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Mating Praying Mantises, August 2011

“We were born before the wind. Also younger than the sun…” – Van Morrison, Into the Mystic

Slowly I surrender to the mystical, the coincidental, the unexplainable.  Nature’s will, its moods, its indomitable spirit, push me, pull me, shape me like clay, bake me in the sun.

My close encounters with vastly different landscapes these past five years – working in the sharp-edged concrete and glass-hewn island of Manhattan, wandering Italy’s fertile, musty and sweet smelling Po River Valley, flying gliders over Pennsylvania’s Bald Eagle Ridge, planting the first (glorious) vegetable garden I’ve had since I was a child in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley; standing beside my husband over his mother’s newly laid gravestone in smoky-aired and forest fire besieged Northern New Mexico, taking to the skies as a pilot over the grass-pastured fields of Kentucky – have reintroduced me to the beauty of flora, the mysteries of fauna, and the wild emotions of the elements.

In late Spring the deafening sound of a lightning bolt crashing into the parking lot temporarily halts a tango lesson, its rhythm syncopated by the violent sounds of a thunderstorm – my teacher and I frozen in time, our hands entwined, heads turned to watch the sparks fly past the studio’s plate glass windows – until it was safe enough to once again move across the floor, the music and our movements enhanced by the sounds of 65 mile per hour winds.

In mid-summer a snapping turtle begins a determined march across the runway just as I reach rotation speed at Samuels Field in Bardstown.  A short distance away at Clark Regional a rafter of wild turkeys hugs the runway, a tempting breakfast, if he can get it, for a young coyote standing hungry, roguish, defiant in the middle of the airstrip, forcing me to taxi back to the beginning of the runway.

A yellow-banded hummingbird, beguiled by the brilliant red and yellow hibiscus on our terrace to the North, loudly chirps his presence as I have my morning coffee.

And at tail’s end of the mating month of August, I ask a majestic finger-length female praying mantis, who has taken up residence among the slender dark green leaves of a Pink Oleander, how much longer she will continue to wait for the male mantis, seemingly directionless and clinging cluelessly to the window screen off my bedroom to the South of the house, to make his way to her rapturous and dangerous side.

I bid goodbye to my female mantis friend, fly back to Manhattan and hole up with my fellow New Yorkers against the ire of Irene.  I’ve spent eight months dodging snow storms, avoiding lightning bolts, side-stepping earthquakes, and listening to the shrill call of the tornado siren.  I am prepared.  I have squirreled away red wine, dried figs and nuts, focaccia, peanut butter and apricot jam, olives, chocolate, books and music.  I have closed the windows against the storm and can barely hear it rage outside the protected windows of my apartment to the South off the street.  I have created my shelter against the storm.  I pretend that I have a modicum of control over Mother Nature.

Days after Irene has flooded and darkened many parts of the East Coast I make my way back to the country to find my overplanted heavy flowerpots blown off the front steps, their branches broken, their stalks in need of water and resurrection, the soil clotted and crumbled on the sidewalk.  I heave them back up onto their places at the bases of the handrails and begin to clip, cut, and untangle the tendrils of blossoms, misting them with water, freeing them to breathe again.

A grass stalk moves.  I stop, but see nothing.  I mist again and suddenly out she crawls.  A female praying mantis, her belly bulging.  She pivots her head to look at me, her enormous green eyes fixated, her antennae moving rapidly.  She tolerates my pruning, watching my every move.  Hoping she will stay for a few more days, I say goodnight and retreat from the evening’s heat.

When I return from an early morning flight at the airfield the next day, I’m disappointed not to see any sign of her expertly camouflaged greenishness.  But suddenly a deep brown slender stick begins to move slowly across a grass stalk without the help of any detectable breeze.  I look closer, and there she is, her luminescent green body hidden underneath that of a dully colored male’s, his forearms tightly grasping her body as they mate.  Their wobbly heads turn in tandem to look at me, their still bodies fulfilling their ancient evolutionary business.

My mother, an avid gardener, loved praying mantises.  She spoke about their elegant and beguiling presence among predators, their noble place as gardens’ protectors from destructive insects.  She cautioned me never to harm them, saying it would be bad luck.  But I never once saw a male mantis, never imagined I would see a pair mating.

So on this Labor Day’s end to a Spring and Summer of wild and sometimes destructive weather, I take the serendipitous presence of this pair as a reminder to tell the lone coyote and the solitary snapping turtle, when I see them next, that one never really sails into the mystic completely alone.

“Smell the sea and feel the sky.  Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic.” – Van Morrison, Into the Mystic