nor blue norther could have its sway with that old tree. I guess its anchor to the earth had fingers we couldn’t see. George decided that fire was the last resort.
It would be an easy task, he explained when I expressed my opinion on the dubious wisdom of his decision. His plan was to infuse the trunk with charcoal lighter fluid, have his trusty hose ready, and let the ensuing inferno “engulf that sucker.”
“But what if fire only kills the bugs that are eating it slowly?” I asked. “Wouldn’t we be left with it hard as a rock?”
“You mean petrified?” George asked.
“Scared to death,” I replied.
Our boys decided to come out and see the conflagration. The four of us stood like druids around the hollow pillar and my husband doused it with lighter fluid. When the match was struck and applied, the holocaust was less spectacular than we had anticipated. Blue and yellow flames licked at the mottled bark rather than swallow it whole. We watched as the fired settled into a quiet blaze.
It was then that we saw them, specters arising out of the smoke, glazed eyes glistening, broad and flattened bodies frozen by fire. We realized that we had unwittingly given the toads an Indian burial, burning them along with that rotted tree stump. Dozens were coming from underneath the tree where they had made their home.
“Anyone want frog legs for dinner?” Matt, our nine-year-old offered, giggling nervously, trying to dispel the horror of the scene.
Ben, three year younger, wailed, “They’re toads, not frogs,” and sobbed. My husband hosed down the toads, but it was too late. Many of them had begun curling as we watched in amazement, not able to turn our eyes away. When we were sure that no more toads were coming, we sat silently watching that old tree burn, sickened to think what we had done.
Eventually, after a month of Saturday burnings, the tree became soft enough to yield to George’s axe, and it was removed. The image of that first burning, though, could not be erased. Who would have thought it was so hard to kill something that was already dead?
That was many years ago. Yet I still think of that Saturday afternoon and the lesson it taught me. Even when things die, they maintain a certain connectedness with the earth. They serve a usefulness even in death. My parents have been gone quite a while now, but I still feel their presence and influence in so many ways: in my zestful approach to life, in the way I cherish my spouse, my devotion to family, my love for the Lord, and oh, for my love of singing. Just like that tree, my parents’ roots go deep. I wish I’d known before we burned the toads.