Last night I found a praying mantis on the kitchen window. As I watched it groom its antennae and feet, I imagined it was using the window as a mirror.
I have no doubt that clean antennae and feet matter on a functional level, but does some portion of a praying mantis’s experience reflect a sentiment I would call vanity?
I thought about the mantis off and on all night. Does fall make it anxious? Are these last few weeks of summer, its last few weeks of life, more urgent than all of its previous weeks?
I decided to look for the mantis again today, starting with the flower beds closest to the kitchen window. When I found it (or a similarly sized mantis) the situation was decidedly urgent.
At first I thought a mantis had caught one of the yard’s few remaining dragonflies. Then I realized it had caught another praying mantis. Or rather, the two insects had caught each other.
When I approached with my camera, they retreated to the underside of the ginger lily’s leaf.
The battle took place in slow motion, a strained embrace of stamina, strength, and will. Both sustained significant injuries: the larger mantis mauled its opponent’s bent and broken wing, while the smaller mantis locked one barbed foreleg over a vulnerable eye.
Gradually, the smaller mantis extracted its damaged wing, and it seemed on the verge of gaining an advantage.
But the larger mantis broke its opponent’s grip and disabled the smaller mantis by biting through the major joints of both forelegs.
It was a brutal way to end the battle, precursor to an even more brutal death for the defeated. I didn’t stay to watch the victor dine, but when I returned a half-hour later, little remained of the smaller mantis.
I’m fond of praying mantises. They are among my favorite subjects to photograph. But this encounter? This is not why I love praying mantises, and I didn’t enjoy taking these photos. I don’t know why I watched so long.
In particular, I regret that my presence changed the course of their struggle. Except, it’s possible my presence in the yard changes the course of every struggle. Perhaps my camera affects everything I photograph, and my eyes affect everything I see.