About three miles from our house there is a white Congregational Church with a tall steeple, giant pillars, and huge, rectangular windows. And behind this church is a shady playground with swings and climbers and plastic houses and a sandbox and seesaws and those bouncy horses attached to giant metal springs in the ground. And around this playground there is a chain-link fence. And on this fence, on this particular summer afternoon, there sat a praying mantis.
I imagine this praying mantis was feeling pretty confident that day, sitting atop that fence, maybe hoping for a yummy insect meal to come her way. Sure there were predators about, in the skies and on the ground. But she didn’t feel overly concerned because her great mantis ancestors had passed on a clever adaptation that offered her protection – the camouflage of a leaf-like body shape.
She knew she wasn’t the foremost predator on the food chain, but in the insect world she was pretty hot shit. After all, praying mantises sometimes ate their prey alive. The females of her species had the reputation for cannibalizing their mates. Some large mantises could eat birds – BIRDS! Not that SHE was capable of that, but still… those are the instincts that demand respect in the world of nature.
She stretched her forearms, rotated her head to take in her surroundings, rocked forward and back a few times on her long, spindly legs, and sighed, settling in for a lazy, relaxing day in the sunshine atop the fence that surrounded the playground behind the church about three miles from our house.
* * *
My son has non-verbal autism. He LOVES to be outside. He loves nature. He runs with his face to the sky. He smiles and laughs at the wind in the trees. He lies back in the grass or mud or snow, just lies there – listening, feeling, being.
One of my son’s little quirks is that he likes to carry objects around in his hands. These objects can be small toys, or pieces of ribbon, cellophane, or fabric – anything that has an interesting texture. Outside he might carry a twig or a leaf or a long, dry stalk from one of the hundreds of tiger lilies that have taken over our yard.
I can’t say exactly why he carries objects; it’s just something he has done since he had chubby, saliva-covered, toddler fists. Maybe the objects are comforting to him, helping him transition from one space to another. Maybe they distract him from an overwhelming world, giving his hands something with which to “fidget”. Or maybe they just fascinate him. Who knows?
He carried an object out to the car on that warm, summer afternoon – a crinkly straw wrapper from a Capri Sun juice pouch. He dropped it as soon as he climbed into his car seat, trading it for a green, satin ribbon he found on the back seat. I buckled him in as my husband started the car, and soon the three of us were on our way to the playground behind the Congregational Church in town.
This playground had become a favorite of mine since the first time we visited it with one of my son’s therapists. For one thing, a gigantic maple tree shades a good portion of it, which is unusual for playgrounds in our area. It has a wide variety of equipment for children to play on. Although popular on the weekends, it is often empty during the week. And best of all, it is completely fenced in, meaning I can actually relax when I bring my son there instead of hovering close by and chasing him every time he bolts. Here, he’s free to roam and run as he pleases, without Mom cramping his style.
He sprinted through the gate, dropping his green ribbon as he stopped to examine the bouncy horses with their huge metal springs. Then he took off again, heading for the swings. I stooped to pick up his ribbon, sliding it into my pocket for the car ride home. My husband and I slowly followed our boy, with no particular desire to move too quickly in the heat. We watched as he flitted from one area to another, making happy, excited sounds, occasionally finding a new treasure to hold – a small scrap of paper, a sandbox toy, a blade of grass.
A few minutes later, he slowed his pace and drifted toward the perimeter fence. Even though there were no other children around, he was still drawn to this place of safety. He made his way along the fence, keeping his eyes open for anything of interest on the ground or in the skies.
Near the back corner of the playground, I saw him reach out and pluck a leaf from the top rung of the fence. He walked a few steps then opened his hand to examine his leaf with a look of surprise. After a quick glance, he gently placed his other hand over the leaf, walked back to the fence, and put the leaf back on the exact spot he had taken it from. He scrunched his nose a little, brushed his hands on his pants, and hurried away to find a new activity.
Suspicious, I strode over to see what had prompted my boy to return the leaf from whence it came. And there it was, teetering unsteadily on the top rung of the chain link fence – a large praying mantis.
My voice shot up an octave as I half-breathed, half yelled to my husband, “Holy crap! Praying mantis! Honey, he picked up a praying mantis! Did it bite him?! Do they bite?! Check his hands!”
The mantis appeared to be in shock, and although my son had been very considerate in placing her back on the fence, he hadn’t quite gotten her completely balanced before letting go. Now she was slipping off the side, her legs desperately clinging to the wire links.
Not wanting to freak her out even more, I grabbed a stick and used it to push her body onto the bar at the top of the fence where she could position herself better. And there she stayed, posing as I snapped a few photos with my cell phone.
My son was fine. The praying mantis was fine.
And an interaction that had amounted to no more than a few brief moments had left me with a feeling of great respect for my son. Because I know what I would have done if I had accidentally picked up an insect instead of a leaf – I would have made a high-pitched yelping sound, dropped it on the ground, and backed away whilst shuddering and carrying on in a ridiculously embarrassing manner. I’ll admit it. I’m not proud.
Besides those like me who would react with fear, consider the fate of that praying mantis in the hands of a more thoughtless, more reckless human.
With all his anxiety and impulsiveness, meltdowns and outbursts, my son’s instinct was to be gentle, to protect, to correct his mistake. He exhibited amazing self-control in that moment, given that he had no idea what he held in his hands and if it posed a threat to him.
Praying mantises are so bizarre, so alien in appearance. I wonder what flashed through my son’s mind as he beheld this strange creature, with its triangle shaped head, bulbous eyes, elongated thorax, and long, serrated, multi-jointed forearms. He had no way to ask; he could only search his own memory for a category in which it might belong and, in a split second, decide what he should do with it.
I admire his decision. I admire his instincts.
How sad it is that kindness, gentleness, and compassion are often viewed as weaknesses. In the natural world, the predator is feared and respected. In the human world, it’s the biggest show of force that is respected, the loudest voice in the room that is acknowledged. Power and dominance are associated with strength.
However, I will argue there is a different kind of strength, a deep, sometimes quiet strength, required to resist those predatory instincts,
to do the right thing in spite of fear,
to be kind and compassionate in an unkind world,
to listen and feel and be, without the desire to dominate.
* * *
On a fence surrounding a playground behind a church about three miles from our house sat a praying mantis recovering from a harrowing day. As the sun retreated leaving a warm, damp dusk in its wake, the introspective, humbled insect put her forearms together and thanked her mantis god that she had survived her ordeal. Her leaf-like appearance had been a disadvantage that day, but she had gotten lucky. She was a changed mantis and promised to pay it forward, vowing to never again bite the heads off her mates in the future. She swiveled her head, sensing night’s arrival, as the skies turned pink, then purple, then a deep, deep blue above the chirping playground behind the sleepy church about three miles from our house.