Besieged by a (very small) plague of (very cute) toads

Girls Riding Small Frog 5 29 2016 049

There are many advantages to spring in the South, but for wildlife lovers few things beat getting out and spending time in the woods, swamps and countryside this time of year.

During the latest three-day weekend I was able to capture or catch a view of a multitude of critters – including largemouth bass, bream, box turtles, yellow-bellied sliders, cowbirds, painted buntings, egrets, blue herons, black racers, damsel flies, dragonflies, tadpoles, leopard frogs, river rats, blue crabs, fiddler crabs and hermit crabs.

In addition, I came across a hive of bees holed up in an abandoned building, a four-foot copperhead and six-foot alligator, all of which I chose to leave undisturbed.

Those that I caught – the bass, box turtles and fiddler crabs – were all freed.

But perhaps the most interesting beast I came across this weekend was the one shown at the top of this post. Near as I can tell, it’s a very young Fowler’s toad. I found it when I opened my garage Sunday morning. And there wasn’t just one of the little amphibians, but a whole slew of them hopping about.

Pharaoh besieged by plague of frogs. Note: Believed to a depiction, not a real image of the biblical plague.

Pharaoh, apparently a deep sleeper, besieged by plague of frogs. Note: Believed to be a dramatization.

I was initially reminded of the Plagues of Egypt, one of which featured the land of Pharaoh being overwhelmed with frogs, except my driveway featured perhaps a dozen of the tiny beasts and even had there been, say, millions, they were so small the only way they could have overwhelmed anyone would have been with their cuteness.

The one in the photo was desperately intent on making his way into my garage.

Recognizing that it would likely either end up under the wheel of a car or dying of heat prostration once I closed the door, I spent the better part of thirty seconds trying to convince it to head back to whence it came. It would have none of it.

Recognizing that the diminutive toad was either very bold or very stupid, I gently scooped it up and placed him on some nearby grass.

As I did so I noticed several other small toads hopping toward me. I quickly shut the garage, hopped in my car, which was parked in the driveway, and drove off. I had no desire for anyone else to take note of my newfound talent as the Pied Piper of tiny toads.

Beware the remorseless vine that ate the South


Among that which marks the onset of spring in the South is the arrival of wisteria and kudzu. The first is an attractive flowering plant that is in bloom just a short time, while the latter is an unattractive weed that pretty much takes over everything and anything in its path.

Both are vines, but kudzu has become a symbol of the South, given its propensity to engulf stands of trees, signage, telephone poles, abandoned vehicles, homes, barns, loitering youth, etc.

Native to Asia, kudzu was introduced to the US as an ornamental bush at the Philadelphia Continental Exposition in 1876. During the Great Depression, it was “rebranded” as a means for farmers to stop soil erosion.

Close-up of kudzu in Beaufort, SC. Photo by CJ Dietrich, aka Cotton Boll Jr.

Close-up of kudzu in Beaufort, SC. Photo by CJ Dietrich, aka Cotton Boll Jr.

Southern farmers were given about $8 dollars an acre to sow topsoil with the vine and more than 1 million acres of kudzu were planted. As a result, millions of acres of land in the South and beyond are today covered with the invasive vine.

Kudzu isn’t all bad; it adds nitrogen to the soil and can be eaten by grazing animals such as sheep and goats. The vine also has medicinal uses.

However, it competes with native species and tends to take over land, blocking out competitors.

Today, not even 150 years after its introduction to the US, kudzu is as much a staple of the Southern US as swamps, slash pine and seersucker suits.

(Top: Kudzu evident in rural area, with small cabin in middle completely overgrown.)

The bigot, the five-day governor and the much-needed reformer


One hundred years ago this month, Lt. Gov. Charles A. Smith began the shortest reign in South Carolina gubernatorial history, a five-day stretch as the Palmetto State’s chief executive that ran from Jan. 14-19, 1915.

Smith’s brief tenure as governor came about as the result of the actions of one of the more reprehensible South Carolinians to hold office in the state’s nearly 350-year history: Coleman Livingston “Cole” Blease.

Blease, a self-proclaimed pro-lynching, anti-black education politician cut from the same cloth as Pitchfork Ben Tillman, earned election to the state’s highest office through his ability “to play on race, religion and class prejudices,” appealing especially to South Carolina’s farmers and mill workers, according to Ernest Lander’s work, “A History of South Carolina 1865-1960.”

The state was anything but a hotbed of progressivism in the early 20th century, but Blease acquired such a bad reputation that he was said to represent the worst aspects of Jim Crow and Ben Tillman. For example, Blease is said to have once buried the severed finger of a lynched black man in the South Carolina gubernatorial garden in Columbia.

In their book “Columbia: History of a Southern Capital,” Lynn Salsi and Margaret Sims identified some of Blease’s more “endearing” legacies:

Despite the need for reform, he fought regulation of safety, public health and education. He also pardoned a record number of criminals, some say more than 1,500. His vetoes included hand-written messages using profane language, the wrote.

Worse yet was his treatment of blacks.

In his 1911 inauguration address, Blease stated, “I am opposed to white people’s taxes being used to educate negroes.” He later added that he was opposed to white convicts being placed in the same labor camps as black convicts, adding that he believed that “a governor would be justified in granting a pardon to a white man who is thus treated, …”

In the same address, he urged the re-institution of public executions, particularly those of blacks.

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Hide the moonshine, we’re from the South

Gina Williams, a native Texan writing at the always-captivating Like the Dew website, details common misconceptions some Northerners have about people from the South.

These include that we’re all racist, uneducated hicks with lazy Southern drawls who always vote Republican. (What about us also being NASCAR-loving, moonshine-swilling, ATV-driving, snake-handling Creationists? That’s some of the best stuff about living in the South, after all.)

Williams does a good job debunking these myths, including providing a USA Today map of the 2004 presidential election which showed interestingly that plenty of Southern counties voted for Democratic candidate John Kerry over Republican George Bush, while there were several Northern states with a majority of counties favoring Bush over Kerry.

Better yet is Williams’ assessment of the simplistic portrayal of Southern cultural and social norms:

  • Surprise, we’re not all bigots, she writes:

The history books we grew up studying in school failed in one big respect: The American Civil War was not simply over the preservation of slavery; it was a war over states’ rights and excessive taxation. The simple fact is that, at the time, there was controversy on just how much involvement the federal government should have in state governments (sound familiar to current times?); the federal government’s involvement with the anti-slavery movement set many Southern states off because they felt that state governments, through citizen voting, should determine laws on such things. And with increasing pressure by Northern states in the late 1850s to increase taxes to benefit their industries, Southerners became upset. Before and after those taxes were implemented with Abraham Lincoln’s entry into office, Southern states began seceding.

Yow! Williams is right on the money here, but I wouldn’t dare trying pursuing this argument with anyone but my closest friends, whether they’re from the North or the South. Public school education dropped the ball on complex issues like the War Between the States a long, long time ago and I’m not stupid enough to try to pick it up.

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The good ol’ days weren’t always good

The Huffington Post Monday posted some two dozen rare color photos compiled by the Farm Services Administration between 1939 and 1944.

These are just a small part of some 1,600 pictures now available online, thanks to the Library of Congress.

The photos, which depict small town life, industry and recreational activities during the Great Depression and World War II, were included in a 2006 exhibit “Bound for Glory: America in Color.”

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They hang elephants, don’t they?

The blog Long Form has reprinted a fascinating story from Blue Ridge Country magazine about the 1916 hanging of an elephant in Kingsport, Tenn.

That’s right,  Mary, a five-ton cow elephant with the Sparks Brothers Circus, was hung by the neck from a railroad car on Sept. 13, 1916, for killing a man.

As indicated by the story’s lead paragraph, the event was emblematic of the times:

It was 1916, and things were changing fast. World War I raged in Europe. Dadaism, ripe with comic derision and irrationality, took hold in artistic circles. Freeform jazz took hold of the American music scene. Margaret Sanger opened the first birth-control clinic. It was a good year for scapegoats. It was a good year to hang an elephant.

More than 90 years later, the event is still surrounded by exaggeration and hyperbole, and fact remains difficult to sift from fiction. What remains uncontested nearly a century later is a man was killed by an elephant, and that elephant died for her sin.

(Hat tip: Waldo Lydecker’s Journal)

Jim Crow: Your government at work


Jeff Jacoby, who at times seems The Boston Globe’s only sane voice outside the paper’s sports pages, has an important column that looks at the Jim Crow legislation that blighted the South for more than half of the 20th Century.

Jacoby points out that it wasn’t white businessmen who specifically made segregation the law of the land in the Deep South, but government.

“… it wasn’t an overwhelming grassroots demand for segregation that institutionalized Jim Crow. It was government, often riding roughshod over the objection of private-sector entrepreneurs,” he writes.

“Far from craving the authority to relegate blacks to the back of buses and streetcars, for example, the owners of municipal transportation systems actively resisted segregation. They did so not out of some lofty commitment to racial equality or integration, but for economic reasons: Segregation hurt their bottom line. It drove up their expenses by requiring them – as the manager of Houston’s streetcar company complained to city councilors in 1904 – “to haul around a good deal of empty space that is assigned to the colored people and not available to both races.” In many cities, segregation also provoked blacks to boycott streetcars, cutting sharply into the companies’ profit.”

Jacoby notes a study published in the Journal of Economic History, in which economist Jennifer Roback shows that in one Southern city after another, private transit companies tried to scuttle segregation laws or simply ignored them. Consider:

  • In Jacksonville, Fla., a 1901 ordinance requiring black passengers to be segregated went unenforced until 1905, when the state Legislature mandated segregation statewide. The new statute “was passed by the Legislature much against the will of the streetcar companies,”  according to Jacoby.
  • In Alabama, the Mobile Light and Railroad Company reacted to a Jim Crow ordinance by flatly refusing to enforce it. “Whites would not obey the law and were continually . . . refusing to sit where they were told,” the company’s manager told a reporter in 1902, writes Jacoby.
  • In Memphis, the transit company defiantly pleaded guilty to violating a Tennessee segregation statute, explaining that it believed the law went against the wishes of the majority of its patrons, according to Jacoby.
  • In Savannah, the local black paper wrote that streetcar officials “are not anxious to carry into effect the unjust laws. . . requiring separate cars for the races,” since it would put them “to extra trouble and expense,” Jacoby adds.

Eventually, politicians got their way and blacks were officially relegated to second-class status across the South, and in some other parts of the country, for the next 60-plus years.

The fact that the political class led the charge toward Jim Crow doesn’t diminish the culpability of all who went along with it, of course, but it does serve to point out the dangers of what can happen when the political class overrides the wishes of the private sector.