Hill Toads Coaxed to Sing Again

Author: By D. Weyermann, Globe correspondent

Date: SUNDAY, August 15, 1999

PLACITAS, N.M. — On the formerly pristine Highway 44 that traverses the rolling terrain of central New Mexico, a new grocery store sells caviar and Stolichnaya. The hills are speckled with “McMansions,” as some residents call the grand adobe-and-glass homes built by New Yorkers, Californians, and Floridians who couldn’t afford such opulent living space in their native states.

But amid the trophy homes on cramped lots sits a weathered geodesic dome on a 10-acre spread. It’s the home of Kathy Roberts, who came here 30 years ago as a “broke hippie” but scraped together enough money to buy the land.

“There didn’t used to be a sign of man on any of these mountains,” Roberts said. “And there used to be so many toads that you couldn’t help but drive over them.”

But the area’s idyllic views and proximity to Santa Fe and Albuquerque attracted development, and the pools needed for the spadefoot toad to reproduce were bulldozed. Roberts and her neighbors missed the lulling, rhythmic sound of the desert toads’ evening serenades.

“When I only counted seven adult toads here five years ago, I knew I had to do something,” Roberts said.

Without grants, petitions, studies, or government help, Roberts did something about it. She spent six to eight hours a day digging trenches during the summer rainy season to funnel water into dry ponds. Then she would race out to collect tadpoles before birds and snakes could get them, and she dispersed them into more permanent areas of water.

Now she’s credited with singlehandedly reintroducing the spadefoot toad to the 50-square-mile area of former New Mexico wild country.

In some ways, the loss of toads came to symbolize a vanishing way of life. Roberts’s story is one of a woman who has seen the changes wrought by affluence and whose life is a throwback to a different time.

The Huerta Valley was prime real estate even 2,000 years ago, when archeological sites now falling under bulldozers’ treads indicate Pueblo Indians settled the land. The Spaniards came next, establishing villages such as Placitas at the base of the spellbinding Sandia Mountains.

Until 15 or so years ago, these outposts were nearly untouched culturally. Spanish was spoken as often as English, Indian fry bread and ground maize were staples. White, Indian, and Hispanic neighbors knew the coloring on one another’s livestock well enough to return a wanderer to the correct owner.

In the past dozen years, said Donald Rivera, an appraiser for Sandoval County, an acre of undeveloped land around Placitas has risen by $400 to $2,000 a year. Undeveloped land with an excellent view can fetch $45,000 to $55,000 an acre these days.

But while the value of her property was skyrocketing, Roberts didn’t change her lifestyle. The college-educated daughter of a US Army linguist, Roberts still lives without electricity in the dome, which she built with the help of other free souls attracted to New Mexico communes in the late ’60s. She describes the dome’s construction as a series of “perfect mistakes” after the walls collapsed on the underground house that she and her colleagues first tried to build.

“I can’t believe this dome is still standing,” she said with a smile. “We really had no idea what we were doing at the time.

She draws water from a well and supports herself with eclectic work such as organic gardening, arts and crafts, and pet salvage, for lack of a better term. Roberts keeps 19 animals on her property, not including the thousands of tadpoles she has collected from ponds.

 

She once saved a herd of feral horses invading her new neighbors’ domains by feeding them while covertly building a corral around the hay bale area until she could slam the gate shut on the unwanted horses. They went to good homes.

Roberts is as surprised as the next person that she’s now sitting on more money than she ever thought she would see in a lifetime of roadside organic tomato stands. Her property is perhaps even more valuable because it abuts property belonging to the Bureau of Land Management that cannot be developed. The views from her backyard, a magnificent mesa, will remain unobstructed.

But this is cold comfort. Roberts says she didn’t buy her land to make money. Her choice for a “simple life” has never wavered, and she alternates between anger and sadness at the valley’s fate.

“For years, this area was called `Indian Flats’ because of all the potential archeological sites,” she said. “We can’t even get the developers to do a dig before they build now. It’s all being destroyed.

“The wildlife they came to enjoy is disappearing. The views . . . well, now you can look into your neighbor’s bathroom.”

Roberts still gets mail addressed simply to Domesa, Placitas, N.M. The postmaster knows the designation refers to Roberts, who took in dozens of drifting youngsters through the turbulent ’60s and ’70s.

This summer, she got a letter addressed that way from a now-successful London architect who briefly lived in the geodesic dome, gardening, milking goats, and watching the clean light change colors over the mountains.

“Once you’re knocked loose as a teenager or young adult, it’s sometimes hard to get back into society,” said Roberts, whose only requirement for room and board in those days was drug abstinence. “You need a little hand. I don’t know that anybody in these fine houses ever thinks about that.”

Times change, Roberts concedes. She doesn’t know if she’ll sell her land and try to find another Placitas. For now, she’s transplanting tadpoles, thousands over the past five summers.

Roberts says she’s heard from people 50 miles away who are being treated to the first evening toad songs they’ve heard in years. Luke Shelby, public affairs officer for the New Mexico Fish and Game Department, said that Roberts probably can take credit for that.

“If she’s been doing that, it’s more than probable she’s repopulated the area,” Shelby said. “The flood patterns would take both tads and adults into other areas.”

Closer to home, neighbor Lynn Daniel Montgomery said: “I am so concerned about this really exquisite little valley. But at least Kathy has given us our toads back. I hope she’ll consider the frogs next.”