A praying mantis allows one woman to connect with nature while living in Washington D.C.
Falling Into Place (Beacon Press, 2014), by Catherine Reid, uses nature in its various forms — trees, rivers, animals and landscapes — as a lens to investigate how the natural and human worlds share rhythms and instincts that unite and provide every being with a sense of belonging. In the following excerpt, from the chapter “Companions,” Reid recalls several insects throughout her life that helped her connect with nature.
On the windowsill: a clutch of parsley inside a blue jar, and a caterpillar eating its way through the deeply ruffled leaves. Not on the sill: a net or cloth to hold this soon-to-be tiger swallowtail caterpillar in this small area; it stays because of the food that’s continually replaced.
I harvest more parsley in the cool of the morning, after picking peas for our supper and lettuce that the deer haven’t sampled. The caterpillar humps backward when I insert more stems, then resumes its methodical chewing, growing fatter each day in the quiet of our kitchen.
Watching it eat, I feel companionable, as when the cat brushes my leg, a spider stretches in the bedroom, or a praying mantis raises her head, as did the one that shared the deck with us the year Holly and I lived in DC.
We had taken a shared job with the American Friends Service Committee, not far from Dupont Circle, in a house where the previous tenants had kept dozens of potted flowers on the deck. The half-barrel of blue iris drew the mantis in, and I learned to look for her each morning, though it often took several minutes to make out the green of her body against leaves of the same color, her forelegs cocked above a fattening abdomen. I wanted to watch her deliver the egg case she was nourishing, a frothy sack that would stiffen and turn brown and last through the winter, like the one that had hatched in my desk in fifth grade, spilling young into our classroom while we were off on a field trip. We returned to a stream of tiny mantises, heading for the walls and windows, and the transformation of our sturdy teacher into someone who could panic. She insisted we throw the egg case out the window and kill every one we saw. Though later, Sheri Beauchesne, who lived near enough to walk to school, grabbed the egg case on her way home along with the last of the hatchlings, while I had to wait in line for the bus, still stunned at the extent of the massacre. Fortunately, it wasn’t a total loss: We saw a few the next day on the ceiling and some on the cafeteria walls, and all of them so high we could do nothing but point and laugh and avoid our teacher’s eyes.
What I have never seen, however, is the way a female eats the male, after—and sometimes during, as the nineteenth-century scientist Jean-Henri Fabre once described it—the lengthy act of mating. “Oh what savagery!” he writes. “She practices the equivalent of cannibalism, that hideous peculiarity of man.” He watched a male hold a female “in a tight embrace. But the wretch has no head; he had no neck; he has hardly a body. The other, with her muzzle turned over her shoulder, continues very placidly to gnaw what remains of the gentle swain. And all the time, that masculine stump, holding on firmly, goes on with the business!”
The act takes self-sacrifice for the sake of the kids to a new extreme, but it was not a practice I was likely to see in DC, the mantis on the deck already impregnated and alone and fairly lethargic through the heat of that long fall.
I began to watch out for her and saw her more regularly than I did any of the other neighbors, surrounded as we were by offices and embassies and fast-moving businesspeople, and if it weren’t for my two coworkers, a woman from Eritrea, another from Ethiopia, the mantis might have begun to approximate a friend. I loved that she was in the city, just a few blocks from a busy intersection, and that no one else seemed to know she was there.
Then we moved and I missed her briefly, probably more than I’ll miss this swallowtail when it transforms its package of body parts and eventually flies off. But I’ll remember each for a peculiar kind of company, like a chance encounter with a stranger, who wants nothing more than to be near a warm body in the bus station or share a drink in the dusky light of a bar.
Reprinted with permission from Falling Into Place: An Intimate Geography of Home, by Catherine Reid, and published by Beacon Press, 2014.