Eye to Swiveling Eye

THE warm Arizona air and my friend's backyard lawn made a perfect combination for an afternoon nap. I took my time returning to full consciousness before actually opening my eyes. What I saw at that moment jerked me to full attention. I found myself literally eye to eye with a green mini-monster whose head looked as if it was barely attached to its grasshopper-like body. Its ``arms'' were pulled up into a prize-fighter position, as if ready to deliver a body blow. Will it bite? Does it sting? Is it a slow or fast mover? If I just remain still, will it go away? What is it?

Feeling the need to adjust my position, I cautiously moved one arm from under my head to my side. The monster's eyes followed every inch of the action, then returned to stare directly into my eyes again. Disconcerting? You bet! Obviously, there was no way to ``sneak'' my way out of this. Oh, how I wished my hostess would show up and rescue me. But she didn't.

We continued this standoff for what seemed like an eternity - probably no more than 60 seconds - when I knew one of us had to make an exit. I wished it would be it, but decided that wasn't about to happen. To my relief the creature backed off soon as I raised up to a sitting position.

Returning to the house, I made a great effort to sound casual as I inquired about this thing that had held me captive. After all, being intimidated by something so small was a tad hard on the ego.

Before getting very far into the description she said, ``Oh, that's a praying mantis. They're all over here. Maybe you don't have them where you come from.'' She was right. Or if we did, I'd never seen one, or even a picture of one.

LITTLE did I realize that years later when moving to southern California I'd actually be buying mantises to use in my garden. An article about gardening without pesticides convinced me the mantis-route was the way to go. Or so I thought.

The accompanying pamphlet from the local nursery that came with the mantises even suggested they could be made into pets and hand-fed bits of meat. Meat! You mean these things are carnivorous? ``C'mon,'' I said to myself, ``bugs are meat and that's why you bought 'em, to eat the bad bugs in the garden. Right? Don't be such a coward.''

Being slightly cannibalistic, only some of the little mantises survived to become big mantises. My husband and I both developed a real fascination for our new friends, but neither would admit to the other we weren't interested in doing any hand-feeding. Just watching sufficed. And, oh, how they watched us as we moved around the patio and garden area. We'd come out the door and those heads would swivel in unison. A bit creepy, but we got used to it.

Either my garden couldn't supply enough nourishment to keep them all home and content, or they just got the wanderlust and took off.

The first time I heard someone yell ``What is it?'' I knew exactly what had happened. And I could certainly sympathize with the reaction. Before I could come to the rescue, she smashed him. (Hey, lady, those things cost money!)

If you want to separate the nature lovers from non-nature lovers, bring in some praying mantises. One of the former periodically appeared at my door with strays carefully captured in a cottage cheese carton. On the other extreme, there was the day I heard a loud shriek four gates down the alley. This neighbor had taken the only action she could handle, slamming one of our garden guards in her screen door. She was still afraid to open the door until I came to release her.

To preserve neighborhood harmony, I switched to ladybugs the next year. They didn't stay home either. But the neighbors were happier and didn't look the other direction when we met in the alley.

And there is this bonus to the whole experiment. If I wake up eye to eye with another mantis someday, I can win the stare down without any qualms.

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