Sentimental Journey: Mantis

Photo by Lori McLaughlin

My parents drove me to our old farmhouse. We lived there only a year and half or so; it was a small episode in long lives. Somehow, though, it holds all the best of my childhood memories. It holds a disproportionate number of the stories I tell in my books, too. This is the place where I learned to listen with love to the songs of coyotes, where the neighbor’s dog slaughtered our chickens, the place where a cougar climbed an elm in our front yard. Little incidents of rural life, but they have held onto me. 

My parents had been here not long before to photograph it for me. Their photos showed little, or at least too little to make sense of. Mostly they showed the flat face of the earth beneath the immense sky. But it had been greener then. Now we arrived at a stand of dead elms. That was all that distinguished this stretch of barbed wire from the contiguous miles of it. 

At a glance, nothing was left but some remnants of the corral. (I remembered the splinters I’d got from it; the meteor that had fractured on the ground next to it; the salt lick set out for the cattle, which we were told was not for kids to lick. The warning itself was invitation enough, and I found it bitter and not salty enough.)

I studied the barbed wire for a place to enter. My father suggested the thick post, like a sawn-off telephone pole, that held a gate. I could use the gate itself for support. But no. The gate sagged beneath my weight, and the wire seemed no more eager to support me. I lamented wearing my new carpenter pants. 

Photo by Parker Grice

Then, as if to tell me I was on the right track, I noticed the oothecum—the egg case of a mantis. I wrote of these in The Red Hourglass—of the mother mantid’s way of pressing out eggs in a foam that solidifies into something harder than brick. It had to be an old one, for the November landscape was brown beyond the reach of the eye, inhospitable to the predator and its insect prey. I pried it off the post with my thumb—it snapped audibly and left a good bit of itself attached. Close up, I could see the pinpoint holes through which the mantid nymphs had escaped from their hatching cells. 

“Huh,” my dad said. “It’s not locked.” Sure enough, the chain that held the gate was easily unlatched. More discoveries waited within. 

Photo by Parker Grice



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