One of my earliest experiences with insects took place at the edge of the woodlands that threatened to engulf my childhood home. In the spring, tents of woven silk grew between the branches, and inside, shadows moved about in chaotic patterns. I recall a mixture of emotions as I leaned in for a better look: curiosity, fear. Revulsion. The claustrophobic nature of their living space (what I’d later learn to call gregarious, or animals that live in groups) set me on edge; I was always anxious as I peered into their world.
The body of the Eastern Tent Caterpillar, so alien to my own, was the source of my discomfort. Six stubs that served as legs, blue and orange spots that bristled with wiry hairs, but the most alarming aspect was their faces – nowhere could I find a pair of eyes to read. No anger to let me know I was too close. No wrinkling of the skin or upturned lips to show me they enjoyed my company. They just crawled along, seemingly oblivious to my presence, inhabitants of a social sphere that I could never belong to or fully understand.
The transmutation of my fear into a sense of wonder can be attributed to a man I knew only as Gramps, the grandfather of a close friend of mine. Back when the neighborhood block was like a continent to me, he would round us up with his creaking, baritone voice: “Nature walk!” He’d lead us single-file along the sidewalks, pointing out milkweed pods and turning over rotting logs to display the bustling communities underneath. The final stretch of the walk brought us to the forbidden zone – a busy street that bordered the neighborhood. Me and my friends were only to wander out this far with an adult in tow; Gramps was our default. He was our guide, our protector and most of all, our doorway into embracing the different.
We were half way across the sidewalk when Gramps dropped to one knee and waved us over, excitement banishing the crow’s feet from his face. His hands cupped over something, and we gathered around for the unveiling. A praying mantis stood tall on the pavement, forelegs held above its head in a threat display. I’d never seen anything like it: Gramps pointed out the spines along the monstrous arms and the triangular head swiveling to catch us all within its compound eyes. When noting the different parts of the insect, there was warmth and respect in his voice, and something in me latched on to this moment. As the mantis lowered its forelegs and began crawling away, Gramps told us that so long as we respected life in all of its forms, it would seldom seek to harm us. The mantis looked incredibly small then, disappearing into the grass at the edge of the sidewalk, dragging my fear along with it.