My yard serves as the hunting ground for whole fleets of praying mantids. In fact, this time of year, before the smells begin to change for fall, is when they're most obvious. They've reached near-full size now, and they're beginning to think about mating. The females are sitting on their perches with their fannies curled up in the air, letting the whole mantis world see their goods, while the males are usually hanging out just a few feet away from the females, collecting their guts and gear before they approach the females to mate. Although it doesn't happen as frequently as folklore tells us, sometimes the female will eat the male during mating. That usually only happens when the females are hungry. A warning to all the male mantids out there: make sure your mate is well fed and happy before jumping on.
This morning, I went out to check on the couple that has been hanging out in the bananas and gingers against our bedroom wall. Alert and in full hunting mode, the male greeted me by peeking over his leaf perch and looking straight at me.
Praying mantids, similar to several other insects, have compound eyes that create the illusion of pupils watching me as I move. Along with their two large compound eyes, they have three eyes on the front of their face between the compound eyes, and they have the ability to move their heads nearly completely around to see in all directions, giving them remarkable eyesight. This particular male has reached his final molt, clear to me because he now has wings to help him get to where the girls are. The fact that he's reached maturity is what allows me to easily determine that he's a male; he's longer and more slender than a female, and he has full length wings and long antennae.
After females' final molts, the wings they develop (if they do develop them) are short and ineffective. As well, their abdomens tend to be wider. I think that the other mantis in the ginger is a female, for she has such a wide abdomen and much shorter antennae, but she hasn't reached her final molt yet, so I'm not absolutely sure. When I found her this morning, she was mid-molt, her old skin split across her back and her new body wiggling slowly out of it. I had never watched a mantis molt before. She seemed Zen-like and slow, perhaps not even conscious, completely unresponsive to me sticking the camera right in her face. As she finished, she hung upside down in the sunlight for a while, her new face like a green opal.
Whenever I spend time with praying mantids, I remember the carefully detailed fight scene in Gerald Durrell's memoir My Family and Other Animals. As a child, Durrell filled his room with his discoveries, living and otherwise. One evening, he found Geronimo, the gecko that hunted on his windowsill, and Cecily, his pet praying mantis, engaged in a fight to the death. He reports every blow, every strategic move, every fault in both warriors' fight. Cecily lost. By a tail.
I like the book as a fun read about a young biologist approaching both his family and his surroundings with fascination, but I don't love the book. Luckily for me, this memoir and those that follow it aren't the only types of books Durrell has written. He also wrote a handbook that changed my life.
When I was twelve, my grandmother gave me Gerald and Lee Durell's A Practical Guide for the Amateur Naturalist: What to do in 17 various environments—from your own back yard to beach, meadow, or woods; from feeding an orphan bird to planting a bottle garden, breeding butterflies, and much more. A long title, yes, but it didn't daunt me. I must have read this book twenty times between the year I got it and the year I graduated from high school. When I wasn't reading it, I kept it handy for reference. It followed me from the fields and vegetable gardens of our little ranch in the Central Valley of California to the deciduous woodlands of our hilltop home in Minnesota. I carried the book in my head as I poked in tidal pools and sand dunes on vacations. When my family and I toed our way through the Boundary Waters of the northern reaches of Minnesota, my brother and I found a stand of pitcher plants growing out of a moldering mat of reeds and moss, and because of this book, I had the theory of ecological succession right in the front of my brain.
In college, curious and in love with the possibilities across the disciplines, I took classes in as many fields as I could, leading me eventually to a class called Environmental Geography. The final, focusing on the characteristics of different natural environments, seemed to be lifted straight from the book that had been so important to me in my adolescence. As I took the test, I felt like Val Kilmer's character Chris Knight in Real Genius. I handed in my test with the kind of confidence that if I were more of a bitch would have allowed me scrawl "I aced this" on a scrap of paper and hand it in with the test. I did ace the test. When I got my test back, I could see my professor had written "A+" and "Please see my in my office" across the top. In her office, she told me she had never given an A+ in her teaching career, and though she didn't doubt my honesty, she wanted to know what I did to study. I told her about The Amateur Naturalist, but I'm not sure she understood what that meant. I didn't study in the typical sense. Instead, I'd been studying for that test since I was a kid in every interaction with nature I made. Every walk to class was an opportunity for me to study for that test.
So now, I spend a large portions of my free time watching praying mantids molt, hummingbirds catch gnats over the compost pile, monarch caterpillars munch away the milkweed. I devour books, fiction and nonfiction, because I know that each can change the way I approach the small and even the biggest parts of my life. And I am never bored.