Sprawled out on the crabgrass in our Ohio back yard, I watched a tiny inch worm curl its pale green body, then furl out on a stem to repeat its acrobatics till it reached a confusion of leaves Such magic! While my sisters were content to play indoors, I took every opportunity to skip out the door and get down in the dirt.
How insects captured my attention! Even photographs of me as a child show me crouched on the ground, my cornsilk hair mingling with the antennae of my latest find.
Ohio insects were the best. I could not believe my eyes the first time I saw a praying mantis, its spindly body looking like it was assembled of mini TinkerToys. Then there were the walking sticks, mimicking the twigs on which they perched. Spotting such a creature, I would run for an empty peanut butter jar, stuff it with leaves, and capture my find for further observation.
I loved to pry up a rock and see what lived beneath, watching “rollie pollies” become tiny pellets in my palm. Centipedes also hid out under rocks, and although I marveled at their multitude of legs, I gave them a wide berth.
Feeling a piercing pain, I would look up to see a smug bumble bee circling the site of the crime. I tended to forgive bees, because they were hard workers and had something to do with making flowers bloom and making honey to eat.
The lady bug, red with black polka dots, looked as if designed by a child with a box of Crayolas.
Many Ohio spiders build exquisite webs, just like the star of E.B. White’s, Charlotte’s Web. Familiar with that story, I was fond of spiders. Finding one in the bathtub, I would gently nudge it into a jar, using a matchbook cover. Then I would take it outdoors and release it.
Meanwhile I admired the butterflies drifting through the air like tiny paintings entertaining invisible angels. Monarch butterflies were common, and at school we kept cocoons of them on the science shelf where we could watch them emerge each spring.
Midwestern evenings brought out the night shift of insects. In the fading pink of a Midwestern sunset, lightning bugs began to glimmer like stars sifting down from the heavens. My parents would sit on the porch gazing into the shadows, as my sisters and I ran about, catching these phosphorescent miracles. And a chorus of crickets on a summer night still evokes that feel of being a child, safe in the embrace of my house, my yard, my family, and my town.
My parents and teachers taught me respect, and even awe, for the wonders of nature. But when I became an adult, I assumed a more pragmatic stance toward insects. As a responsible parent and homeowner, I now viewed insects as pests. I morphed into a vigilante, keeping them at bay.
In Washington, D.C., I swatted at flies and sprinkled hot chili powder on the aphids intent on consuming our tomatoes before we could! In Denver, I fanned bees and wasps out of windows, and put down ant poison. In California, I applied the death penalty to black widow spiders that hid out under the seats of my children’s tricycles. I took a broom to wasp nests and then ran like crazy to the shelter of my house.
In New Hampshire, I lured mosquitoes to lamps that incinerated them with a noisy buzz. And I rejoiced after smashing a bloody mosquito on my flesh. I starved gypsy moth caterpillars by ringing trees with foil so they could not reach their leafy dinner.
In Texas, I protected my children from the fire ant hills that cropped up in our yard. This, too, involved the application of poison. I’ve poured toxic mothballs into boxes of stored clothing and mercilessly smashed moths, quickly removing the telltale powder from the wall. I have committed all these brutalities, and at times with loathing and glee.
So firmly have I been in this adult mode of thinking that I was caught off guard one day when I noticed a small boy kneeling on the sidewalk and gazing intently at something on our lawn. I wondered what he saw. A bit later, I saw that he had returned with a glass jar. He gently picked up a stick on which a praying mantis was perched, and put it in an empty peanut butter jar. Then he carefully put the jar in the little case on the back of his bike.
I guessed that he would take this magnificent creature home and show it to his mother. He would stare at it with curiosity and wonder. He would give it a few drops of water. And then, not knowing what to give it for dinner, he would let it go.
As the boy rode off, I returned to the kitchen. I thought wistfully of my Ohio childhood and its insects. I gazed at the fruit flies newly dancing above my peaches and pears. Pulling up a stool, I sat down and stared. And I was filled, once again, with awe.