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Hoppy Toad Love

Male American ToadWe’ve been hearing a beautiful soft trilling sound drifting out of the wetlands these days. When I first heard this sound years ago, I wasn’t sure what I was hearing. It seemed to come more from inside my head than out. This is the mating call of the American toad (Bufo americanus). Thoreau called them the “dreaming toads” because their call is so dreamlike. I remember the first time I heard it coming from our pools in the back yard. When we followed the sound out to the pools we were astounded to find more than thirty toads in the area, some with their throats inflated like bubble gum, calling, swimming and hopping about. Of this large assembly of toads only five of them were female. Normally it is difficult to determine the gender/sex of a toad, but at this season, under these circumstances we could easily identify the five females because each female had a male clamped onto her back. During this “nuptial embrace”, known as amplexis, a male toad (or frog) usually holds the female from behind, with his front legs under her “armpits” administering sort of a reverse Heimlich maneuver. This stimulates her to release her eggs. As she squeezes out the eggs, he fertilizes them externally.
The rest of the “bachelor” males were swimming madly about, searching for a female to mate with. We soon learned that male toads cannot recognize the females of their species. They are quick to mount anything that remotely resembles a female toad — including other male toads. When a male amorously pounces on another male, the male being mounted will produce a vibration in the area of his chest where he is being clasped and emit a chirp of protest (known as a release call) and the offending male will immediately let go and continue on his search. (I swear you can almost hear him say, “Oops, excuse me.”)
Toad Hugging HandNot only are male toads unable to differentiate female toads from other males, they also have trouble differentiating the female toads from almost anything else that is about the same size. Excited males will even grab onto your hand, assuming that anything that doesn’t protest must be a female. He will grab your hand with his two front legs and if he finds your fingers attractive enough (and you don’t chirp in protest) he will hold on tight enough that you can even lift him out of the water. If you wiggle your fingers slightly he will kick his hind legs in seeming delight. One evening when my son Todd was about five years old and his wrists were just about the size of a toad’s body, we were investigating our pool full of courting toads. He ended up with a male toad clamped onto each wrist. He was quite a sight as he went running into the house delightedly squealing, “Look Mama!” with two enthusiastic, but misdirected toads humping away on his wrists. Ah yes the joys of Spring! Dream on Mr. Toad!

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Salamander Rains

There’s usually a few heavy downpours between January and March. Those chilly rains soak the frozen earth all afternoon and into the night, and the cold, clammy night air begins to warm ever so slightly, the temperature rises above 40 degrees (F), and the first amphibians respond. While we’re snuggling up to the wood stove on a stormy night listening to the cold rain splatter against our window panes, out of the torpid dormancy of winter’s dark depths, they emerge with hormones pumping – crawling and slithering – flowing with the newly moving waters.
We call these the salamander rains. It is during these chilly downpours that the spotted salamanders come a courting. These impressive critters are six to nine inches long, blue-black in color with orange and yellow polka dots. They crawl out of the forest duff and head downhill. They congregate in low swampy areas searching out vernal pools (Vernal pools are pools that are full of water in spring but are usually dry by late summer. Because they dry up part of the year they are free of predatory fish so they provide safe nurseries for tender, young larval salamanders.) Once the adult salamanders arrive at the pools, they enact ancient courtship rituals–and what a thing to witness!

Salamander Rains
Spotted salamander with egg masses. (Todd Elliott photo)

The males arrive first and gather in “congresses”. Sometimes there are just four or five in a group. Other congresses number a hundred or more. They swim madly back and forth over and under each other whipping themselves up into a sexual frenzy lasting several minutes, climaxing with the deposition of little translucent milky sperm globs known to biologists as “spermatophores”. These sperm capsules are attached to sticks and other submerged debris on or near the bottoms of the pool. Shortly after this climax, the congress dissipates/adjourns and the males disperse. Some hide themselves beneath leaves and other waterlogged debris on the bottom of the pool. We saw at least one make its way back up out of the pool onto land and crawl off, giving the impression that it had done what it come to do, now it was going back to where it came from. Where would that be? I wonder. (I have been turning over rocks and logs looking for salamanders and other critters for more than a half a century and I had never seen one of these impressive salamanders in the wild until I was out at night in a salamander rain.)
A short time later (a few minutes or perhaps as long as several days), the females arrive at the sperm littered “congress area”. Each female straddles a spermatophore and lowers herself onto it, taking it into her body, transferring it to her oviducts, pinching it off with the lips of her cloaca. Sometimes in a cold wet swamp at night I think I can almost hear them–the snapping lips of little salamander cloacas (or more properly, cloacae) as they pinch off those spermatophores. What a romantic and beautiful sound!
The next rainy night a week or so later we returned to the same area and saw females in the deeper parts of the pools clinging to sunken twigs depositing eggs. Spotted salamander egg masses are jellylike globs usually about the size of tennis balls, often containing a hundred or more eggs.
Spotted salamander eggs are distinctive because many (but not all) of the egg masses are an opaque milky white, giving the mass a cottony appearance other egg masses are clear and resemble other gelatinous amphibian eggs.
Preparing for the salamander rain
Spotted salamanders range across most of eastern North America from Canada into Georgia (except on the coastal plain where they are replaced by the even larger tiger salamanders, which have almost the same habits.)
Now is the time to get ready for the big event. Put on your rubber boots and scout out your nearby wetlands, look for pools in swampy areas at the headwaters of lakes and wet overflow areas along the flood plains of creeks and rivers. Then when the rain starts one afternoon and continues pouring after dark, and the temperature is in the forties, put on your rain gear. Grab a strong flashlight and head out and join the party. Some say that if the flashlight has a red lens it creates less disturbance to the festivities, though I have not noticed much difference when I tried. Lemmie know what you see.
I’ll be writing more about wood frogs, peepers, and about some wild times we’ve been having in our back yard newtist colony, so stay tuned.

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Interview with New Life Journal

Here is a fun storytelling interview that Maggie Cramer did with me for New Life Journal. It has lots of useful storytelling techniques and philosophy.
“Stories live in your blood and bones, follow the seasons and light candles on the darkest night—every storyteller knows she or he is also a teacher.”—Patti Davis
In the quote above, Patti Davis is talking about the power of stories: that they can teach us something about ourselves and about the world, as well as excite and entertain us at the same time. Local storyteller Doug Elliott knows this to be true. In fact, he’s seen this power expressed on people’s faces across the United States and Canada as well as in his own home. That’s in part because of the power of stories but, of course, also due to his talent as a storyteller. Doug has been a featured storyteller at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN, conducted workshops for the Smithsonian Institution, and lectured and performed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. He’s also a gifted naturalist, herbalist, and musician–elements that all play a part in bringing the stories he tells to life for his audiences of all ages. New life Journal is excited to bring you our interview with Doug. We asked him to share information about his craft as well as some of his secrets for telling great stories so that you can share their power with your children.
You describe yourself as a storyteller. In your view, what exactly is a storyteller? Is anyone who tells a story a storyteller, or is it much more than that?
I think anyone who tells a story is a storyteller and everyone has stories to tell. Some of us put more time and energy into crafting a story so that it will be accessible, meaningful, and entertaining. But storytelling is one of the basic things that makes us human. When someone asks you what you did today, and you tell them, you’re relating a narrative—a story.
When did you first become interested in the craft?
I’ve been performing and telling stories publicly for around thirty years. I’ve spent a lot of my life studying the natural world, and sharing and teaching what I’ve learned. Stories are the best way to convey information. They are the glue that makes information stick. Any teacher will tell you that. Continue reading Interview with New Life Journal

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Swarm Tree: Of Honeybees, Honeymoons, and the Tree of Life

Come join me on this adventure. It’s sort of a down-to-earth spiritual journey. We’ll be following tracks, messing with bees, chasing butterflies, stalking deer, catching fish, and picking up pawpaws — and hitchhikers. We’ll be learning the lore and natural history of the plants and animals we encounter, but we’ll also be probing Creation, asking the deeper questions, and learning the stories that connect us all.
This book is partially about crossing boundaries—journeying into new realms—gaining new perspectives. Sometimes a boundary is defined by something as tangible as a barbed wire-topped chain link fence, or something as political as a mere dotted line on a map, as legalistic as an interpretation of the law, as mutable as the shoreline of a tidal creek, and sometimes it is as unfathomable as the tender edges of a lover’s heart.
I’ll be introducing you to a number of interesting critters and plants as well as some extraordinary human characters. Along with truckers and Georgia cops, you’ll be meeting old Appalachian mountain folk, young, rowdy good ole boys, hitchhikers with butterfly nets, a renegade PhD, an ancient African-American wise woman, and my own sweet wife and son. These folks have special relationships with nature and share unique perspectives that can help us stretch our own boundaries and more fully realize our multifaceted connections to this wondrous web of life of which we are a part.
At the end of many of the chapters I have included natural history notes with information about some of the plants and animals and their ecological and cultural relationships. These notes bring the background into focus, flesh out the setting, and give a broader and deeper context to the stories being told.
So I welcome you on this adventure. We’ll be exploring the confluence of nature, humanity and spirit — diving deeply into the richness of the natural world and coming back to the surface, and we’ll be climbing high into the tree of life, exploring some of its branches and returning to earth — with amazing stories, hilarious insights, and deep spiritual truths.
$18.00 plus shipping – order from my website:

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Finding Stories in Nature

When I was a little boy about 4 or 5 years old, my dad and I came upon a small patch of wood sorrel at the edge of our yard in Maryland. My dad called it sour grass. He had learned it as a child in Louisiana. “It’s good to eat,” he told me. It was probably the first wild green plant I ever tasted. We nibbled the sour leaves there for quite a while. The intense tartness teased my young palate with a hint of the stimulating piquancy and richness of the natural world.
Wood sorrel (Oxalis sp.) is a distinctive plant. It looks somewhat like a “three-leafed clover” except that each of the three leaflets is heart-shaped. They are joined at their points so that together they form a heart-circle with smoothly scalloped edges. There are various species of wood sorrel all over North America, and in other parts of the world as well. There are at least three species in my yard in North Carolina. It was one of the first wild plants my son, Todd, ever tried. He in turn has shown it to his friends.
Once I was wandering in the North Carolina mountains with Ron Evans, a Chippewa Cree Indian from northern Canada. I was asking him about the various plants we encountered but most of what we were seeing were southern species that were unfamiliar to him. Then I spied a wood sorrel. “How ’bout this one?” I asked. He smiled. Yes, he knew that plant. One like it grows up north, he told me. He used to gather it by the basketful when he was a child. His people often eat it mixed with other greens in salads. The sour flavor works like a salad dressing.
“What do you call it?” I asked. He answered with a softly rolling collection of syllables that sounded like “cah-see-yo-ta-sko-si-ya.” When I asked him how that name might translate, he thought for a moment and said, “It means, ‘It’s all there’.” And then, as if he had never really thought about it before, he said, “I wonder why we call it that?” And we continued on our way. A little while later he stopped and said, “Ah, I know why it has that name. We consider the number six to be a representation of completeness, in the same way the six directions– North, South, East, West, Sky and Earth–represent completeness to my people. When you look at this plant, you can see that each stem has only three leaves (leaflets) so it seems incomplete. But when you look a little closer you will see that each of the three leaves is divided into two lobes. The complete number six is there, after all. So when we see this plant we say, ‘It’s all there.’ This plant teaches us that if we look closely enough within our own selves, we will see that we, too, are complete beings.”
It took my breath away to realize the deep truths that a common weed can provide when viewed from a mythic perspective. (I looked around me. “What does that plant teach, and that one, and that one?” I wondered as I looked at the oak tree, the honeysuckle vine, the wood fern and the goldenrod. ) Wood sorrel’s message is a broader one than just that of personal completeness. It is about the wholeness and completeness of nature as our source. It IS all there — not only food, clothing, and shelter, but personal answers, mythic lessons, profound stories, and deep spiritual truths are there, too; though sometimes it takes a peculiar squint of the eye for us to see and realize all this. Finding stories in nature is about squinting — or about opening our eyes up wide. It is about adjusting our way of looking at the world and trying to rearrange and broaden our perspective in order to see nature with new and different eyes that just might soften our rigid concepts about the way things are as we shed new light on ourselves and the beings that share our world. Continue reading Finding Stories in Nature