By Anja Heister
The property had been vacant for years but never had a “for sale” sign. Yet when she finally discovered it, she moved right in. Not surprisingly because it was truly a prime location, after all, it was a kind of lake surrounded by lush vegetation and rocks of all sizes set in between plants, hanging tree limbs, and brushes. Best of all, the neighborhood seemed quiet and safe. She was solo at the time, or so it appeared, from the outside. And so, she moved right in during the summer of 2017 and never left. Eventually she started a family and built her life around the lake, which was adorned with a fountain in the center of it. Food was plentiful, the setting provided a perfect shelter and was inviting to lounge in the sun or shade depending upon the time of day, intensity of temperature, and the sun. Dirt and loose soil under the thick bush on the south side of the lake made it easy to dig in and prepare a winter home about three feet underground below the frostline. She truly appreciated her safe, warm, fun, and comfortable place, year-round. Two years after she’d moved in, a companion showed up and stayed for a while. It must have been a mate because that summer in 2019, four little ones emerged. “Emma” as she was named by the human in whose yard she had settled to live, had a big family. Life was good!
Indeed, the human is me, Anja, and Emma is a Western toad (Bufo boreas), whom I first saw long after I had dug out a hole in the back yard, covered it with a liner and filled it with fresh water. Next, I placed a pump on the bottom of the 300-gallon pond with a fountain that spews a gentle spray across the water surface. I had put in the little pond in my backyard because I love waterbodies and enjoy the sound of a fountain—I find it soothing and, also, it
reminds me of my father, who used to tend to a small pond in our back yard when I was young. These are very fond memories for me from a time long gone. Taking care of the pond back then meant that my father and I shared quality time together, which made me very happy. My Papa was my hero and my shining knight in so my many ways, while also, at times, a somewhat scary or at least a mysterious parent figure for me.
My father should have been a biologist because of his curiosity about anything and anyone who lived in our back yard. While I, equipped with some juice, a pillow, and a book in hand, sat high in our old Appletree to read, my father would walk around the yard, sometimes crouch down with a red pen in hand and then get back up with a satisfied look on his handsome face. “What are you doing?” I’d yell from my Appletree perch, and he would respond laughing that he just found another snail and painted a red dot on her house (the spiral shell on their backs) to keep track of her and other snail comrades living in or passing through our yard. I would laugh, too, and nod understandingly, as I shared his curiosity and gentleness about never wanting to hurt an animal, whether s/he was an ant, fish, bee or … a snail. During those times in our back yard, we understood each other, we were one. Taking care of the pond, feeding the fish, and cleaning the water or changing the fountain to make it a pleasant sound for the fish and other aquatic residents, kneeling at the edge and staring into the water to catch a glimpse of the fishes and then tell each other how many of them we saw, meant the world to me as a little girl. Those were wonderful moments we shared, and the apple does not fall far from the tree. I was over the moon and felt that we understood each other without many words. I felt connected to my father, our family, our yard, and to the world. Life was good, at least during those moments, which then felt like eternities, in the summer.
Many decades later, I have my own pond in my back yard and the memory of this deep connection with my dear father is always ever-present. In fact, when I dug out the hole during the summer many years ago, I dedicated the creation of the pond to him. Little did I know that eventually, it would be discovered by a Western toad, who would become Emma, a someone, to me. I remember how I felt when I first saw her and realized she had taken up residency at “my” pond: it was magic, and I felt joyful, excited, and inspired, and honored. I just felt good about myself, even somewhat positively confirmed as a human being. I had done something right. I felt truly privileged because a little animal had found my pond worthy of setting up shop—a major life decision for her! And not only that, but clearly, she felt comfortable and protected enough to start her own family, right here, at our pond. It was an extraordinary sensation—I had created a sanctuary that someone from the toad world deemed a good place to live. I was riding high.
My Pond is now Emma’s’ Pond
What Emma has done for me, and continues to do, is make it possible for me to feel connected to her world and feel a sense of wonder about it. In a way, she has also brought back that feeling I shared with my father when I was young—that feeling of connection to the world that is getting increasingly hard to feel an engagement with; particularly as an animal-liberation advocate, as someone who often cannot bear the thought of so many animal earthlings suffering and getting killed at the hands of humans.
When I think about the state of the world—climate change, species extinctions, and out-of-control human population—when I emphasize with the billions of more-than-human animals—wild and domestic—who are mercilessly victimized by our species’ ruthless treatment, I remind myself that I am doing something worthy for Emma and her family. I walk outside into the back yard and slowly approach my pond, which is now Emma’s Pond, or, more precisely, her
lakeside property. I sit or kneel and talk to these remarkable individuals in a low, gentle voice. Observing toad behavior is like watching molasses travelling uphill in January. The time a toad can spend literally motionless is mindboggling and requires an absurd amount of time and patience. Toads do this while being highly alert; they take up one posture for any length of time to either hide or stalk prey—flies, wasps, ants, spiders, worms, beetles, small dragonflies, and whatever else their sticky tongue can reach when it shoots out in a matter of a split second.
I have taken close to a hundred of photos of the members of the toad family, but I still have a problem identifying exactly who is who. Except for Emma, who is distinctive to me because not only does she look older to me than the others, but there is a break in her light-colored, narrow stripe that runs across her back. She is also the only toad among the current quartet, who will not immediately jump into the water when I get close. Maybe because we have gotten to know each other a bit over the years, and perhaps she knows that I mean no harm and that my presence signals that some of the debris in the water gets scooped up by a white netting, the fountain gets fixed, the water level rises when I use the hose to fill up the
pond and make up for the water that has evaporated in the heat of the summer days, a hyacinth gets added to the water, or other changes are being made to spruce the place up a bit, to make it first rate.
“You must know, surely you must know, it was all for you,” says the handsome Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) to the spirited Lizzy (Keira Knightley) close to the end of “Pride & Prejudice,” one of the most fabulous romance movies ever made in my opinion, and one I
wished had no end. This is how I feel about Emma and her family, which this
year—the summer of 2023--includes her son Blacky, another comrade (not sure who that is), along with Little Santiago, a grandson. Not in a romantic kind way, of course, but rather, in a kindred-spirit way, I am serving others.
Emma has added an unbelievable quality to the pond, and to my life, and to how I feel about myself. Emma’s and her family’s presence means to me that I have created a living space that is helping a few little toads to survive and perhaps even thrive.
Emma (on the right) and her grandson, Little Santiago, hanging out.
Blacky (right image) approaching me. Curious?.