From the March 22, 1974 edition of the Vineyard Gazette by William A. Caldwell:

Our eccentric neighbor Thoreau heard his first pinkletink of spring the other day — March 21, 1835, p.m. — and hurried home to ask his notebook a question. One Hyla crucifer, the small-cross bearing tree toad, had been aroused by something in its ancient depths. “(It) squats on a dry leaf, and essays a note or two, it were, the first faint cry of the newborn year,” he wrote. He wondered as to the meaning of that tense, far-carrying peep, so soon to be the sleighbell clamor of swampfuls of pinkletinks.

“All nature rejoices with one joy,” the entry concludes. “If the hyla has revived again, why may not I?”

A straightforward question deserves a responsive answer, and the answer occurred to me one pale mother-of-pearl evening last week on the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven road.

In the hollow south of the road a few peepers were on stage early, tuning their instruments, and off in the shadow of the scrub there was Thoreau awaiting a reply.

The difference between you or me and the pinkletink, Henry David, lies in the fact that it is probably immortal and we are certainly not. For 25 million springs since the Miocene in the world at large, for some 10,000 years since the last glacier surrendered and fled from Concord and Martha’s Vineyard, this sticky-fingered little toad has awakened and sung. Unless we kill it for profit, it will go on doing so till the end of time, by which geologists mean 2,000 years come next Labor Day. It is immortal. For each of us who confer meaning on its shrill hullabaloo by stopping to listen and remember and understand, there’ll come a spring after which there will be no other. The hyla will revive again, and we shall not.

The peepers were important to Thoreau and attentive students of the season like Henry Beston and Joseph Wood Krutch, but not in the same way the vernal equinox is important to most of us. We consult the almanac and assure each other that spring arrived at 8:07 p.m., Eastern Daylight Time, day before yesterday. It did nothing of the kind, The sun arrived at a point directly over the Equator, that’s all, and that is to say nothing useful. Winter is not aware that it is a has-been. Spring is still drowsing in the egg of time.

We’re the only creatures in the black drowned deeps of the universe that know something happened at 8:07 Wednesday evening. The sun and the Equator don’t and if it were called to their attention that they have just performed the miracle of resurrection they might point out, if they gave a damn, that this happens every day of the year somewhere on the face of the earth - somewhere the first peeper or elephant or housefly or kangaroo is uttering its greetings of the new season.

When is the first day of spring on the Vineyard? Three weeks ago, the snowdrops said; a fortnight, said the crocuses; tomorrow, say the daffodils; oh, not for weeks and weeks, mumble the shad and beach plums, settling back to sleep.

In a sense spring is a state of mind, then, and yet the almanac’s certification is useful in material ways. The farmer or gardener or fisherman knows that once the peepers and/or the equinox and/or the close if the scallop season has come, certain chores must be attended to, or it will irretrievably be too late. We do learn from experience. We live simultaneously in past and present and future.

We do?

Given our comprehension of what dumb ruthlessness has done to fellow creatures like the passenger pigeon and the heath hen and is about to do to the striped bass, we know what it will do to the pinkletinks, whose ecological niche is so obviously vulnerable to bulldozers and asphalt and insecticides.

It will not be argued here that a world without pinkletinks would be impoverished in a way perceptible to people who never stopped on the road to listen to that small outcry and its promise that everything’s going to be all right. It is expendable. Hundreds and thousands of species have perished. We’re making it.

But it has at last become as predictable as April showers that unless dumb ruthlessness is supplanted by respectful or even frightened awareness that we’re all in this danger together, it might very shortly be a world devoid of mankind as well as peepers and dinosaurs.

“There have always been men who know only their own advantage,” says Carl Friedrich von Weiszaecker in The History of Nature. “For them the problem that troubles us here does not exist, since they consider meaningful whatever profits them. But at all times the world of man has lasted only because there were others who felt compelled to ask for the meaning of the whole, and to act out of a sense of responsibility to the whole.”

We have quite a lot in common with tree toads, from ancestry and habitat to vernal urges and defenselessness against hustlers who do not dare to care to know what it is they do. The pinkletinks speaks with a rising inflection. It asks a question.

Compiled by Hilary Wallcox