Linus and the Mantis
Observing small creatures
BY MARY O'BRIEN
Lately I've found myself watching two small beings with growing affection. One has been my less-than-a-month-old grandson Linus. The second has been a preying mantis I photographed early one morning last August along Utah's Green River.
I've watched Linus with stunned amazement at how he beams pleasure before he has learned how to smile; stretches in his sleep; garners comfort from being held. As his vision has begun to focus, I see him studying faces, lights and trees for long moments, soaking in his new world.
I've also spent considerable time watching the preying mantis because its photo is on the screen of my computer as it slowly boots up. The mantis is gazing into the distance (however far that is for a mantis) while perched on the head of a boating friend. Its eyes and powerful front legs bulge from its tiny head and chest. With the previous night's rains fading, small drops of water cling to its green forelegs
As I watched both of these small creatures, I was surprised by my affection for not only Linus, but also the mantis. I found myself hoping the mantis survived until late October near its river, looking around for prey, a mate, a good place to lay its frothy egg case, or whatever else it wanted to look at.
It occurred to me that the process by which my affections have grown for both these beings may help explain why one person will be in agony over the loss of wild places and species, while another can wipe them out without a second thought. It seems to have a lot to do with whether a person has watched other species like they watch humans, and whether they have thought about their needs and wants.
Recently I spoke at a conference back East at the request of Sarah Gerould, the conference program chair. It had been a dozen years since I had last seen Sarah, who works for the U.S. Geological Survey. And it had been 30 years since I spent one fateful afternoon with her in a vacant lot behind the University of California, Riverside. We had met in an organic chemistry class. I was preparing for graduate school in botany and she was a graduate student in entomology. In contrast to Sarah, I was in the habit of avoiding most insects other than ladybugs, because I wasn't sure which ones to trust.
We planned a walk with my 1-year old and 3-year old. First Sarah found a click beetle which, to the delight of both my children, would flip itself over with a click, if placed on its back. We watched bees that weren't honey bees and no, they wouldn't sting us if we didn't bother them. We found a fuzzy, bright red velvet ant, which is a wingless wasp, and yes, it could sting us hard if we touch its fuzzy butt. We found a preying mantis. Yes, my 3-year old (who is now Linus' father) could let the mantis creep up his arm.
That did it. The next semester I took a class in field entomology and eventually wrote my dissertation on wasp pollinators of two native buckwheat species on Arrastre Flats high in Southern California's San Bernardino Mountains. There I met a bee that had not been previously described as a species. The only plant species it visited for pollen was a small native onion that grows only on the few similar sites (called "pavement plains") that exist only in that Southern California mountain range. Having spent three years on Arrastre Flats, its plain sometimes floats across my mind before I go to sleep, and I hope (is that a prayer?) all is well for its creatures and plants.
I know how those New Orleans residents felt who refused to be rescued without their pets. That's how I feel about all the world's plants and animals. I guess it's a matter of who you watch and who you think about.
As for Linus, I hope he soon gets to meet one of the descendants of my Green River preying mantis. I know just which tributary canyon to look in.