Close to midnight last night I strolled out onto our top terrace to stretch my legs after a long day in front of the computer, completing the very final touches to my new book, The Olive Tree. It had been raining heavily and the air was hanging damp and misty in the valley between the hills. Choruses of frogs were congregating down by the stream just south of our land boundary. It’s spring and their low-horned trilling is a tell-tale sign that they are preparing to mate. I love the sound; they prelude the far less sedate screech of summer cicadas.
I grew fascinated by these little amphibians a couple of years back when I discovered a toad living in four of the rear seats of my car. An extraordinarily big fellow he was, and, unusually, a herbivore, who ate robust, fully-ripened aubergines for dinner.
Because my beaten-up vehicle was used for nothing besides transporting gardening materials – such as heavy sacks of cement for the reconstruction of terrace walls demolished by trespassing wild boars or dog food for our ever-hungry hounds – Quashia, our gardener, suggested that we remove the rear seats to create more space. This he did and stored them – I don’t know why – in the greenhouse.
The plants in our greenhouse are watered very early in the morning before the sun rises above the crowns of our Maritime pines up in the forest and then again late in the evenings. This is a small task I enjoy fulfilling myself. It allows me to see how well the veggies are growing and what I might serve for dinner, or that was the routine until, mysteriously, the ripe fruits began to disappear. Up I would go at dawn, choose the tomatoes and herbs to be picked for the lunchtime salads, as well as the courgettes, aubergines and beans I deemed ready to gather, but when I returned with the secateurs later they were gone. I blamed poor Mr Q. Of course, he denied the crime hotly. And indeed whether Quashia was absent or present, the goodies were vanishing. Michel and I were bemused. The door was always kept firmly bolted against dogs, rabbits, all conceivable scavengers. And then one evening, while pointing the hosepipe at lusty aubergine plants, daydreaming, something near my feet moved. I nearly jumped out of my skin. I had thought it was a curled dead leaf until it scurried within the folds of the stacked car seats. I switched off the water and sunk onto my haunches to investigate. There, breathing fast, was a mighty bruiser of a fellow, a fully-rounded, leathery-skinned, pebble-backed toad, green not brown. In fact, he was almost the identical shade of the leaves growing all around him. Why a toad and not a frog? Well, I reasoned, he was too big to be a frog. I slipped out my mobile, telephoned Michel down at the house and whispered to him to come up to the greenhouse.
‘Yes, he’s a toad,’ announced my husband with authority, after inspecting him. Michel nicknamed him ‘Sky’. In Vietnamese mythology, he told me, the toad is the ‘uncle of the sky’ and they believe that when a toad grinds it teeth it is going to rain – I never saw ours do this. In fact, I was not entirely convinced that toads possess sets of teeth.
Toads are larger than frogs. Toads are shy, introverted night creatures. They live their days secreted beneath fronds or sometimes underground if the weather is too hot or too cold. What was this fellow doing in our greenhouse, I asked myself. How had he got in and wasn’t he uncomfortably hot and starved of water? We tried to chivvy him out from his hiding place. I wanted to release him into the garden, which after many attempts I finally succeeded in doing only to find that within two days he was back inside again, comfortably ensconced within his Volkswagen lair. And so we decided to leave him there and share our prized organic vegetables with him. He was earning his keep by feeding off any insects that preyed on our hothouse plants. Chemical pesticides can kill or deform amphibians but Sky was safe because we use none in the greenhouse. There was no danger of him being poisoned or mutilated.
Given that we had a new member of the household, I took time to swot up on him and his kind. I wanted to identify the nature of fellow that he was. None, it seemed, was a vegetable-eater and toads do not have teeth so where the Vietnamese came up with their myth I do not know. Still, I failed to identify his breed, narrowing him down to one of two, I thought: a Common toad or a Natterjack.
Weeks later, while down in the village, I noticed a headline for the local rag which as a rule I never bought. French countryside hit by an uncontrollable invasion of frogs, it told me as I sat in a café with the purchased newspaper. Here in the south a vociferous outcry had broken out over an invasion of Bullfrogs that needed to be annihilated immédiatement. These destructive creatures (Rana catesbeiana) had been introduced from the United States almost forty years earlier as a prank. Unfortunately, the joke had gone wrong when the frogs began to breed at an alarming rate, endangering endemic species and reaching plague proportions. What was more these frogs were growing to the colossal size of almost two feet and they were not even edible. Mon dieu! Matters were now so out of hand that farmers and environmentalists alike, armed with rifles, were gathering for Bullfrog-hunting parties after dark and blasting the poor little fellows to shreds. The plan over the next five years was to eliminate every single Bullfrog from France. I sat with my café au lait and carefully studied the photograph that accompanied the front-page spread. Could it be that Sky was a Bullfrog and not a toad at all, that we were harbouring and feeding an illegal immigrant?
I was back at my desk, attempting once more to trace the origins of our guest with gourmet food habits. Does it matter, quizzed Michel. We are not going to shoot him whatever he is. True, and the dilemma was removed when late in the summer Sky disappeared. I was really quite sorry to find that our vegetables remained on the stalks while the discreet rustle of leaves had died away. I hunted everywhere but found no carcass. For the first time since I had found him I unpacked the car seats. Sky was nowhere. Toads, I had learned, hibernate. Might he return the following spring? I hoped so, but alas we never saw Sky again and I never discovered whether he was a French frog or a foreigner.
I have thoroughly enjoyed writing The Olive Tree, perhaps more than any book before it, reliving journeys round the western Mediterranean used as material for my stories. Aside from Algeria (an unknown territory to almost all of us and felt pretty scary at times when bombs were exploding, even though I met some of the kindest, most generous people I have ever encountered), The Olive Tree is set within countries that many of us are fond of and are familiar with: Spain, Morocco, Italy and France. One of the joys was discovering corners of these lands that were less visited. I travelled to unforgettable spots and I learned a fair amount about the challenges facing Mediterranean farmers in the twenty-first century: climate change, the value of rain, the necessity for unpolluted water sources… the last two chapters of The Olive Tree reveal some outlandish but quite visionary possibilities for our future. Global warming is a looming reality and one that each of us will need to address and pesticides will need to be curtailed. We olive farmers are still battling with the dreaded olive fly, Bactrocera (Dacus) Oleae. Down our way the only solution remains spraying the pest with gallons of harmful chemicals, but certain members of the community have been resisting this and resisting loudly. So what if someone, a lowly farmer, were to suggest that help lay in a creature from another continent? A predator of flies? Should we refuse, citing such stories as the invasion of the American Bullfrog, or might we open ourselves to fresh attitudes, to a world where solutions to our environmental crises lie with nature itself?
The Olive Tree will be published in October. I really hope you enjoy it.
PS: The toad in the photograph is not Sky. This one we christened Barnabus and he lived in one of the flowerbeds down near the swimming pool
P.P.S. If you have been trying to contact me via this site and have not received a reply, I offer you my sincere apologies. We have just discovered that the Message Forward Service has not been functioning – not at all since Day 1 – but seems to be active now. Please write again if you still wish to and you have my personal assurance that I will respond to you as soon as I am able to. Thank you for visiting the site and thank you for all your communications. They are much appreciated. Carol