Revisiting Song of the Cloud Forest: The Golden Toads

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Abigail Maughan – The Song of the Cloud Forest is a melancholy, musical story about environmentalism produced for The Jim Henson Hour in 1989. Frequent Fraggle Rock writer David Young brings us the story of an anxious little golden toad named Milton, who lives with his friends in the rainforest and appears to be the last of his kind. When the animals overhear two human scientists discussing the golden toads being on the brink of extinction, Milton must come to terms with his life, and the others with what this means for the rest of the rainforest. Cloud Forest was released on DVD in 2010, packaged with the similarly ecology-driven Fraggle Rock episode “River of Life,” in what is apparently the “David Young and Dave Goelz Break Your Heart into a Million Pieces” collection.

Cloud forests are the idealistic tropical rainforest: elevated, mossy, and shrouded in cloud cover, filled with stunning biodiversity. In one such cloud forest, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in Costa Rica, golden toads were discovered by herpetologist Jay Savage in 1964. The species was found to be in a fragile situation even before the threat of endangerment, due to its exclusive habitat and specific requirement of abundant water for successful reproduction.

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While Cloud Forest ends with implying that the toads will thrive, it is a happier end to a happier story, because golden toads are, in actuality, extinct. The last sighting of a golden toad was by ecologist Martha Crump, who found a solitary male in 1989, and the species has never been seen again. (Ironically, the last year a golden toad was spotted in the wild is the exact year that Song of the Cloud Forest came on television.) The toads’ demise is hypothesized to be due to global warming. The loss of humidity made the toads more susceptible to chytridiomycosis, an amphibian-specific disease caused by a certain fungus, as well as robbed them of their habitat’s necessary moisture for breeding.

Already heartbreaking, the ultimate fate of the toads in reality makes one of the final scenes in Cloud Forest particularly dour, as a lonely Milton contemplates his fate and whether or not there’s any point in fighting it. “I guess when things get this bad, there’s no point in thinking or feeling anything,” he says dismally. “Why worry? I mean, if things can’t get any worse no matter what you do… why bother doing anything?” Cementing its place as one of the most gut-wrenching scenes in Muppet history, Milton then sings Mark Radice’s beautifully somber “There Was a Time,” which concludes with:

There was a time when life was grand
Who could have known what life had planned?
As the world rolls along, more and more, I see
There just isn’t any more for me.

I guess it’s too late for happy endings now.

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For the golden toad, it might be. Regardless, Song of the Cloud Forest ends with hope for the toads, when the scientists decide to leave their female specimen Ruth in the jungle to “let nature take its course” after they hear Milton’s song. Ruth and Milton awkwardly introduce themselves to each other, then geek out over their shared passions of trees and fungus-collecting.

Fellow Costa Rican amphibian Holdridge’s toad was also thought to be extinct until being rediscovered in 2010, having not been seen for 23 years prior. So while one can hope that Milton and Ruth and their inevitable baby toads are similarly hiding just out of sight, as Cloud Forest’s wise old Caiman warns, “nothing will change until the Uprights learn to listen.” As proven by the very existence of Song of the Cloud Forest, and many, many other projects, protecting the environment is a topic that Jim Henson and his team were (and are) incredibly passionate about. It is a message they have dedicated innumerous hours to spreading over the years. Undoubtedly, they have learned to listen.

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