by Merry Palmer
I lived for a time in Emporia, Kansas, home of William Allen White, the Pulitzer prize-winning owner, publisher, and editor of the Emporia Gazette.
His son, William Lindsay White, served as an associate editor in the 1930s, and in 1935, during the height of the Dust Bowl, he published an editorial, titled, “Prayer for Rain.”
The prayer used such specific language, the reader could see, hear, smell, and feel the midwestern rainstorm. When the prayer hit the newsstands, rain poured down on the stricken land even though the overall drought continued until 1938.
After I moved to San Juan County, we too experienced a drought. Tom, my older brother, comforted me by pointing out that weather patterns move in cycles, but I grieved to see the junipers and pinyons dying, so I decided to write a San Juan prayer for rain. My prayer turned out much more intense than William L. White’s.
Nevertheless, I sent it into the San Juan Record, and Joyce Lawrence published it. Whether it had any effect, I don’t know, but my brother proved right, and the dry cycle eventually ended.
Someone must have been praying the last part of July because after I visited a friend in Monticello, heavy rain pelted the pavement. I hopped into the Jeep, turned on the wipers, and headed toward home.
On the highway, I felt the Jeep hydroplane, so I slowed, enjoying the sound of the rain on the windshield and the rich, humid smells coming through the vent.
The downpour lessened as I passed Recapture, so I wasn’t prepared for the water roaring down the gutters and flooding Center Street in Blanding. I had never seen so much water in our town.
That night I opened our balcony doors and heard the crazed chorus of frogs and spadefoot toads in the field north of us and in the Westwater pond to the south.
The next morning when I walked past the pond, the clamor was so deafening I thought at first it came from natural gas generators. Instead, the incredible noise was generating from the tiny spadefoots and other amphibians.
Two to three inches long, spadefoot toads have bulging eyes with vertical pupils and slightly warty skin. The ones in our area survive in temporary puddles and ponds.
Their name comes from a black ridge on the little toe of each back foot which they use to burrow into the ground backwards, digging down sometimes as much as 15 feet, where they hibernate until the burrow becomes moist or heavy rain falls.
Scientists have documented spadefoot toads in California surviving a 20-year drought by remaining dormant except during storms.
When the toads are not dormant, they feed ravenously to gain body fat which they absorb slowly during hibernation. They also mate after heavy rains which was the urgent vocalizations we heard after the cloudburst.
After mating, the female lays several hundred eggs which hatch within a day or two. The tadpole-to-toadlet metamorphosis occurs within a month or two, depending on food sources and temperature.
They morph rapidly because the ponds and puddles are soon sucked dry by the summer sun. The toadlets, about the size of chocolate chips, feed mostly on insects and, after metamorphosis, mature rapidly, reaching adult size often within three months. They spend most of their lives in burrows until the rains come.
Sometimes those rains are slow in coming. Gregg Braden, author, speaker, and scientist, leads groups to ancient sacred locations around the world. In the early 1990s, northern New Mexico, where he lives, experienced a five-year drought.
One day, his Puebloan friend, David, invited him to go to a remote ancestral site to pray. Once they arrived, David took off his boots, stepped inside a circle of stones, honored his ancestors, put his palms together, and turned his back on Gregg. Within a few minutes, he turned around and said, “I’m hungry. Let’s get a bite to eat.”
“I thought you were going to pray for rain,” Gregg said.
“No,” David said, “because if we prayed for rain, rain could never happen. The moment you pray for something to occur, you’ve just acknowledged it does not exist in that moment.”
“If you didn’t pray for rain,” Gregg asked, “what did you just do?”
“When I closed my eyes,” David said, “I felt the feeling of what it feels like to have rain in our Pueblo village.” He smelled the rain, he explained, felt his naked feet in the mud, walked through chest-high corn, and gave thanks for the moisture.
After Gregg returned home, it started to rain. It rained all that afternoon, all night, and all the next day. It rained so much the roads and fields flooded (Secrets of the Lost Mode of Prayer and The Isaiah Effect or google Gregg Braden’s “Pray Rain”). No doubt the New Mexico spadefoots sang their delirious hymns as they emerged from their burrows.
The Westwater pond has been dry for three weeks now, and as Oggie and I walk the trails, sweat pours down my face, splotching my glasses, and Oggie lies in the shade or soaks in the stream every chance she gets.
I miss the herons standing silently in the pond’s receding waters, but the toads, symbols of transformation, regeneration, and cycles, are safe, deep within the earth as we all wait for the next rain.