Monday, September 06, 2010

Books and Mantids

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.


Unknown said...

I'd never seen a preying mantis before I moved to the San Gabriel Valley. They're a very interesting creature,thanks for describing them so well, Christina.

Bugs freaked me out when I was a kid but I started reading the Red Cross Emergency Medicine book my mom had when I was about 6....I guess I was fascinated by the pictures. I took that soft-cover book everywhere and must've read every instruction in it a hundred times before I was 10.

Bec said...

Beautiful post & inspiring. I'll buy that book for my outdoor & animal loving daughter when she's old enough to read.

Lucy said...


What an honour!

And Durrell's one of my faves, too.

michelle said...

What a lovely post, it makes me want to get outside and and do some exploring. Nature watching has been a favorite pastime of mine for years. It started with my love of gardening and then expanded outside the bounds of the garden. One thing that seems to have improved my observational abilities is photography. When I took a photography class years ago I found that I started to look more closely at everything but particularly small things, things that I overlooked because I didn't take the time to stop and really look before. It's funny how now that I've acquired the habit, or is it the skill of "seeing", that things leap out at me and grab my attention.

I've not read any of Durrell's books but I think than I'm going to have to find one.

And I've never seen a mantid around here, do you know what kind of environment they prefer?

Anonymous said...

The guy spying on you from the leaf reminds me of a cartoon character, but which one? I'll get back to you. (And you've talked me into that book.)

Julian Bunn said...

I am ashamed to say that I am unaccountably terrified of preying mantis. They look so alien and evil to me. I'd be less concerned if they couldn't fly. So I had to skip quickly over the photos in this post, but very much enjoyed the rest.

Christina said...

Lori: Isn't it funny how much that Emergency Medicine book influenced you? Sometimes whole phrases come to my head from books I read at impressionable ages.

Bec: Ooooh, great! I think you'll enjoy it too.

Lucy: Durrell--such a strange life, so much he gave to us!

Michelle: I agree. Spending time with a camera can encourage one, to if not at least look more closely, than to at least look differently. Perhaps you haven't seen praying mantids because something else is preying on them--I don't think it is the cooler climate, as I've seen them as far north as southern Canada before. I'll look into it and see what I can find for you.

Altadena: Inspector Gadget? That's who he reminds me of.

Julian: Sorry for the terrifying photos! I'm glad you enjoyed the post though. I can imagine your daughter liking The Amateur Naturalist.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

if they could only come up with a glaze in high fire, the color of a preying mantis

Christina said...

PA: I dream of such a glaze.

Ginko said...

You have a gift of being in the moment and being able to share it and bring others into that moment. I think it is a rare talent and I'm happy to discover your blog and to know that you are puttering nearby. I tried your banana bread recipe (scrumptious). Modifying a recent post, I rubbed fennel(from my garden-another tip from you and your blog) and other good things on a pork loin roast before roasting and it was really incredible. I have only seen a few mantis in our yard, I feel like there is a secret life in my garden that I am only now learning to watch over. Thanks, Leslie

Soilman said...

What a wonderful story. To have a life-long interest like that is terribly, tragically rare. So many people have to abandon their childhood or adolescent interests to join the grim rat race of money-making. You've got one that's inspired and animated you all your life.

I'm jealous.

Christina said...

Leslie: I'm so glad that you've found ideas to use here. That makes me very happy. And if you do find another praying mantis on your property, spend some time with it. They're amazing to watch.

Soilman: Thank you for the very kind compliment. I feel lucky, indeed.

chicago dyke said...

GW is often a model of humility where i am not, yo. it's very beautiful.

Christina said...

Thanks, CD. Sorry I didn't get to your comment earlier--so many of mine are getting swept into my spam folder right now.