Speeding between raised beds this morning, doing a hasty job of weeding the beans and pinching tomato vines, I went to turn on a faucet and nearly squashed a praying mantis. She was perched on the spigot handle, and before I even saw her she gave my finger a sharp pinch. I jerked back and cursed. Stifling an urge to whip out my pruners and cut the mantis in half, I took a deep breath and looked down at her.
The mantis waved her tarsi in the air, ready to fend off the next flesh that threatened her. She cocked her triangular head—the model for so many sci-fi alien faces—to get a better look at me. Alert, poised, she held herself as still as a stick and waited. The unsettling thing about praying mantises is how they watch you. Most wild creatures—small or large, swift or slow—will hide or flee at the sight of a human. It’s their wisdom, and our sorry karma. But not the praying mantis. The mantis will stand her ground, trusting in her cryptic behavior—her stillness, camouflaged coloration, and stick-like mimicry—to remain invisible to predators and prey. But she knew I saw her, and she was ready for me.
Arrested, I settled down to watch her more closely. Her raptorial graspers, those wicked looking barbs on her tarsi, are for snatching and grappling onto prey. Those mandibles can bite through the bones of mice. Her five eyes—two big compound globes that can see colors and images, and three smaller ones that see just shades of dark and light—can dial in prey with remarkable precision, and she’ll eat just about anything she can seize, including a mate if she didn’t have a decent meal prior to coitus. I especially admire the ootheca she can excrete as a protective covering for her eggs. The size and shape of a cat turd, it’s stiff and spongy as styrofoam. In winter I often find oothecas plastered to branches, or in the woodshed stuck to the pieces of lath I use for garden stakes. The hatchlings and several stages of nymphs are all miniatures of the adult, maybe a tad cuter.
A flock of chickadees fluttered past just then, distracting me, and when I returned my regard to the mantis, she was gone. Her swift return to invisibility made me smile. With plenty of chores still to be done, I got back to work, but as I thinned the lettuce seedlings, I tried to be more careful and watchful, more mindful of the company. I was also more relaxed, in a better mood, more present to the world—all of this a gift from my session with the mantis.
Hiking, camping, canoeing, I’m always on the lookout for insects, birds, reptiles, mammals, interesting plants, rocks, seeds, scats, tracks, or cloud formations. I relish my recreational encounters with nature, and I try to smartly observe the daily lives of the animals and plants I meet. But I’m even more likely to encounter nature when I’m working in the garden, when I’m out stabbing nature with my spade, whacking nature with a hoe or a scythe. I go to my backyard to wrestle with nature, to make nature say vegetables. When I’m working in the garden, I’m attentive, but selectively, so I see what I’m looking for quite clearly, but I’m utterly blind to most everything else. Unless, that is, a wild creature arrests me. Unless something unusual penetrates my willful concentration, punctuates my headlong, purposeful equilibrium. Then, the little world I’m attending to stops, and bulges into mystery. A chickadee! A centipede! A snake! The unexpectedness of small animals is part of their charm. They are not my quarry. I’m not seeking them out to add to a life-list. They aren’t the answer to my bird- or bug-watching intentions. They are free agents, in no way bound to my will. They are suddenly just there. Inexhaustibly interesting and ultimately unknowable, they are abundant, everyday epiphanies.
Epiphany—from the Greek, meaning a showing forth, an appearance, like the sudden manifestation of a god, an arresting experience that triggers a radical reordering of one’s sense of how the world works. And don’t animals provide that all the time? Like yesterday’s garter snake, basking invisibly on a gray flagstone—until I wandered too close, whereupon it uncoiled and blazed forth as sudden as a bird, and disappeared into the grass. Every snake I see blazes with its own strange presence. And with an epiphany comes recognition that, even as we are strange and mysterious to one another, we are all related. Snakes, birds, insects—all are due courtesy and compassion.
There’s certainly no guarantee that a gardener will be either ecologically aware or given to compassion. But if those virtues are worth cultivating, gardening can be one of the most effective ways to do so. The more I can learn about the sex lives of insects, the feeding habits of chickadees, the denning preferences of garter snakes, the better my chances for a bountiful harvest. And while working in the garden, there is always potential for arresting experiences, for those nose-to-nose encounters with other creatures that reveal my kinship with all creation.
I’m partial to watching local insects because I can. Insects and I cross paths every day. It is so humbling to look at the eyes of a house fly and see both something familiar—those are eyes—and absolutely alien—but I have no idea what seeing with them is like. Meeting any wild creature face-to-face, I can feel its otherness, and recall my own animal nature. And insects are especially good for such encounters, because insects—in contrast to, for instance, polar bears or white rhinos—are often close at hand.
For fifteen years I worked as the gardener for the county courthouse in the center of our town, a focal point and gathering place for the whole community. The sidewalks leading to the front doors of the courthouse were flanked by rows of hybrid tea roses. In this most public landscape, I did everything possible to avoid using any toxic chemicals. I planted roses that were resistant to disease, so I didn’t need to apply any fungicides. But aphids were tougher customers. Just as the roses formed succulent buds, aphids would materialize from nowhere. And close on the heels of the aphids would come a bevy of my fellow citizens. The grounds of the Courthouse were a bit of a fishbowl, with lots of foot traffic into the courts and county offices, and visitors to the jail. So I was the beneficiary of a lot of unsolicited gardening advice. And nothing elicited strong, quasi-knowledgeable opinions more than aphids-on-roses.
Sometimes the aphids would totally glove the rose-buds, and I would resort to smothering them with soap sprays. But I eventually discovered that the best ploy for controlling aphids was to give them a starring role in a new story. Aphids, of course, are a food-of-choice for ladybugs, but I really hadn’t paid close attention to how ladybugs actually preyed on them. Once I started observing more deliberately, I noticed that the ladybugs would appear in great numbers two to four days after the aphid peak, and within another few days the aphids would be reduced to stragglers. I also discovered that the ladybugs liked to lay their eggs on the leaves of crocosmia that grew around the base of the maple trees. When one of my volunteer supervisors would exhort me to spray, I’d come back with a story. “I know what you mean about these aphids. But we’ve got a complicated situation here. Aphids are the primary food of ladybugs, and I really like ladybugs, don’t you? So, if I spray poison on the aphids, the ladybugs won’t have anything to eat, and they just won’t stick around. So, look here…” I’d lead my fellow citizen over to a crocosmia, lean down and, with a magician’s flourish, tip up a leaf to reveal the neat rows of little yellow silos glued to the underside. “Ladybug eggs!”
If a curious child came by, I could usually locate ladybug nymphs, like miniature alligators with orange pinstripes. Even plain old aphids are interesting creatures if you look closely—dollops of lime jello with tiny red eyes. I always had my 10X magnifier in my pocket, and whenever I pulled it out to inspect the roses, someone would come up beside me and lean in alongside.
“Watcha looking at?”
“I’m looking at these juicy little bugs. They’re quite beautiful. Want to take a look?”
And eventually I wrote this poem:
A Lecture on Aphids
She plucks my sleeve. Young man, she says, you need to spray.
You have aphids on your roses.
In a dark serge coat and a pill-box hat
by god it’s my third-grade Sunday-school teacher,
shrunken but still stern, the town’s
most successful corporate attorney’s mother.
She doesn’t remember me. I holster
my secateurs, smile publicly,
and reply, Ma’am,
did you know a female aphid is born
carrying fertile eggs? Come look.
There may be five or six generations
cheek by jowl on this “Peace” bud.
Don’t they remind you
crowding the deck of a tramp steamer?
Look through my hand lens—
they’re translucent. You can see their dark innards
like kidneys in aspic.
Yes, ma’am, they are full-time inebriates,
and unashamed of their nakedness.
But isn’t there something wild and uplifting
about their complete indifference to the human prospect?
And then I do something wicked. Ma’am, I say,
I love aphids! And I squeeze
a few dozen from the nearest bud
and eat them.
After the old woman scuttles away
I feel ill
and sit down to consider
what comes next. You see,
as I had always imagined.
Even though rose wine is their only food,
You can confirm that sampling for yourself if you’re so inclined, or just take my word for it. I shouldn’t have been surprised that aphids do not taste good, at least to my palette, for aphids would have many more predators after them if they were simply sweet.
Close encounters with wild nature, in my experience, often trigger a complicated range of responses. Fascination. The thrill of intricate beauty. Maybe a touch of horror. Joy. Or that ringing stillness I associate with awe. But also grief, remorse, bitterness. It is exactly there, in my complex emotional responses to other creatures, that I discover my sense of relationship. Whenever I am fascinated by the spiral pattern of seeds in a sunflower, agog at the power of salmon leaping up bludgeoning cascades, or horrified by the possum eating its road-killed sister, I am feeling the tug of my ties to everything else in the continuum of life. My intellectual belief in kinship is confirmed by the feelings that arise in immediate experience. And there I discover a sense of responsibility. How should I behave toward birds, snakes, insects?
Even if there can be no real communion between me and a praying mantis, how about compassion? The mantis has an appetite like mine. Its tarsi are rather like my fingers. And, oh, how I would love to be able to see the world through a compound eye.
Senses of kinship and compassion aren’t likely to trigger a saintly withdrawal from all killing. However mindful of nature’s ways I may try to be, I’m still going to end up with blood on my hands. Creatures are going to die under my rototiller and hoe. Plants that would grow here in my absence are going to get rooted up if they don’t fit my vision. But the more I can understand the lives of everyone else, the more judiciously I can care for the health of the whole. A gardener—aware of the furious round of birth and death in the soil, in the bushes and woodlots, in the air above—can only try to be mindful of his dependence on other lives, and try to be a conduit of humility and gratitude. Learning the life ways of the creatures in my garden can help heighten my awareness and lessen my ignorance. I can learn to grapple with ‘pests’—kill some as painlessly as possible, relocate some, cope with others—without anger. And I can wish for the prosperity of the tribe of slugs, while defending my lettuce seedlings with a hoe.
I study the natural history of critters to be a better gardener, maybe even a better citizen. I grow flowers and food for their salacious beauty and salutary grub. But just as essential, I garden to get arrested, to be taken out of my solipsistic self by the singing of a frog or the dazzling overflight of geese. Natural history helps me understand how all creatures try to meet their needs in the ceremony of appetite, just like me. And cultivating a knack for getting arrested keeps me open to the complex reality of the mantis, the garter snake, the humble aphid.
Charles Goodrich worked for twenty-five years as a professional gardener, and has also worked as a correctional work crew supervisor, a short-order cook, and a carpenter. He is the author of two volumes of poems, Insects of South Corvallis, and Going to Seed: Dispatches from the Garden, as well as a collection of essays about nature, parenting, and building his own house, The Practice of Home. He also co-edited the volume In the Blast Zone: Catastrophe and Renewal on Mount St. Helens. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Oregon State University and presently works as Program Director for the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word at OSU. His website is www.charlesgoodrich.com.
THREE POEMS BY JIM DAVIS
Codlins & Cream for the Great Hairy Willowherb
You got a cousin who’s tellin you something
that doesn’t have nothing to do with the ditches
that we’re in, baby. Damp attack of finger-thick night-
crawlers in riverside tide swells, sold by the pack
of mange coyotes to the lone mountain lion down from
Algonquin. Hairy-stemmed sheer of long seed pods, you
ripe August bloom of silk-stones blown away
on a cool nor’easter. Shave your leaf-back, pretzel-herb,
believe the Be-Free t-shirts, solidarity, Reagan ’86 crew
neck sweatshirts with worn-down pits. Button your button,
Willowherb, power through great hairy razorburn to salve
a buffalo berry dumbly winking in the sun, shuddering
in pigeon shadow. You, thistle-back, have worrisome
purple to bask in. Mindless waiting. When it comes right
down to it, I’m an earwig boring, or a slug drowning in a pie
tin of MGD Light left over after the neighbor’s graduation. Boy,
if you cannot let your girl win at chess, at least don’t pretend
you knew what you were doing when she took your queen
with a ratchet. Suck on your butterscotch candy. Cream blooms
in a cup of coffee & the garden is a labyrinth of worm tunnels
ready to collapse – send in the canaries. Nobody drinks
decaf on the nightshift, wandering through the city-garden
thinking of triumphs better lost, digging their nailbeds raw.
Not me, not your cousin. O, purple bosom. O, distant mandolin
& O, you holy light, dramatic in the streetlamp sadness.
Wild Blue Phlox phlox divaricata
When the decision has been made to push him off the lifeboat
I’ll write an ode to you, Wild Sweet William, king
of unequal division, transcription like cells creeping along
the neighbor’s garden. Tennis balls whack and pop
in the early Sunday grind, after a night of lamb
& mint sauce chased by a bottle of Chivas Regal.
Erase windows with shades, drink from the tap & squint
out the window to the neighbor’s garden, where William’s
tubular neck can be assumed, choking blue
winged brethren: woodviolet, tarweed, bellflower
with her mocking tongue, tasting privilege like the edge
of a spade, tip of a steel cultivator claw.
Asiatic dayflower, mouse ears, dew flower
can you hear the choking phlox creeping near?
Chaos is unwound by reductive reasoning – I dig
to the roots with red raw fingers, plant them
in my pockets, in my ringing ears, under a plastic life
preserver ring, tethered to the lifeboat, floating downriver
before I push him off, before we melt into the blurry current.
The void beside a ringed planet will pull you apart –
you will be abashed – you’ll be disassembled
& what you write with, he said, should be
whatever you’re rife with – correction is the devil
hidden in the detail glade, cattail feathers
sowing wind. It’s good to see beautiful women
eating s’mores. In the catalogue of semantics
it’s equally abhorrent
to over- & under-explain.
He, adhering to some sad design, turns away
from rings within the rings: daffodil-refractions.
It’s true, he can’t not be
looked at – pretty or not, overindulgence
is an eyesore. When you’re lost in your own mind
just knock. I’ll hear you. I’ll cough and pull my hair
vertical, so when we finally meet you’ll notice me
by my finger-socket style. You’ll remind me to
calm down, & I will.
Tonight when I go jogging, I will not think of us.
We will be engorged in the steady-grooving brain
where every obsession’s complex, yourself included.
What I said was, part your hair, walk backward
into the cooling expansion of what’s culled.
When you feel a little tug, let go.
JIM DAVIS is a graduate of Knox College and an MFA candidate at Northwestern University. Jim lives, writes, and paints in Chicago, where he reads for TriQuarterly and edits North Chicago Review. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Seneca Review, Adirondack Review, The Midwest Quarterly, and Columbia Literary Review among nearly three hundred publications. Jim is the winner of multiple contests, prizes, Editor’s Choice awards, and a recent nomination for Best of the Net Anthology. His book, Assumption (Unbound Content, 2013) will soon be followed by book two, Earthmover (Unbound Content).
TWO POEMS BY CHANGMING YUAN
Cybersburg Address: A Free Sonnet
In the 1950s, our uncles brought forth
A civilization, conceived in electronics
And dedicated to the cause that all
Machines were created to be equally apathetic
To humans when a message was sent
From a lab at some campus, which can
Think logically, but not respond emotionally:
Whether you like it or not
This semi-being would never speed up
A moment even though you are dying
Nor will it slow down when it is to crash
Neither a smallest smile to hear
The great news, nor a smattering of
Sadness over the loss of your dearest
It keeps working at the pre-determined pace
Always indifferent of the people
By the people and for the people
Until we all perish with the earth
Y: the Aptonym of Changming Yuan If the name is not right, the speech will carry no might – Confucius
Changing or charming
My given name is so often
Misspelt (as my family name
Which is sometimes mispronounced
Intentionally or otherwise)
That the language has definitely
Failed me in this foreign tongue, just
As Confucius warned me
As early as two thousand years ago
The tremendously rich banker
Unlike Cherish Hart
The particularly famous cardiologist
Unlike Jack Armstrong
Probably the greatest baseball player
Unlike Laura, my loyal lawyer
Or Dennis, your dandy dentist
Indeed, we have long
Forgotten the true name of
God, so our language is
Bound to go nowhere
Except a few rare
Cases for or