I have been painting my RV/boat storage shed. Having neither recreational vehicle nor boat, I use the shed as a shady place to work on projects and to park my pickup. The roof is corrugated metal and high–about twenty feet off the ground. As I was painting the last fascia board from the extension ladder, I looked up to find I was being watched from the roof by a tan praying mantis, about three inches long. It seemed to be curious about what I was doing in its territory. It turned its head toward me and peered at me closely as if it couldn’t believe what it was seeing. Fearing it would immerse itself in the wet paint, I banged the paintbrush on the metal roof to frighten it away. It flattened its body, bending its abdomen over its back like a scorpion and raised its front legs as if to box me–definitely not frightened.
I finished painting that section and climbed down to move the ladder. When I climbed back up, the mantis had walked several inches away, but when it saw me, it rushed toward me in its attack mode. This kind of behavior is not unusual in praying mantes, but this one seemed particularly feisty and territorial. The corrugated roof didn’t seem like a good place to hunt, but maybe that’s part its strategy–surprise. No insect would expect to find a praying mantis there. Once it grabbed an insect in those front legs, there would be no escape.
As I continued painting, the mantis ambled away from me, its body pulsing with a regular rhythm, its front legs outstretched. It kept me in view, turning its head nearly 180 degrees backward. I think it was a Stagmomantis californica. It wasn’t one of the large Chinese mantes found in moist gardens. The S. californica is common in the dry areas of the western United States, like my place on a low ridge in the Sierra Nevada of California.
This is the time of year that I start seeing adult mantes. One early October, I was reading in the kitchen with the light on. Praying mantes began gathering on the screen. I stopped counting when fifty adults hung there looking in at me. And I suppose at each other, too, since they might have been interested in mating before the cold weather–or in a last meal–or both. Mantes commonly prey on each other and females often eat the males during or after mating.
I moved the ladder again and when I climbed back up, my friend had walked back to investigate. I decided to take its photo, so I went inside to get the camera. It was still there when I returned, but way at the end of the roof. I zoomed in and snapped a photo, finished my painting and climbed down. As I was putting away the ladder, I saw a tiny head peering at me over the edge of the roof. I suppose the mantis determined I was far enough away and it dropped twenty feet to the leaves below.
I have seen mantes fly, yet this one didn’t. It may have spread its wings to break its fall. I couldn’t see it well enough at that distance. I heard it plop into the leaves and rushed to see, but it had already disappeared–hit the ground running, probably–maybe headed for a nearby woodpile.
In this morning’s encounter, I was given a glimpse into another creature’s world. In those moments, I felt connected with its world, sensing the essence of life that we both share, yet experience in vastly different ways. That interbeing moment is gone. It won’t happen again. It wasn’t an experiment that could be repeated. I didn’t make a scientific discovery. I didn’t travel to an exotic location. Yet I had a shared experience with another small creature that has made my life larger and richer.