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Outdoors North

Native American teachings provide perspective

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“Take me back down where cool waters flow, let me remember the things I love.” — J.C. Fogerty

A persistent theme in Native American myth is that of the “earth diver” legends, stories of muskrats or other animals that dive to great depths to retrieve mud to create the earth.

In this tradition, an Iroquois Indian myth details the importance of a toad in the creation of North America. The Iroquois are a tribe of the northeastern United States who traditionally held spiritual and animistic beliefs, including the belief that everything happens for a reason.  

For me, there are certain things I can feel that I may not be able to prove scientifically, but I sense that they are most likely true. This idea that everything happens for a reason — scientific or otherwise — is one of those things.

That said, I make no claims about being able to discern necessarily the reasons for a great number of things, but I am a student and advocate of life-long learning.

The Iroquois myth tells that before the world was created, there was an island floating in the sky where the Sky People lived happily and quietly. On this island, nobody was born or died or experienced sadness.

“However, one day, one of the Sky Women realized she was going to give birth to twins. She told her husband, who flew into a rage,” according to a reproduction of the legend at www.native-languages.org. “In the center of the island there was a tree which gave light to the entire island, since the sun hadn’t been created yet. He tore up this tree, creating a huge hole in the middle of the island.

“Curiously, the woman peered into the hole. Far below, she could see the waters that covered the earth. At that moment, her husband pushed her. She fell through the hole, tumbling toward the waters below.

“Water animals already existed on the earth. So, far below the floating island, two birds saw the Sky Woman fall. Just before she reached the waters, they caught her on their backs and brought her to the other animals.

“Determined to help the woman, they dove into the water to get mud from the bottom of the seas. One after another, the animals tried and failed. Finally, Little Toad tried and when he reappeared his mouth was full of mud.

“The animals took it and spread it on the back of Big Turtle. The mud began to grow and grow and grow until it became the size of North America.”

One night, about a week ago, a toad appeared outside my back door at home.

I had gone outside for a breath of late-night air when I noticed the toad tucked into a corner of the patio beneath the garden hose rack. With the back light turned on, the toad jumped and turned in one motion to position itself so it could look at me.

I offered a “hello” and turned on the hose to give a drink to some window box plants that had been parched and withered by the sun. I turned the nozzle of the hose to the “mist” setting and showered the toad, which was about 3 inches long.

This was an American toad, the only toad species found in the Upper Peninsula.

After a minute or so, the toad hopped along the side of the house until it could scoot to a safer location behind a terracotta pot. I presumed the toad had happened upon a mosquito meal, attracted to the area by the dampness created from the hose.

The next night, the toad was back. It was in the same place, just sitting there, looking at me. A few feet to the right, I saw another toad. This one was about one-third the size of the first toad.

I sensed there was some sort of relationship between the two toads, perhaps parent and offspring.

On the third night, only the larger toad was there. The same was true for the next three nights. The toad would always sit in the same spot. I didn’t see any insects or any other reason for it to be there.

On the seventh night, the larger toad was gone and only the smaller one was present.

The eighth night had no toads.

On the ninth night, the larger toad was back, sitting in the same spot.

For the past three nights, neither of the toads have been out there.

It’s one of those curiosity things for me. I know there was a reason the toads were visiting that location, but I have no clear determination as to why, nor any real understanding of why they have not returned for the past three nights.

I know that to many, this might seem like a weird thing to be thinking about, but I have found that there are countless things going on all around us that we never sense or realize, much less understand.

But if we take the time to investigate, to look, listen, smell, feel or hear, we can unlock doors to entire new worlds existing right in our own backyards. I recall watching the movements of black and red ants around their nest holes in our front yard as a kid.

It was so interesting to watch. Following up the observation with some reading led to learning and my finding out about a man named E.O. Wilson, who was to become one of my science and naturalist heroes. He wrote an incredible volume on ants that I have on my bookshelf.

So, I anticipate reading more about toads in the days ahead.

For me, this exploration, discovery and learning process is something that gives me energy and it occupies my mind with constructive activity – something to ponder while waiting behind someone at a traffic light.

A quick review of some online searches tells me that having toads in your garden is a much-desired thing as they eat numerous insect pests. There are articles on how to attract toads to your garden and how to get rid of them if you have too many.

I know our lawn is home to a good number of small toads and spring peepers — frogs that make a sound many people mistake for birdsong — because I have seen them hopping away when I am out mowing the grass.

I don’t know exactly where the toads are living that appeared outside the back door recently, but it might be behind the tomato-plant pots or among the tall flowers in the stair-side rock garden.

I’ve read that part of attracting toads to your garden or yard is to create a place where they might decide to live. Providing foliage for toads to hide from predators in is one good attractant.

One article I read said a loosely stacked rock wall offers places to hide or you can even build or buy “toad houses.” Who knew?

Maybe the reason the toad had been showing up outside my back door was because it enjoyed the cool, damp place that also would draw insects for food. That certainly sounds like the most plausible reason.

Maybe the reason it has not returned is that it fell prey to one of the many creatures that enjoys the chicken taste of frog, and presumably toad, legs? That also sounds reasonable too.

Perhaps the toad will return this evening or the next?

My fanciful imagination would like to include among the possible reasons the toad kept coming back each night was that it had heard my voice — the first time it had ever heard a human speak — and was also intrigued.

Maybe the toad was sad or lonely and liked the idea of some human company, someone who said very little, meant no harm and would return reliably like friends and loved ones often will.

Or maybe this toad was adventurous and obsessive like Mr. Toad of Toad Hall, from the 1908 classic novel “Wind in the Willows” and found me on a lark.

Whatever the truth, having this small and wondrous creature on my mind over the past several days has given me solace, however brief, in a world gone absolutely twisted out of its mind.

Editor’s note: Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.

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