The Praying Mantis

Praying Mantis on an aster plant late September

From whence arrived the praying mantis?
From outer space, or lost Atlantis?
I glimpse the grin, green metal mug
that masks the pseudo-saintly bug,
Orthopterous, also carnivorous,
And faintly whisper, Lord deliver us.

My husband drove us south on Rochester Road yesterday morning. “I saw another praying mantis while pruning lavender yesterday, then another behind the house,” he said.
He knows I’m fascinated with the insect, particularly the female’s pregnant abdomen. This season’s mantis first appeared a month ago on an aster plant in my backyard gardens.
           “They’re harmless and passive,” Mel continued. “You can touch and hold them. They don’t sting or bite.”
           “Unless you’re their mate,” I replied.
           His face drew that ‘I don’t think I’m going to like what comes next’ expression.
           I followed on cue. “While mating, the female eats the male’s head, then after, if she’s malnourished, she consumes his entire body. I’d call that an aggressive carnivore.”
           He kept his eyes on the road and pondered that gruesome bit of biology.
           It was autumn, years ago, when I first saw a praying mantis. Like Mel, I was pruning a lavender field. The insect escaped the blades of my electric hedge clippers; her long back legs ambulating the bush like a clown on stilts.
The past fifteen years, I’ve seen hundreds of Mantis religiosa on our property, praying for the perfect stem to attach her foamy egg case. The following spring I’d find hardened sacs that held up to 400 eggs. (No, I didn’t count them.)
The second stage of the insect’s life is a colorless nymph that resembles the adult. I’ve never witnessed in nature this bizarre birth through the sac, and that’s okay with me for the nymphs feed on each other.
Nymph survivors molt their exoskeleton up to ten times to maturity. That’s tenacity. Then the lifecycle repeats.
So I reckon the praying mantis mating season is happening in our gardens and fields as I speak. We’ve seen brown mantises also. I’ve never seen the pink variety. Scientists say the praying mantis is found everywhere in the world except Antarctica. Makes sense.
And some mantises are large enough to consume small birds, frogs, and snakes. Some people keep mantises for pets in a terrarium of sorts. I’ve read that folk of Latin and Greek persuasion consider this bug “one who divines.”
Well, that’s mythology for you. Personally, I’m hoping this slender green predator finds and devours the bad bugs that suck the life out of my plants, bees, and hens. But she’d better keep her fangs off my hummingbirds.
You see, dear Reader, I’ve read Melissa Breyer’s July 5, 2017 report on titled ‘Praying mantises released for pest control are hunting hummingbirds.’
I quote, “Native insects eating pests is a great thing; invasive insects eating native birds starts edging into the world-gone-wrong realm.”
Thus, I appreciate Ogden Nash’s astute observation about this pseudo-saintly bug and faintly whisper, Lord deliver my hummingbirds.


The Still, Good Life

The language and still life of food
Like a still life painting, three pears cuddled in my favorite green bowl. They formed a yellow circle with the rosy blush of one fruit.
           If only I could boast they came from our small orchard of six trees. Not this autumn. Perhaps drought is to blame. Although our dwarf peach yielded three mountaintop pies and a dozen pints of preserves by Labor Day, just one puny pear survived to make our mouths water. I sliced and tossed it in a butter lettuce salad with black currants and walnuts.
           So I gambled good money last week and bought three organic pears. Sometimes they don’t ripen after their continental journey—and pears bruise if you look at them the wrong way. That’s why I devoted my locally crafted pottery to them alone.  
Three days later the blushing pear called my name. The beautiful composition and color spoke of my three daughters—stories of maternal love, growth, and letting go.
I once fed my children in this home. One by one, they stepped from their circle and center of my life. As I left my mother. As my mother left my granny. And so life unwinds to the beginning of time.
In Albrecht Dürer’s “restless examination of nature”, he painted watercolor studies of fruit and created “precise drawings of flora and fauna.” I appreciate the artist’s High Renaissance subjects of the natural world.

At this place in my life, I’d rather eat fruit and arrange flowers than paint them. Yet, my three delicious pears are well consumed and have me musing. Perhaps someday I’ll resurrect my pastels and copy Mary Cassatt’s Lilacs in a Window. I’d like to capture the hues and ancestry of my mother’s heirloom lilacs transplanted to my backyard long ago. 
Cassatt’s contemporary and French Impressionist Paul Cézanne said it best, I think. “When color is richest, form is fullest.”
It was this formula that first drew my eye to the DIA’s Cherokee Roses by American artist Martin Johnson Heade. The contrast of white petals and yellow stamens resting on scarlet cloth moved me with similar quietude as my pears in a bowl.
These art experiences have come vicariously by pondering the meaning of numerous still life paintings in the DIA’s Dutch and American galleries. I’m discovering the movement, symbolism, and history within the compositions.

Dear Reader, now is apple season in Michigan. That means a drive to local orchards for cider and cinnamon doughnuts. Since our apple trees didn’t yield either, I’ll buy enough Northern Spy for several pies and crisps.
This is pure living, the real thing Cézanne painted in Still Life with Basket of Apples. “A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art,” he once said.
I remember making applesauce with my mother in our Detroit home thirty-five years ago, and know what he meant.
The still life is the good life because it is loving and lasting.

The Mum's Message

Lincoln High School 1967 Homecoming float bearing Queen Cathy Hatmaker
Ah, the chrysanthemum—autumn’s emblem of high school homecoming.
I remember buckets full of the mammoth, white variety for sale at the admission gate of my alma mater’s football field. I pinned the puffy flower to my cheerleading sweater.
My first corsage.
The night was magical; the bright lights and bleachers crowded with classmates. Oh, the electricity of our fight song, horns and drums echoing in the crisp night air. With youth and school spirit pulsing through my veins, no wonder I leapt like a deer.
The football game was incidental. Sure, I cheered for my team to win and believed the drama was real when Rick Binieki limped off the field. Al Newman, my senior year boyfriend who was also a football player, confided Rick’s theatrics were staged for a time out. 
In my naiveté, the homecoming tradition meant pom-pom parties with friends and floats bearing the queen and her court. These school events diverted me from the tension and confusion of my parents’ divorce the year I graduated in 1967.
January 1968, before my father hugged me good-bye on CMU’s campus, Al, my anchor, returned my senior picture. Thankfully, I made the cheerleading squad and found another tribe of like minds, male and female. They navigated me around the landmines of insecurity into the bittersweet age of independence.
Sweet was the camaraderie of homecoming eve. CMU’s marching band led our cheer team through campus. Students joined the parade as we snaked by the Student Union, dorms, and streets lined with Greek houses.
We passed the football field and aimed for a wooden tower about three stories tall. The band circled the structure in a moat of instruments and belted out the Chip’s fight song. Some dignitary spoke some humorous remarks and lit the timber.
A fellow jilted cheerleader turned to me and said, “I can’t remember when I’ve felt this happy.”
I empathized. It’s impossible to feel insignificant and sad when we’re a part of a moment that sets our heart and mind afire with joy and hope. It is the moment alone without a friend when we‘re tempted to drift into doubt and disappointment.

Cheering at CMU in 1969

Not long after that magnificent bonfire, an unknown Mel Underwood and some of his fraternity brothers showed up at Hillsdale College for CMU’s away game. Guess who he saw cheering along CMU’s sideline?
It took several phone calls for yours truly to trust this Theta Chi who resembled John Kennedy. We came from different domains. North and South. Catholic and Baptist. Yet, a guy who climbed trees with me and loved Jesus was worth the risk.

Dear Reader, I remain indifferent to football and cannot remember the words to my high school and college fight songs.
The mum’s message, however, I know. No matter our faults, setbacks, and sorrow, we have a friend in Jesus. He knows our needs and will not leave us comfortless.
Age to age, our God is patient and good; arms forever open for our homecoming.