Natural Soul

Kate Robinson

© Copyright 2005 by Kate Robinson


 Our family moved from the urban wilds of Pima County to a ranch in southern Arizona for a season. My husband kept our financial ship afloat, laboring in Tucson during the week, rendezvousing with our sons and me on weekends.

We awakened from an exhausted sleep on our first night to fight a lightning fire on a plateau above ranch headquarters. Weeks of tranquility followed our first and only foray into the world of firefighting. The long summer days were idyllic, divided between ranch chores and exploring the breathtaking San Rafael Valley. Our littlest boy morphed from baby to mischievous toddler that year. He loved wandering the outdoors after finishing morning routines and our teenage son often joined the fun.

Our discoveries were small but exciting ones for city dwellers: close encounters with birds, animals, snakes and creepy crawlies. Found treasures—wildflowers, eye-catching stones, and empty bird nests delighted us. The mantelpiece of our little ranch house became a natural history museum.

 Our daily "explore" began one bright summer morning in August. My toddler and I found a praying mantis, a first for both of us, on a shrub near our back door. He squealed with delight at the brilliant green creature. I held his hands to prevent the inevitable squashing as he tried to capture it. It high-stepped backward in an efficient, mechanical motion, appearing to appraise us with poise and intelligence, unapologetically holding the remnants of a fly in one serrated front leg. I later learned that these speared legs are aptly named "raptorial graspers," and can be regenerated by young mantids. How handy is that?

 I marveled at the mantis' swiveling head and huge green eyes. Heart-shaped and able to rotate 180 degrees, the head sits on the stem of an elongated thorax, a distinctive "neck." With its head movements, the mantis measures distance between itself and another object, and an object's movement relative to its background, giving mantids the appearance of carefully studying whatever they view. Their iridescent eyes, which range in color from green to tan to brown depending upon the light, are compound eyes capable of seeing images and colors. Mantids also have three simple eyes arranged in a triangle between antennae that differentiate between darkness and light.

My son charged through the screen door and into the kitchen, returning with his bug jar. "Otay?" he quizzed me.

 "No. Not okay," I told him. Saddened by the thought of capturing this magnificent insect, I coaxed it onto my finger and took it to a potted tropical plant near a large northern window in our living room. We'd observe the mantis indoors awhile, if possible, then return it outside.

I'd become aware of praying mantises during my childhood, but only in photos from natural science texts in my Iowa classroom. I don't recall making a direct acquaintance until this particular morning in Arizona's arid high desert grassland. Leafing through an insect guide, I found that of 1800 species of mantids, most live in tropical or desert climates. North America boasts twenty mantis species; eight of them live in Arizona. Several species do live in temperate climatic regions, such as the lush midwestern insect habitat of my childhood. Somehow I had missed encountering them.

In my juvenile imagination, running wild during long school hours, praying mantises were slobbering, out-of-control monsters, Japanese movie insects capable of terrorizing city dwellers with unending appetites. In truth, mantises are active predators, related to crickets and grasshoppers, and cousins of the unsavory cockroach to boot.

Females of some mantid species have the gruesome habit of dining on their mates' heads during courtship, a nasty but necessary action that stimulates sexual release in the male and provides the winsome female with nutrition for successful egg laying. Some of the largest tropical mantises—about ten inches long by most estimates—are known to capture hummingbirds and small reptiles. Aside from the bizarre mating ritual, and a rare hummingbird or lizard mishap, the average praying mantis consumes only other insects, such as grasshoppers, butterflies, moths, bees, beetles and flies. Like all predators, mantises keep prolific prey populations in balance, serving as prey themselves for birds, mammals, and spiders.

I found I'm not the only curious human with a vivid imagination. Mantids' prayerful posture inspires their name, which comes from the Greek mantis, meaning soothsayer or prophet. It is known in other cultures as "camel cricket," "mule killer," and "devil's horse" because its saliva was mistakenly thought to poison livestock. In Colonial America, it was believed that praying mantises blinded men and killed horses. On a more positive note, the praying mantis played an historic role in Chinese folk medicine—roasted mantis eggs were thought to be a cure for bedwetting. Some mythologies even portrayed the praying mantis as a lucky figure. In Arab and Turkish cultures, the mantis pointed toward Mecca, and in France directed lost children toward home. Pious Europeans found them highly reverent to God because they always appeared to be praying. In Africa they brought good luck to whomever they landed upon, and could restore life to the dead.

Once indoors, our mantis blended into the colors of its houseplant as it had on the bush outside. Mantid species' coloration is geared to their environment and helps camouflage them from both enemies and prey. Some species even have outgrowths of the exoskeleton, the hard outer body case, that help them look like grass, leaves, or pieces of twig. Some even mimic flowers—the Malaysian Orchid Mantid assumes the bright colors of flowers during its early nymphal stages.

Our mantis seemed happy enough inside the house. It, rather she, for the mantis had the wide belly of a female, sat still as a piece of insect jewelry under a leaf for hours, darting with lightning speed at the approach of another insect. She sometimes rambled, climbing about the plant on her four rear legs, seeming to actively hunt. Perhaps she merely worked out the kinks of her hours of insect meditation, easing around in mechanical movements like a wind-up toy.

I didn't know it then, but she could have flown away. Mantises have two pairs of wings, though the females of some species don't have wings or don't fly if they're carrying eggs. Although mantids can't fly long distances, they do take short flights from one perch to another, especially to escape other predators, which include other mantises, as well as birds, bats, snakes and spiders, depending upon the environment. Some species have a single ear located on the middle thorax—main portion of the body—an ultrasonic device tuned to the same frequency, the twenty-five to sixty kHz range, used by bats for echolocation. Mantids use their ability to hear primarily in flight, and respond to bats' signals—bats are the principal mammal predator of mantids—by flying erratically or spiraling to the ground.

 The days flew by and our mantis continued adjusting to indoor life. Her ample food supply included dozens of houseflies, a staple of ranch life. We grew fond of her, our sons racing to the window each morning to see her, my husband amused by her on weekends when he worked around the ranch. She appeared in other locations around the room, usually up in ceiling corners—hunting from new vantage points, I supposed. I never saw her fly, but later I presumed that's how she reached her sundry destinations, all distant from her perch from an insect point of view. By evening she always perched somewhere on her houseplant.

 The passing summer and rapidly dwindling month of September saddened me—we'd return to Tucson by the first of October. I loved the ranch and had no interest in returning to urban life. When moving day dawned, I thought to put the mantis outdoors on her bush, but impulsively put her houseplant into my VW instead. When we arrived in town, I transferred her to a hanging dragon plant in a kitchen window, just above the sink. Hopefully she'd be safe from our dogs and cat, known to relish an insect supplement to commercial crunchies.

 Early autumns in Arizona's lower deserts are as brilliant and hot as summers in the high deserts. I wasn't sure if our mantis relished the change as the heavy summer rains vanished and the humidity plummeted. But she seemed herself, ranging around the window screen as well as on her plant. Apparently she still found enough to eat—ragged bits of insects appeared on the tiles of the windowsill. A few weeks later when she looked thin, I offered her a bit of lettuce and chicken, and she chewed on both. Whether she accepted them for nourishment or moisture, or both, I still don't know.

 I began looking for permanent employment, a frustrating routine. Depressed about losing a life steeped in nature, I took to cruising our neighborhood with my son between job interviews. Rich in trees and desert landscaping, it both placated and annoyed me, as did a nearby park, the largest in Tucson. The subdued forms of nature were beautiful, but seemed lacking, abnormally tame. I missed the wind howling across desert prairie, the silence following windstorms so prominent you could "hear" it; the constant kaleidoscopic show of sky and clouds at all hours of the day and night, and the nocturnal visits of raccoons and owls, nighthawks and 'possums.

 One turgid day when I wished I'd never come home, my husband found our mantis on the ground outside the kitchen window. Ants had feasted on her and gutted her carcass. I don't know how she made her way outside. Perhaps she'd looked for a mate; mantids couple in the late summer or early fall, the females secreting pheromones to attract males. Her abdomen had swelled the last few days of her life. Could she have mated somehow and sought to deposit her eggs? My heart, already deprived of the wide-open places I loved, felt torn from its roots. I grieved so much I forgot to look around for the ootheca, the mantis egg case cluster.

There had to be a remedy for this longing. We spent nights on the flat roof of our adobe house, a mini-camp under the stars. I counted my blessings: fall wildflowers cropping up between stepping stones in the yard. Buzzing cicada sonatas during dry, summer-like days. Beneath a turned piece of plywood, the little scorpion darting after a field mouse, also hiding from the harsh desert sun. A small owl poised atop a power pole near the back wall one night. And ravens perching on the lowest branch of a huge eucalyptus tree, mocking me in raspy voices when I hung laundry out to dry. A flock of bats materializing from nowhere at dusk, swirling like macabre circus acrobats overhead. A skunk darting from a cactus garden in the predawn twilight. The late hummingbird seeking nectar from a flower I attached to my braid. Rain clouds easing over the city, bearing the scent of greasewood from the desert. The ordinary intersected by the extraordinary.

One radiant autumn day, waking to an October sky so blue there were no words to describe it, I smiled the first time in several days. How could I not? What a life—beauty all around me, and the privilege of having had a praying mantis friend. Stripped of her natural home, no doubt unfairly, she had made a houseplant her haven in a midtown Tucson kitchen, feasting on window-trapped insects. We both had compromised and made the best of life, resonating with natural cycles in the artificiality of an urban environment.

Who says the city has no natural soul? The tiniest shift in perception revealed the illusory quality of my negative thoughts about city life. Beauty, light and vigor are found anywhere the risk of seeing with new eyes is taken, redefining our relationship to our environment. A mantis taught me that.

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