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Field Notes-The Prayer Of The Mantis



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Field Notes—

The Prayer Of The Mantis

By Curtiss Clark

We are inclined to measure our seasons with thermometers because numbers are exact. They inform us with precision at this time of year about how many layers we will need to stay comfortable: add flannel in the 50s, sweaters in the 40s, jackets in the 30s, hats and scarves in the 20s, and take a day off at home by the fire in the teens.

But our sense of Jack Frost’s cold touch is only the most obvious of our senses at this time of year. The sights, sounds, and smells of fall — and even the tastes of autumn’s orchards — are seductive enough to make us forget that shiver down the spine when we step out in the morning air after a hard frost.

That killing frost came to our house last Friday, laying low the garden’s late bloomers and blanketing the world with its fuzzy freeze. Kate, just in with the morning paper, dragged me back out with her into the predawn darkness. “Listen,” she said.

The last of the leaves on the ancient sugar maples in the yard were falling, hitting branches, each other, and the ground. The coating of frost altered the timbre of the subtle stream of sound coming from the trees. It was quiet, close, and muffled, and as Dorothy Parker would say “as intimate as the rustle of sheets.”

In moments like these, we are seduced into experiencing the endless progression of seasons not just in terms of our changing requirements for staying comfortable. We see it for what it is: a natural process that moves ceaselessly forward without regard for individual lives — not the man and the woman with The New York Times standing in the dark, not the fallen leaves and the fast-frozen flowers, not the legions of insects that died in the night. All of us, the mutable million manifestations of this process, ultimately get left behind. But if we are aware of our surroundings in a changing world and adapt accordingly, our kind carries on.

As we cleared tall weeds from a neglected garden a couple of weeks ago, we came across an adaptation of one peculiar kind of insect in its perpetual bid to carry on. Three praying mantis egg cases clung to stems and stalks in the thicket of weeds. They had the flowing form of modern architecture in service of an ancient imperative: the continuation of the species.

From our human perspective, the praying mantis is one of the most beneficial insects. It doesn’t bite us, it doesn’t spread diseases, it doesn’t chew up our gardens or the timbers of our homes — and it has a voracious appetite for all the other insects that do these harmful things.

For these favors, we have conferred piety upon the species, anthropomorphizing its “prayerful” attitude and overlooking an unholy little secret about its love life: sexual cannibalism.

The praying mantis can turn its head 180 degrees. The female employs this ability to turn and bite the head off any male that assumes the mating position upon her back. Evidently, cognitive abilities don’t come into play all that much during sex, because the male somehow manages to complete what he has started without his head. Afterwards, he is dead to the world, literally. She is still hungry, however, so she polishes off the rest of her lover’s body. Amen.

This gruesome mating ritual takes place in late September and early October, so while the female may outlive the male, she doesn’t do it by much. Before she dies in the hard frosts that follow, she lays her eggs, often hundreds at a time, in a frothy substance that hardens into the egg cases that can now be found in the tall weeds of forgotten places.

The egg cases are worth hunting for. The praying mantis is so effective at pest control, garden supply catalogs sell their egg cases in the spring for anywhere from $3 to $7 apiece. If you find some, put them in a protected place near your garden, and in the spring hundreds of tiny nymphs will emerge and grow into your own private mantis militia, protecting your garden from aphids, flies, caterpillars, beetles, grasshoppers, and anything else it can catch and digest — suitable mates included.

It is hard, from our perspective, to understand a natural process that requires immediate death as the price of procreation. We aren’t comfortable with it. We want to ask the male mantis, “What are you thinking?,” forgetting of course that he has lost his head.

Perhaps we should be more willing to lose our heads to the seductive power of the natural world, if only to glimpse what lies beyond ourselves and our preoccupation with comfort.

Discovering praying mantis egg cases at this time of year is a reminder. Living things move quickly through this world. What endures is the process, moving ceaselessly forward far beyond our individual selves. It is never about this season. It is always about the next. It is never about the one who prays. It is always about the prayer.

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