Arugula Toad

| 06 Jun 2023 | 03:45

Was it a trick of the eye or did that clump of dirt shift ever so slightly? On closer inspection, the clump resolved into body, legs, jawline and eye blinking slowly up at me, as if to ask: I see you seeing me, so do we have an understanding? Is it cool if I stay awhile?

The first toad I spotted this spring was a nickel-sized guy camped out under a tomato seedling in my sunroom, basking in the warmth of the grow light.

I yelped. Unlike the screech of terror that erupts from my throat when I spot a snake, this was a joyful noise. “You guys!” I shouted. “Arugula Toad is back!” (Why I am deeply afraid of reptiles and smitten with amphibians is a question for Sigmund himself.)

The kids tumbled in, elbowing each other for a view of our new house guest.

What does he eat?, asked one.

No idea: bugs? Maybe he’s still in semi-hibernation and doesn’t need to eat yet? Whatever he does or doesn’t eat, the good news is that he doesn’t need me to get his food for him.

What is it doing?

Riding out this erratic spring weather?

Among the many joys my garden’s reawakening brings, near the top of the list is my annual reunion with my cold-blooded comrades. Each spring, we have a standing date here, where water meets warmth. I’m sure they’ve always been around, but somehow, since we relocated across state lines three years ago to a breathtaking hilltop where we knew not a single soul, I guess I’ve started paying more attention. This year, there was no denying it: my curiosity has evolved into a low-key but genuine feeling of kinship with my undemanding visitors. They’re like a friend of a friend, who’s always just kind of around.

Let me back up and introduce you to the original Arugula Toad. Last spring, a gloriously fat old crone the size of a tea saucer nestled herself into the arugula patch in my garden, so perfectly camouflaged that for weeks I kept getting punked. I’d scan the raised bed for my massive garden mate and, not finding her, direct a somber adieu her way. Then, while watering or snipping leaves for a salad, a yellow-lidded eye would blink, a head revealing itself right in front of my face, like a magic eye puzzle. Underneath it, there she was, the outline of her substantial girth protruding the topsoil, right where I’d been staring. Somehow, she managed never to disrupt a single arugula leaf.

The original Arugula Toad – and if it wasn’t her, it had to be her sister – made a thrilling reappearance this spring in the very same garden bed, now home to peas and radishes. She stayed just a few days before hopping along on her unassuming way. Someone’s in a hurry this year, I thought, a tiny bit insulted.

A week after Arugula Toad’s supposed departure, my eagle-eyed oldest was in the garden with me – a rare treat these days. She was weeding while we chatted, when she let out a high-pitched yelp. I recognized that sound: not a wasp sting, but the startled realization that there was a benign yet substantial creature mere inches from her face. I rushed over and yes, there she was: Arugula Toad, blinking up at us from under a beet leaf, one bed over from her old haunt.

Come June, Arugula Toad has moved again. She undertakes her travels in the cool and dark of evening, I recently discovered. But to my relief, her new residence is only across the garden – the ‘Malabar Coast,’ where I’m trying my hand at growing a new-to-me vining green called Malabar spinach. It’s supposed to be a fast-growing climber, though so far, my transplanted seedlings are barely hanging onto their first pair of leaves. Ah, the early season stutter-step. It means a lot of watering while the vines get a foothold, but I think that’s why Arugula Toad is there. She likes the moisture.

As I water in the early-morning quiet, I watch her belly move in and out, in and out, while the sun’s rays tap dance their way up through the tree canopy. An eye blinks, taking me in, the two of us breathing together in this pool of silence before the day.

Then one morning, she is gone for real, a toad-sized hole where I’d last seen her. Snake, hawk: I tick off the predators that could have gotten to her, even in this relative sanctuary. Or maybe that divot is her jumping-off point, where, having gathered her strength, she launched herself onto the next leg of her mysterious journey.