The Ecstasy of Altruism
For the past two years I’ve been a volunteer for the Roxborough, Pennsylvania Toad DETOUR (Defending Emerging Toads of Upper Roxborough). It’s not the thousands of migrating amphibians who are being detoured, however, it’s that non-native rumbling beast, the car.
I’d like to take you on a brief but epic journey of the toads, their helpers and their antagonists -- from the meat eating toad saviors to the Commie vegans (me), to the right wing talk-shit radio host who ridicules the detour, to the local evangelical pastor who believes we should be working on “the abortion issue instead of the toad issue,” to the five-year-olds filled with wonder and their Dixie cups filled with toadlets, to the little old ladies (and men) in tennis shoes who remain the backbone of the movement to help animals of all kinds, and to the discomforting effect that any kind of street activism seems to have on don’t-make-a-scene, don’t-slow-my-routine Americans who, if living in 1775, might have yelled: “Get a life, Paul Revere!” And, most importantly, to the power of what can happen when a single person cares a lot even when no one else seems to care at all.
Once upon a time, every spring, the hibernating bufo americanus digs up about a foot through the dirt and emerges into the darkness of the first warm rainy night in March. By the thousands, and from every direction over several weeks, the Roxborough toads begin their journey from backyards, junior league baseball fields, a small cemetery and the woods of the 340-acre Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, hopping to the highest point in the city, the abandoned (by humans) 30-acre Roxborough reservoir. Most of the toads hop for over a mile and cross one or two busy roads where they are met with a 20-foot tall stone wall which they travel along for a city block. They then turn right to go up a brick pedestrian ramp another half block or so, crawl under a fence, then down a steep wooded embankment and into the reservoir where they began their lives. About a month after the males fertilize the females’ eggs, the tadpoles develop into tiny fly-sized toadlets and they begin the perilous reverse migration.
Pickerel frogs, in much smaller numbers, also move with the toads during the four to six week migration. When the trilling of the male toads, calling for the females, joins with the croaking frogs and the squawks and chirps of migrating birds the reservoir becomes another of nature’s great symphonies. An association of free producers -- producing joy!
The toad detour began several years ago when Lisa Levinson, a 44-year-old therapist, saw toads getting crushed by cars one night on her way home from work. She stopped traffic and picked up the toads and put them on the other side of the road. Soon someone called the police on this “crazy lady in the street.” But when the female officer rolled up, instead of taking Levinson in for observation, she blocked off the street with her patrol car so Levinson could continue her work unimpeded. After another year of unsafe solo “renegade operations,” Levinson convinced the city of Roxborough to issue a temporary permit to block the two main migration roads for several hours during nights that the toads are on the move. Levinson then organized over 100 volunteers and got the backing of a dozen civic, environmental and neighborhood groups to support the project. The Toad DETOUR was born. The Schuylkill Center recently took over the detour and there is also a documentary film, “The Toad Detour,” by Burgess Coffield.
Although a longtime animal activist, I’m a newbie to amphibian migrations. Turns out that all over the world people are detouring (or dodging) traffic to help toads, frogs and salamanders cross the roads. No claim is made that the Roxborough toads are endangered as a specie, nor that preserving them is going to do some wondrous thing somewhere down the line for the human animal -- the toads are being assisted for their own individual sake, protected not from evolution and nature but from one of the more unnatural creations that humans have invented. The volunteers in this unglamorous but highly effective endeavor are not, by and large, vegetarian animal activists.
The Roxborough detour is the only one I’m aware of that protects migrating toadlets as well as adult toads. The toads don’t make it easy to help as they travel mainly at night and in the rain. So you will see volunteers with flashlights, buckets, rain suits, reflective vests, walkie talkies and umbrellas, both inside and outside the wooden barricades, gathering data on numbers of toads and frogs crossing, nightly temperature and weather conditions, numbers killed outside the barricades, etc. My first year I was tasked with counting the dead ones -- they came much earlier than expected and the detour wasn’t officially set up so a couple hundred of them were run over in the first hour or two of migration, dying in all poses of mutilation, amputation and twisted agony. Many people aren’t aware that they have amphibian migrations going on in their areas because even many hundreds of dead bodies are typically washed away by the rain and/or scavenged by other creatures during the night. By morning rush hour there’s no evidence that these amphibian Antietams have occurred.
Female adult toads have it rough: they are bloated with eggs, again sometimes hopping for a mile, and they are often laid claim to by males who hitch a ride on their back the entire way, something known to scientists as “amplexus” (Perhaps you’ve read Henry Miller’s great toad-fucking trilogy “Sexus Amplexus Nexus”?) One of the saddest sights is to find a pair of them run over and dying together.
Some nights there are 30-40 volunteers and other nights, like a memorable Saturday night thunderstorm last April, there are only two people staffing the two barricades and redirecting traffic. On that night the wind was gusting 40 mph, God flipped on the lightning switch and then wastefully walked away for two hours in a scene, as I stand toading, straight out of Faulkner: Levinson was at one barricade, I was a half mile away at the other one and the storm washed dirt, tree branches and debris down the hilly streets that border the reservoir, the street became a stream flowing over my shoes and I watched the small but mighty pickerel frogs (who feel like a rocket in your hand), understanding that it’s party time, leaping across the road in a couple bounds while the placid non-athletic toads were simply carried away, que sera sera, like little boats from the top of the street to the bottom. My umbrella looked like Picasso got a hold of it. And, of course, car-bots were still out there driving, wondering why they were being detoured. GEE I DON’T KNOW -- MAYBE BECAUSE THE EARTH OPENED UP AND YOU’RE DRIVING STRAIGHT INTO A TSUNAMI YOU DEVOLUTIONARY FREAKS. MAYBE YOU HAVE TO SLOW DOWN AND GO A DIFFERENT DIRECTION. MAYBE YOU CAN’T CONTINUE TO DO EVERY LITTLE THING THAT YOU’VE ALWAYS DONE AT THE EXACT MOMENT THAT YOU WANT TO DO IT. MAYBE YOU DON’T HAVE THE CORRECT UNDERSTANDING OF YOUR PLACE IN THE WORLD THAT A TOAD HAS OF HIS/HERS.
Actually, most motorists are great about the detour -- some who roll down their windows and ask what’s going on often end up volunteering. It’s hard to describe what a unique community event the toad migration is -- it’s Roxborough’s equivalent of wildebeests on the Serengeti, especially when the streets appear to be moving with thousands of toadlets. June 12 was the apex night last year for the toadlets and neighbors called up their grandchildren to come over and witness it. Children, being lower to the ground, make great toad-spotters and on this night, outside of the barricades, they and their parents collected 1,900 toadlets in cups and put them on the other side of the road. Many thousands more crossed between the barricades. Toadlets were behind me, beside me, in front of me, even boldly marching single file down the sidewalks on their way “back” to homes they’ve never seen near headstones, home run fences and deep in the woods.
Not everyone likes the detour. A neighborhood pastor thinks it’s ridiculous and that we should be helping humans rather than toads. (Fugettaboutit that we pick up much trash while toad patrolling in this heavily littered area. His current church sign: "GET OFF FACEBOOK AND GET INTO MY BOOK.") Instead of seeing this incredible miracle of God’s (or somebody’s) creation he sees 40 people out in the rain helping toads, often outnumbering those at his Sunday evening service. One of the most infuriating documents for capitalist Christian America, whenever it’s put into practice, is the diabolical Sermon on the Mount. Invariably, irreverent agnostics like me get the memo from the desk of Jesus H. Christ about mercy, while multitudes of Christians nit pick about who deserves mercy and who doesn’t (non-human beings, prisoners/criminals, Muslims, etc.)
Still, I know where from the pastor comes: how many peace vigils and antiwar protests have I attended over the past 10 years where there weren’t 40 people? But non-human beings shouldn’t have to wait indefinitely to get their injustices addressed. I also feel that if the toads could fight back, they would, which you can’t say for the American working class. I’d rather spend time directly and tangibly helping some innocents than trying to rally narcissistic zombies who see nothing wrong with living inside a relentless and remorseless lifetime worldwide war-making machine and then, upon a blue moon retaliation, ask stupid shit like, “Why do they hate us?”
The toad detour has also taken potshots from a local right wing talk radio host. A local all-volunteer effort that takes no tax dollars and unites three generations becomes an object of suspicion and derision because it helps animals. One morning he ominously wondered, “Where do these people get their money from?” The previous week I spent 80 bucks at Radio Shack to buy two walkie talkies. But since I’m a Marxist I guess the international communist conspiracy paid for it after all. (By the way, I would like to join the international communist conspiracy but I can’t find it anywhere -- it’s not in Russia, it’s not in China, it’s not in Vietnam. Maybe it’s on back order or only available now as an FBI entrapment scheme.)
For the rabid right, kindness is a “wedge” issue and they’re against it on principle. And these hierarchy-lovin’ authoritarians are onto something here: capitalism has so thoroughly alienated people of all political stripes from their lives, their work and other human beings -- just as Marx said it did 160 years ago -- that kindness to animals is sometimes a gateway back to restoring humanity in general. And looking at the structural causes that make so much kindness necessary leads directly to the answer of abolishing the property status of animals which leads to dumping capitalism entirely. Animal activists who don’t see this are deluding themselves, thinking that this vicious system is going to create a special legal niche for non-humans that it won’t create for humans. And “progressives” who won’t embrace elementary respect and justice for non-human beings ( i.e., STOP FUCKING EATING THEM!) have more in common with Dick Cheney than they should be comfortable with. Animal liberation is revolutionary. So, congrats, you right wingers are correct about something important: kindness is dangerous (for you).
The shock jock is a kissin’ cousin to the DWB (driving without brains) young white males who scream “Fuck the frogs!” and “Get a life!” One of these human patriots threw an egg (missing) at three of our volunteers one night -- a man and two ladies who were 82, 80 and 67 years old respectively. Truth is, it doesn’t matter how much animal rescuers soft pedal what we do, we are a threat in a thoroughly speciesist world. Also, as Occupy Wall Street shows, in a cowardly kiss up kick down obedient society begging for fascism, people hate other people who stand up to power.
All I can say is that on The Day Of The Great Skinniness, when we Commie vegans have triumphed, every one of you right wing bastards are getting shipped off to Randy’s Gulag Tofupelago for brown rice, miso and Melanie music. To show you that I am merciful, I won’t make you drink kombucha tea. So be very afraid! After all, that what you guys do so well -- being afraid of beings of different colors, shapes, sizes, languages, afraid of experiencing the suffering of others, afraid of releasing your death grip on the rest of creation. “NO FEAR!” says your chatty pick up trucks -- riiiiiiiiight.
The toad detour is a diverse group of strangers who have come together and cooperated to experience the ecstasy of altruism, a little bit of humanity unleashed to what it can and should be, where money is not answered to and private gain has no place, something very un-American because America is nothing but the tyranny of money which squashes the truth toad, the science toad, the humanity toad, the democracy toad, the compassion toad and leisure time toad. Nobody needed to tell Lisa Levinson that cars mowing down thousands of creatures was wrong and needed to be stopped. And no corrupt politicians had to be appealed to for years on end to remedy the problem. No, the working class, in the form of the toad detour, JUST TOOK IT, and that’s a lesson we should be trying to figure out how to apply everywhere.
The toads are on the move right now. If you live in the Philadelphia area and would like to volunteer, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. The staff of the Schuylkill Center does not condone or endorse foul-mouthed Marxist vegans -- they are good people helping good toads. So help them help the toads cross the road to make whoopee.
published 3/23/2012 at counterpunch.org