As the season changes from summer to autumn, some of the first things to disappear are the reptiles and amphibians who inhabit this land I work. In the suburbs where I used to live, the rare animals I encountered were mostly mammals. Possums on the streets at night, sniffing around our neighbors’ trash cans. Squirrels eating our bird seed, invading our fruit trees, vegetable gardens, anything they could imagine as food. The occasional skunk leaving an aroma that stretched for miles, and the occasional raccoon outsmarting any attempt to seal it off from a free dinner.
Out here I see more reptiles and amphibians. Skinks dash from cover to cover ahead of my weed whacker, and salamanders, fluorescent orange with black spots, turn up beneath rocks. Turtles shelter in deep grass as my mower passes overhead. Snakes climb trees to get at the birdhouses I put out. Toads of all sizes appear everywhere, including tiny, reddish brown specimens that abound in the compost piles. One day I was turning soil in the garden and a larger toad jumped out and sat by the edge of the garden eyeing me for a long time, ruefully pondering where I got the nerve to disturb his morning. Life is so rich beneath the grass around here.
Of course we have the usual mammals here, plus coyotes, groundhogs, and deer—lots of deer. People always say things like ‘this is their land, we are the invaders,’ and I agree. But the funny thing is, our land is an old farm. It is part of the old Brooks Farm, which encompasses our land and two parcels on either side of it. The Brooks Family, as I have been given to understand by neighboring farmers who know these things, worked this land for several generations. So if we are the invaders, it was an old invasion, and yet the incidence of wildlife has scarcely abated. There is just too much surrounding forest.
Time is relative at the same time it is absolute. Someone could say, ‘My pappy farmed this land, and his pappy afore him and his pappy afore him . . .’—and it all sounds like such a stretch of time. But that little skink, could he talk, might also say, ‘My pappy lived under rocks out here, and his pappy afore him and his pappy afore him . . . this summer.’ It’s all relative.
But what sets it apart most starkly from the suburbs, to my way of thinking, is the amount of reptiles and amphibians. They seem less adapted to sharing the land with humans than the local mammals. When I am cutting deep grass, especially in the pastures, I see little guys scuttling off to the front and sides of me, mostly mice. But the reptiles are less wary. I have mown down snakes, and shattered turtles in their shells, making a sickening thud beneath the mower. I have seen lizards speed away from my advancing clippers with obviously shortened tails. Why don’t they run off as quickly as mice and moles and voles? Do they think that simply being still, hiding out, skulking below ground is a good survival strategy? Because I am coming. Not coming for them, but coming just the same.
And now autumn is coming, and the reptiles and amphibians are going away, to wherever it is they go in the colder months. I’m sorry, I kind of forget my high school biology. I’m supposing they hibernate. This morning I was in the barn before the sun was up, throwing hay to the horses and donkeys. I stopped a moment and looked out the back door to see Venus glowing like a jewel in the eastern sky. Then I looked down at my feet and saw a toad. I said hello to him, and offered that I had just been writing a little essay about his kind. He seemed unimpressed by the information, but toads, as you may be aware, are not easily impressed.
At any rate, I think he’ll be one of the last I’ll see for several months. Things are closing down, drawing in, building towards the darker, calmer, inside weeks. I will shelter where I can, as the reptiles shelter all summer long. And we will all meet again next year.