Essays


What I Heard the Mantis Say


 

“We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.”

 

                    Milan Kundera

                    “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”

 

 

“Your mouthparts, if you will excuse my honesty, look woefully inadequate.”

 

It was surprising how difficult it was to walk among the trees that I was going to personally be responsible for knocking over. This one, that one, these are going to die. No, I would not be driving the dozer myself. I would not know how. I did look at the machine’s controls though and was amused to find the speeds marked not with words but with a picture of a bunny and a turtle. Frankly, driving the beast would be too damn directly involved in the whole act. Like slaughtering my own bacon hogs. I accept that I am the contracting executioner for this doomed set of trees. But how many houses would be cancelled if every home builder had to push the trees over themselves? Possibly less than I might think. Metaphorically though, I would personally eat far less bacon.

 

Anyway, it was my direction, my pointing arm, that would lure the dozer to the woods in the first place. And, certainly, I had been in houses before that I owned, that I know must have required some clearing of trees in order to have a place for the construction, for the foundation blast zone, so to speak, to sit. I tell myself that most of the past houses had not required the sacrifice of trees. Most were places in suburbs long stripped before me or possibly never stripped, places that had been pastures for my entire life. Trees were not involved in those events. Here, however, I had been walking around this patch of woods for three years, knowing well this particular section of oak and hickory that would receive the footprint of the house. Many of the trees were youngsters. And we were going to take only the trees which directly sat on the area of the foundation. Everything else was to stay. We kept shifting the odd and angular geometry of the ship that was going to land here around, along with its stonemen and dozers, brickmen and firestokers. String the wires here and turn the wires there. You put your hands on the bark. You look into the crown of greenery. It was an assassination game.

 

One of the local Round mountain Mantises stared so intently at me recently from a small tree that I had to capture her picture. They seemed to be everywhere. Before the house was started I don’t think I had seen a single one. Now they travel in packs. Oddly, they may specialize in plywood and pine beam. She seemed to have questions. Inverted, her antenna flickered towards me when I loomed.

 

“Are you the keeper of these woods?”

 

I had to consider myself an unnatural thing on the mountain. Though I had been coming for years in all the seasons to learn the lay of things. Lumpy and slow moving, I guess humans are the last to blend in. If you think about it, (and I often do) humans are just the most pernicious of all the invasive species. If you were looking for a new top invader, we are the ambidextrous, big-brained zebra mussels from hell. Shredders and takers, big block makers. Hypermangling, strip-mining, gas-bags spraying our noxiousness irreparably and haphazardly about. It may be in our very souls to plunder. We think we are mandated to do so in some cases. We have it incorporated into our mythic texts. The world is ours for the taking. It has always been ours for the taking. But that has not been my way, at least in first person.

 

We are all reminded occasionally that with each tank of gas we use, with each burger we consume, that somewhere out there some local damage was done, though it was away from where we were at the time of our consumption. We are the prize consumers of all time. Things have consequences. Most days we do not want to know. We all want the nuclear wastes to be stored deep in the mountain in someone else’s valley. We want the oil slags to spume and ooze over the wasteland that is nowhere near our own schools. Random things, sometimes set me to worrying.

 

For instance, I read recently, with a heavy sigh, of an animal called Boiga irregularis having some further adventures with our planet. Boiga, if you are not familiar with this infamous name, is a snake. Possibly the most intrepid of all the world’s snakes. It is irregularis, indeed. It is now showing signs of such infamy anyway. It was a lowly brown tree climber native to northeastern Australia and the islands just north of there. Surely, in those lovely Australian forests it was even admired by the local naturalists taking a walk there in the past. It was just a rear-fanged, weakly venomous, eater of lizards. Sleek and slim, in its native area the Aussie birds were hip to its habits, somewhat protected by the wonders of time and genetic interaction, the weaving together that is selection and cohabitation. It would have been a rare sighting on a nature walk. And then one day it found its way to the island of Guam. No one knows how. Maybe it rode a raft of trees blown by a storm. Maybe it swam the whole damn stretch of ocean by itself, though this seems unlikely. However it did happen, it happened. Whether we were directly involved or not, we just don’t know. But the birds of Guam had no clue.

 

James Cook was probably the first white-skinned individual to step onto the island of Hawaii. Another island with no snakes. It was 1778. He was an invader, of course. We called them explorers then. I’m sure the natives often had other names for us. Our ships carried rats and pigs, fleas and bacteria, viruses and barnacles, worms and cats. We squirted our ballasts full of squirmers and squigglies into their waters. When one of man’s ships propped up on your island, look out, we dumped our cargo of land-hungry travelers. It still happens all over the world. And the giant supertankers have whole worlds of ocean water in their ballasts. James was worshipped as an expected deity on that first visit.

 

I came to watch the fire burn on Round mountain the day the trees were piled up. A little trailer-dragon came to sit nearby and it spat gasoline and flame to stoke the pile for a full day. Black smoke dissipated over this new hole of sky. Inside the trees was a big new rectangular dirt plain. The hickories and oaks, all the dogwoods nearby, stood like gawkers at the crime scene. Dragonflies flitted from rock to rock in the new dusty landscape they had stumbled upon. A snake and an opossum, I was told, had fled the flames safely out into the woods. One of the workmen had seen a hawk staring down at the whole escapade. As though in pronouncement. It was probably the Red-shouldered Hawk that nested in one of the slim trees that was right over the home site. We had to wait for her to be finished with this year's youngsters before we started all this. She had nested every year somewhere on the twelve acres of wood. This year she had chosen the exact heart of the blast zone. I looked up for her to be staring down at me somewhere from inside the rising smoke. But she was gone.

 

When the birds of Guam started systematically vanishing, amazingly, no one had a clue what was making them vanish. We even blamed ourselves for a bit. Not a common response. We blamed disease. And disease had taken a great many of Hawaii’s birds. We blamed human habitat destruction. People building houses for instance. It took some sharp scientists, particularly a graduate student named Julie Savidge, to finally discern the truth. She carefully eliminated the other possibilities one by one and then began mapping the sightings and the advance of the Boiga treesnakes. The map eventually looked like a stone dropped with ripples spreading out from one point on the island. When overlaid with the map of the bird vanishings, the stone fell where the first dead bird species were recorded and rippled out in the same way.

 

The scary, more recent news that I heard of the Boiga, our intrepid treesnake, is that they have been showing up in Hawaii, near the airports. At least eight reports have been documented. And the airport locale is no coincidence. Apparently the snakes are climbing up the landing gear of our shiny, world-connecting airliners and hitching rides to new places. Now, I have never built an airliner and I don’t own stock in Boeing, but somehow I felt responsible. Hawaii is as far away from anywhere as any place can be on earth. As such, most of the invaders are our responsibility in one way or another. When you visit the paradise of Hawaii most of the creatures you are likely to see on your way from airport to hotel to beach to restaurant are not native to the place. It is a mixed up paradise anymore. But Boiga is not any new visitor you want. The birds have already been raped by a specific mosquito which carries a bird malaria. Boiga would knock the wind out of those that are left. With no defenses against tree-climbing serpents, there would be little hope.

 

On Round mountain now, I am past the burnings. I have a structure of wood and nail and concrete. It is skeletal. You can still see the trees through its many holes and gaps. It aspires to more. Sitting on the top of it, I watch the wending of Mantises in the air above me. They fly in undulant flight. I had no idea what they were originally until I tracked and tracked one to its landing point on the top of some two-by-fours. It took up that familiar Mantis position that most of us know. Nearby were stinkbugs looking unafraid. A Green Darner, the big dragonfly, flew through the airspace of my living room. The bare framework had predator-prey games going already in its rooms, with flight patterns, avoidance and exploration. A Blue-faced Meadowhawk took up a post on a shiny nailhead. My wife, walking through the beams of my future office, stopped and suddenly found a butterfly, a Red-spotted Purple, sitting softly on her finger. “Look,” she said, and I think it was the first one she had ever really looked at. I watched her face instead.

 

There are more than 400 non-native plants in the Hawaii Volcano National Park alone. The Lantana, that lovely flowered plant of so many southern gardens, is one of the worst invaders, the seeds are dispersed by the Mynah, a bird that we released in Hawaii in 1865 to help control the army worms on our sugar cane plantations. The Mynah is a common and dominant bird right across the islands now. Schoolchildren in Hawaii, when asked to name a native bird, usually say the Mynah or the Cardinal. Neither is correct. Miconia, a tree from the Azores is marching across the Hawaiian landscapes now, even as we speak. It is an ornamental tree. One plant ‘escaped’ from a nursery in Hilo. In Tahiti, where it has ‘escaped’ since the 60s, it now comprises 80 percent of the forest there. The Himalayan Raspberry forms impenetrable thickets in many of Hawaii’s jungles. Overall, about five new plants a year sneak into Hawaii, despite our best intentions and boundaries.

 

My own personal invasion on Round mountain is from the European Privet. Ligustrum vulgare. It occurs in at least 30 US states now. The smart ones, the last states standing, will ban its local sale and cultivation like the plague. Someone upstream from me many, many years ago decorated their yard with it. Or tried to make a boundary of Privet. And now it is trying to take the world away in that section of my land. It is the devil’s plant. It comes back from rootlets. It makes thousands of seeds. Hack its trunks down and it sprouts a rich head of new shoots and leaves. The stumps must be poisoned or yanked up and burned. Some of the shrubs are actually tree-sized at this time. The cut limbs are big enough to burn in a fireplace. I will happily do so, chanting a spell over the white smoke. I have seen cats and foxes and skunks skulking in the deep shaded mazes of this patch of Privet. It is a shelter for lovers of shadow. Where the wild things are. When the bunnies run from anything, they run into the Privet. Very little else can grow inside there until I somehow manage to break out the light overhead again some day. Felling the mama trees, stepping over the few ferns that have scraped out an existence there, I know I will have no grass to mow anywhere on the land but I may always be battling this great tangle of shrub. Stripping up the underground rootlets that are like long telephone wires of chlorophyll and invasive determination, I can see the temptation to set some other alien thing loose upon the Privet monster, something that might eat them. Give me a Giant Privet Worm of Fiji or somesuch, the Bat-winged Moth caterpillar from Echo Island, the Privet Boring Beetle brought back by NASA from some valley on the moon. I will pray they don’t also eat the buds of roses, the tips of gardener’s noses, that in our sun and light they don’t grow to the size of dolphins and feed on sixth grade children snapped up from the path. One man’s savior is another man’s demon.

 

“You are big enough to be a God, but something tells me that, no, you pray, like me, to something else.”

 

There are 600 species of ant on the Hawaiian islands. None of them are native. There were no cockroaches, deerflies or horseflies before James Cook. Now there are twenty kinds of cockroaches, nine fleas, 2700 new insects in all. Overall, ninety percent of Hawaii’s original creatures and plants, are found nowhere else on earth. Hawaii was a distant jewel of a volcanic mountaintop in the middle of the ocean. It took quite a volcanic event to stretch up to the sky from the deep ocean there. The new land had a long and luxuriant period to brew up its bag of natural tricks all alone. Well, of course, except for the invaders that fueled the whole web’s divergent weaving. The island of Britain, of course, in comparison, has virtually nothing left that is native. If you walk in the gardens and woods of the southern cities over there, it is an homogenous world. But it has been that way so long, no one notices. I am betting British children would be even harder pressed to choose a native creature or a truly British bloom.

 

The island of Guam now hosts more treesnakes, hell, more snakes period, per square mile than any place on earth. The birds that are left are in electrified wire enclosures. The airport there is fenced and spotlighted, scanned and booby-trapped. Airplanes have to undergo a detailed snake inspection before departure. Planes are never left unguarded. In their native Australia the Boiga snakes grow to about three feet long. In Guam they can reach twelve feet in length. They occasionally bite, their rear fangs like bee stings, they are not dangerous in that way. They are fast and nocturnal. Power outages are a regular event on the island now as the snakes climb the poles and make the bright and smoky connection that shorts out the island’s lighting grids. Reptilian lives flare out in the meeting of one invader’s world and another’s. The birds of Guam have mostly all succumbed, the woods are quiet, the snakes have turned to the local lizards for their food and the lizards are booming as well in this unbalanced system. The absence of the island birds has also inspired the spiders to bloom and the woods are full of weavers and their cotton constructs. It is an arachnophobes nightmare world. Guam looks and sounds nothing like it did even twenty years ago.

 

All the mantids on the mountain that I have seen so far are Carolina Mantids. We have several other species around here. And, of course, one of the largest is the Chinese Mantis, an import. Probably rode in long ago on an egg capsule inside one of the ornamental trees we have shipped in for our American yards and gardens. These big mantids have also been popular in schools as science projects and I’m not sure you can’t just order an egg capsule up on the internet. (I just looked http://www.exotic-pets.co.uk/chinese-mantis.html and there you are. Note that these are for sale in Britain but they got the capsules by harvesting them in the US.) An egg capsule holds about 200 to 300 mantis eggs and it can travel basically anywhere. So far I have not seen the Chinese Mantid on the mountain but one showed up recently in the flower pots in front of my office in town. She sat regally atop the Salvia blooms and ate the katydids that came to the lights. When you watered the pots she came out to stare. Looking at me directly with those uncanny dark eyes.

 

“Your skin, sir, does not look quite thick enough for the world that I know. Come a little closer you thin-skinned fool.”

 

Cook came back to Hawaii for the winter in 1779 after doodling around in the waters off Oregon looking for a passage that didn’t exist. He was back on the island pretty much alone when the fight broke out. He was chased and clubbed, stabbed and half-drowned on the beach while his men watched from nearby boats. If this world voyager had been able to swim he might have made it. He couldn’t. Afterwards the locals dismembered and burned Cook’s corpse. They may have eaten a good portion of him. His heart was supposed to have been placed in a tree. Or it was eaten by a child. It is not clear. The Hawaiians returned a bag of parts to Cook’s men. The hands were definitely his, the men recognized a few of the scars.

 

Atop my invader’s platform, my skeletal mothership, one wants for a great steering wheel to lean upon, though I go nowhere but through the days. I wonder what my wife would think of a polished, wooden wheel on the stairway? I tell myself I will keep the rest of these woods safe from other invaders for the next twenty years or so. Until my back goes out, or I am eaten by an introduced and massively oversized Lunar Privet Worm. As long as I can tell the invaders from the locals, as long as the invaders don’t hypnotize me with their luscious blooms and scents, I can carry on inside this rectangular island of trees. We are weak, I am aware. One starts to think of these local acres as ours eternally. Such want of fences has been the steady fuel of wars. I am not fooled. I expect more visitors; we’ll work them in. And I treasure the days precisely because they are not endless, the same as the next realist. One long, bright day inside these trees is worth it—for this naturalist anyway. And a week, a year, what deeper gold is that? I pity the oblivious. But they are welcome to visit my wife’s flowers and take a deep breath.

 

Above me, several bats wend the skylight. Every now and then it looks like one of them snaps up a star. Two Screech Owls start a conversation, like horses whinnying in the night trees. Living in the woods may be the secret to my happiness, invader or no. But I will stay conscious of my alien nature. I will stay conscious of my alien nature. I say it twice. I bring, at least, the gift of knowing what I am in this one sense. Even if I know little else. Another Mantis glides to a stop over a wall that is not quite a wall yet. There are only a few insects that look right into your eyes, insects that track your fingers or your face with some sort of focused awareness—a few wasp species, these Carolina Mantises. I move my hand and it turns to face me.

 

“Who you calling alien, Mister Skeleton-on-the-inside?”

 

Sometimes the world seems to completely ignore you; sometimes it seems to be playing on your deeper fears. Most of the time we live in between. The great part of our lives is spent trying to define that one elusive word: home. What creature is truly native to an island that burns upward like a monster from the deep, except those born in molten stone? We all arrive sometime ever after.

 

I shake my head at the wide-eyed insect. “Stay as long as you like,” I say, “and come back often.”

 

 

        HR