Visit from a Prophet

By Joyce HollydayPraying mantis 2

I slept late yesterday morning. By the time I had emerged from the trees on my walk, the pasture was already blanketed in a sultry haze. My mind was preoccupied with an upcoming trip and the pile of tasks I need to accomplish before I can leave for a week. I plodded along, barely noticing what was around me.

I felt a tiny prick above my right ankle and reached down reflexively to brush away a mosquito. This was some mosquito—huge and bright green, with a triangular face. When I tried to pry the odd creature away from my sock, it dug in the sharp spines on its forelegs and clung more fiercely. I was afraid it would leave behind a leg or two if I persisted, so I sat down in the grass and stared for a while at its curious face.

It was missing an antenna and an eye. Having a few visual challenges of my own, I imagined that this impairment would make survival difficult in an insect world that depends on keen eyesight and quick reflexes. In perhaps the worst case ever of projecting human emotions onto bugs, I thought that perhaps this was a praying mantis hospice situation, and I had been chosen.

The creature appeared to be licking my leg, though I don’t think praying mantises have tongues. Its mandibles moved rapidly, and I thought of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”: “Who made the world?…Who made the grasshopper?…the one who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes…”

We stared at each other. I blinked first. The mantis didn’t in fact blink its one big eye at all. It folded its forelegs and knelt down in the posture that gave it its name. “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” continues the poem. “I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass…how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields…”

I tried again to pry the praying mantis from my sock. It turned, lept, and sank its spiny hooks into my arm. I tend to want nature to take care of itself, but this creature was determined, and I was a little concerned about its future. I let it ride home with me.

I found a basket, filled it with leaves and grass, set it on my desk next to my computer, and managed to slide the praying mantis into it, then launched an internet search on its species. Within seconds, it had climbed out of the basket and back up onto my arm. It spent the day fastened there.

I had no idea what a fascinating creature this was. Named for the Greek word meaning “prophet,” the praying mantis was considered by early civilizations to have supernatural powers. Ancient Greeks believed it possessed the ability to show lost travelers the way home; Southern Africans considered it a god; and the Chinese developed a style of martial arts based on its lightning-quick movements as early as the 10th century. Today, it is a spiritual totem symbolic of stillness and patience.

The praying mantis is a camouflage artist. It is the only insect that can swivel its head a full 180 degrees and look over its shoulder. It has a single ear, located on the underside of its belly. It can detect the echolocation signals of a bat, a primary predator, and stop in flight, drop, and roll in midair like an acrobat to evade one.

I gazed in awe at the magical creature parked on my arm.

But, okay, like the rest of us, the praying mantis has a few less-than-stellar qualities. Its closest relatives are cockroaches and termites (but who doesn’t have an embarrassing uncle or cousin?). It is a ferocious and voracious eater of everything from beetles and caterpillars to frogs and hummingbirds, prompting lots of observations that “preying mantis” would be a better name for it. And there’s that rather unromantic tendency on the part of the females to occasionally decapitate and eat their mates during praying mantis sex. According to the insect scientists, the males are better lovers without their brains, which control inhibition, engaging with wild abandon in the act while headless. I guess the females know what they want.

Some people keep praying mantises as pets: “If handled properly, they don’t bite.” If mine munched on leaves and grass, I might have briefly entertained the thought of caring for it in its impaired state. But I wasn’t about to spend my time catching beetles and crickets—and definitely wouldn’t sacrifice any of the beautiful hummingbirds that visit at my feeders on the deck when I’m eating breakfast and dinner there.

So, soon after a late-afternoon storm swept through and released a downpour, I set the basket with the praying mantis under a tree in the woods behind my home. I thanked it for choosing me, for teaching me some astounding facts about its life, for reminding me to be open to sacred mystery and to pay attention to wonder. When I checked on it later, it was gone. I hoped it would survive, as I remembered the last lines of “The Summer Day”: “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

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