browsing category: Winter 2023

Non-FictionWinter 2023

Marcel in the Garden — Diana Renn

By late August, it was clear my zucchini was doomed. So was the cucumber. The drought had not been kind to these plants, though I suspect it was my inexperience as a gardener that really did them in. Their fate was probably written the day I took home an armload of perky, pale green starter plants from the nursery and planted them on opposite sides of a raised two-foot by four-foot cedar garden bed. Only after they were tucked in and sprinkled with organic plant food and hope did I do any research. Cucumber and zucchini compete for space and resources. They fare better in separate quarters.

I separated them with a couple of peacemaking kale plants. Both of the vines eventually overpowered it. Now the kale was bowing out, drooping and yellowed. The cucumber vines weren’t far behind. They dangled a few bulbous, spiky, stunted cukes, like cast-off Christmas ornaments, and the vines were brittle and gray, like strands of spent holiday lights. The zucchini looked robust at first glance, the leaves still green. Frothy orange blossoms would appear some mornings, startling me. But the green zucchinis had miniaturized, not matured. They’d turned brown, then black and shriveled, with none growing longer than an inch. My neighbor, who’d built me the trellis, gently suggested I try growing these vegetables in the ground next time, and in a better location. Secretly, I suspected that might not help. Despite coming from a long line of green thumbs in my family, I didn’t seem to have a gardening talent.

I was extracting these stunted non-vegetables by hand when a strange shape moved just past my fingers. I peered down into the garden bed. The Thing looked back.

A bug. A gigantic, hideous, super scary bug! More legs than body. Antennae twitching.

I snatched my hands away. Stepped back.

I took a few deep breaths before daring myself to look again. The insect was perched among the zucchini leaves. It turned its head to follow me as I moved. The head, with subtle brown stripes, was sharply triangular, with wide pale green eyes on top and a jaw forming a narrow point on the bottom. Suddenly two pinpricks of black appeared on the eyes. I felt caught. I felt seen.

I drew back farther. I was pretty sure this was a praying mantis. A friend and I had once caught a green one, when we were children, and kept it in a jar. Like that mantis, this one had claw-like front legs with little spines on the back, which it held in a docile gesture, like a dog wanting a tummy rub. But I’d never seen a mantis quite like this: at least 4 inches long, with coppery brown wings and a streak of bright green glinting beneath them.

From a safe distance, I whipped out my phone, took a picture, and uploaded it to the iNaturalist app. The identification came up right away. Tenodera sinensis. Chinese mantis.

Further online sleuthing told me this species originated in Asia. A gardener at a nursery in Philadelphia had introduced the Chinese mantis to the United States back in 1896 to help control garden pests. Now these mantids are spread throughout the Northeast United States and are the largest mantis species in North America. A number of people find them fascinating, as they seem comfortable around humans. Some people even keep them as pets.

I laughed aloud at that. I couldn’t imagine keeping any bug as a pet, let alone this monstrous one. A pet was something cuddly and lovely. Like Mia, our beloved black cat who had just passed away two weeks prior, at the age of 17. I’d been seeing insects ever since she died, in the most unlikely places. A black cricket chirping in the basement, right where we’d kept her litter box, at the time when she used to use it in the evening. A fly that stubbornly kept landing on my shoulder when I sat in Mia’s chair. And a black spider that dangled over her cat bed despite the lack of meal prospects in that room.

I didn’t really think these insects were manifestations of my cat trying to communicate from the beyond, though the internet might try to tell me otherwise. (Admittedly, in grief-stricken moments I had found myself Googling such things). Still, as I removed the visiting spider one evening, I announced to the empty room: “Mia, if you’re trying to communicate with us, you’ll have to do better. You know we’re not big on bugs.” The only bug fan in our house had been Mia. She used to endlessly amuse herself catching moths that made their way into the house, or watching ants travel across the floor and batting them with her paws.

I stole another glance at the mantis in my garden. Its pointed face reminded me, strangely, of Mia’s. She too had wide staring eyes, and a face that came to a sharp point at the bottom. She too could sit motionless, unblinking, for vast stretches of time, before springing into action or pouncing. It’s how she chose me at the shelter. I fell for the little staring cat on a ledge who sat like a figurine, turning her head to watch me.

Ridiculous. This mantis is not Mia. An insect is not a pet. I need to get a life.

◊ ◊ ◊

Caring for an elderly, ailing cat takes a great deal of time and energy. I didn’t appreciate just how much until she was gone. Then I found myself with swaths of time suddenly returned to me. Like in the mornings and the evenings, when I used to spend well over an hour coaxing her to eat and take her three or four different medications. Or afternoons, when I wasn’t combing the pet store aisles to find some magical canned food that she’d actually eat. Or when I wasn’t racing to the vet to give her fluids or submit her to another battery of urgent tests. “It’s not her time,” our vet often reassured me, as Mia would bounce back from health scare after health scare, until one day she didn’t.

With all these caregiving tasks off my plate, I didn’t know what to do with myself. And the house was eerily quiet without Mia’s insistent meows, or the uneven click of her claws on the floor. I kept drifting out back to distract myself with my failing garden.

The garden consisted of two raised cedar beds at the back of the house. Constructed from a kit in 2020, they’d been a pandemic project for my son and me. One contained herbs, which I’d grown with some success. The second bed had the attempt at vegetables. For the past two years, I had failed to sustain them. I had never brought a vegetable from seed or starter plant to fruition.

I’d heard of people harvesting cucumbers and zucchini into the fall. Maybe if I cleared out the dead stuff and watered more, there was still hope.

But the Chinese mantis was still there, the next morning and evening, and the next. I tended to my herbs and kept a wary eye on my struggling vegetables in the other bed 2 feet away. No way was I plunging my hands in there.

I wasn’t kidding when I said I was no fan of bugs. I’ve always been somewhat phobic around them. I tolerate ladybugs, but prefer them not in my home, and flail if they alight on me. I despise the angular, mechanical-looking stink bugs that creep into my window casements in the late fall and pop out with angry buzzes, like horror movie monsters that will not die. I am affronted by flies, and in fear of most bees.

I blame my phobia on the spiders that haunted my childhood. I grew up by a lake, where gnats seemed to hatch daily, by the millions. Enormous spiders would spin webs on the windows and trap them. They would proceed to eat their victims right in front of us, even fighting over them, while we were eating our own meals. Sometimes spiders got into the house. If a large spider appeared in my bedroom, I would not be able to enter it until my parents removed it. Long after it was gone, I would lie awake, blinking and twitching, anticipating the next one.

So I wasn’t eager to cozy up to this praying mantis. But I did eventually creep closer, observing for longer stretches of time, once I convinced myself that the insect was not going to jump at my face or take sudden flight. In fact, the mantis mostly sat motionless, or hung upside down. When I finally caught it moving one day, I simply watched in awe. First it rocked and swayed very gently, as if stirred by a breeze. Then it moved forward and upward one leg at a time, reaching for leaves and stalks and propelling itself along. Slow and stealthy. Just like a cat.

The mantis was hunting. I was holding a hose on shower mode, getting ready to water, but instead I turned the nozzle to mist, and aimed it low and away from my guest.

Guest. A curious word, for something that had horrified and repulsed me.

I pulled up a chair and sat a couple of feet away while the mantis settled itself on the leaves. I wondered what it might find to eat. Maybe the mantis was harming my plants! I did a bit more research. Chinese mantids are often described as “aggressive carnivores.” They don’t eat leaves. They’re after bugs. Especially moths, flies, crickets, and grasshoppers. Though I was surprised to learn the largest of them can also go after vertebrate animals like small frogs.

I became more curious. What gender was my mantis guest? Counting sections on the abdomen could reveal that, said one website. I took a very, very deep breath. I approached the mantis, who was hanging upside down, and compared it to online pictures. The abdomen was long, orange-tinted, and slender. It didn’t look like that of a gravid female. I counted eight sections and decided it was likely a male.

I set down my phone and really looked at the mantis, even closer than I’d looked before, bringing my face within 6 inches of it. His coppery wings glinted in the light. I marveled at the subtle patterns, diagonal stripes and crisscrosses, almost as rich a texture as tweed. The wings appeared buttoned to the insect’s back, like carefully structured tailoring. And beneath the copper wings, above the orange toned abdomen, was that shock of brilliant green, like a crisp undershirt. “You are one sharp-looking mantis,” I said.

Did I mean that? This was a repulsive bug just days before. But my revulsion had metamorphosed to interest, then curiosity, and now something like . . . affection?

This is not a pet, I told myself, as I reached for my phone and Googled: How long does a Chinese mantis live?

About six months. Longer in captivity—maybe a year. The cold weather eventually kills them. The females will lay their ootheca, a nest of eggs, and die soon after. The males will simply succumb to the cold. Unless someone takes them inside. A simple terrarium and a supply of fresh pet store crickets or even household flies can keep mantids going longer. Some people, I read, do take them in for the winter. A video on the popular animal-themed website The Dodo profiled a guy who befriended a mantis for three whole months. The creature would ride on his shoulder or his head as he went about his days, even accompanying him on a skateboard.

I shuddered. I could never do something like that. Why was I even reading about such things? It’s a bug, I told myself. I don’t have to take care of it. It doesn’t even have a name!

The construction site that had formerly been a forest next door began to wind down for the day. Workers were framing a new house. The pounding of hammers and the whining of saws constantly filled the air. But as the equipment powered down, I heard a name in my head. Marcel.

I’ve always liked that name. It sounds dignified and calm. And it reminded me of the famous French mime, Marcel Marceau, who popularized the phrase “the art of silence.” His movements, I recalled, were so precise, a balance of stillness and deliberate motion, not unlike this fascinating creature.

Marcel, I whispered. Marcel the Mantis.

Like a fly in a web, the name stuck.


With my new, raw tendrils of catless free time, I sometimes found myself scrolling through social media feeds, including one for a neighborhood network encompassing several nearby towns.

Five days into Manuel’s residency in my garden, one new post jumped out.

I discovered a brown grasshopper in my yard, about 4 inches long, with a slight line of bright green under each closed side wing. Grasshopper or cricket? I’ve looked at pics online and can’t identify it. Any idea?

 I knew exactly what she had. I responded right away with a picture of Marcel.

Almost immediately, other people hopped on the thread and shared their own stories and

pictures of similar mantids in their gardens, shrubbery, or on their window screens. I checked back throughout the day. It was like seeing everyone’s children’s back-to-school photos on Facebook, which were also popping up that week. Just as I looked for signs that my friends’ children were happy and growing up, I marveled at all these other Marcels. I added hearts and thumbs-up to the pictures, devoured the stories of where the insects were found, and responded enthusiastically in the comments. Who knew we had such an eager community of mantis hosts?

Then one sharp post let some of the air out.

These are invasive mantids and should be eliminated. They kill pollinators and even hummingbirds.

 The writer of that post tagged me. I felt stung. All I’d done was identify someone’s insect guest, share photos of Marcel, and express enthusiasm. Why did this person have to ruin the mood?

And . . . was she right?

I did more Googling, and read enough to grasp the complexities.

Yes, mantids can eat pollinators, including butterflies and bees. They have also been known to eat hummingbirds. A shocking National Geographic video showed a mantis hanging near a feeder, grabbing an unwitting hummingbird by the head.

Yet the mantids are generally not leaping into the air to grab hummingbirds in mid-flight. While it’s certainly not desirable for them to eat hummingbirds and other pollinators, those creatures do not comprise their staple diet. Some researchers say the amount of pollinators they consume is not enough to be impactful, and they haven’t reduced the hummingbird population in a significant way. To their credit, the mantids also eat harmful pests, potentially reducing our temptation to reach for insecticides. And they themselves are potential prey for larger animals like birds and bats, who can in turn keep the mantid population in check.

The language around these mantids is tricky, too. I read a range of opinions. Should the continue to be labeled “invasives” if they’ve been living here since the 1890s? Some ecologists prefer the term “introduced.” Or “non-native.”

Words matter. The social media thread on mantids became a lesson in that, as comments heated up.

In the public relations race for yard visitors, hummingbirds will beat mantids any day. Some of the posters on the thread, similarly galvanized to Google, shared links to alarming articles and videos on consumption of hummingbirds and monarchs. Alarmed emoji faces replaced hearts and thumbs-up icons. Other posters shared articles with more nuanced viewpoints. The original poster admitted that all the new information made gardening feel more “complicated” but gave her much to think about. Discussion began to emerge, and the viewpoints grew less divisive. Until a new post silenced the thread.

These are probably INVASIVE praying mantids and harming our ecosystem. PLEASE CALL MASS WILDLIFE to report them. While it may already be too late, they need to know how widespread the problem is.

 The tone of that post sent a jolt through me. I looked at Marcel, who was making his way to the edge of the zucchini patch, and wondered: was I harboring a criminal insect? Contributing to a problem? I leaned closer to see what he was doing. He was, cat-like, grooming his forelegs. I knew he was an aggressive hunter. But in that moment, sitting in my zucchini, he looked entirely peaceful, and he filled me with peace, too.

I reassured myself with the fact that I rarely saw hummingbirds in my yard. They tended to gravitate toward my azaleas and lilacs, which were all in the front yard, far away from Marcel, and their blossoms were now spent. Hummingbirds preferred my neighbors’ yard, since that family put out feeders.

Later that day, I sat in my driveway working on my laptop, enjoying the late summer sun and a brief respite from the construction noise. A buzzing sound pierced the rare silence. I flinched and ducked, anticipating a bee. The buzz came again, right by my ear this time. I looked up. And saw a hummingbird. Two of them, actually. They were circling the driveway. Then one zoomed up to me, again, and hovered mere inches from my face. I could see the blue sheen of its feathers. I could see its needlelike beak. And its eyes. It was looking directly at me.

Had the red tint on my glasses frame acted as a lure? Maybe. The red acetate is similar to the color of sugar water feeders. But in the moment, the hummingbird presence seemed so intentional, the timing so uncanny. Were they sending a message? What was it?

The two hummingbirds circled once more, then zoomed off, directly over the garden, within mere feet of Marcel. So much for my theory that hummingbirds steered clear.

Maybe they were telling me they felt safe in my yard.

Or maybe they were sounding a warning. Hey, lady. Move that mantis.

I went back to the comment thread on the community forum to see if anyone else had weighed in on Mantis v. Hummingbird. But after that last post about reporting mantids to Mass Wildlife, the conversation died on the vine. No one, including me, ever shared any other photos or thoughts on that thread.

What were we afraid of, exactly?


Into the second week of Marcel’s residency, my fear of him completely faded. I found

myself able to look so closely at him, from different angles, memorizing details. If he moved a leg, I didn’t startle or flinch.

I loved to watch him groom. One antenna would curl downward like a comma, into his mandible, while he cleaned it. The antennae sensors communicate spatial awareness and help determine the distance of prey. Like any sensor, cleaner is better. Marcel was meticulous.

His eyes were endlessly fascinating. Sometimes they seemed entirely a translucent green. When turn his head and appear to focus on me, those black pinpricks appeared. Sometimes one would be rotated upward, almost whimsically, like a googly eye that got stuck. By early evening, pigment would darken his eyes. Concerned by the transformation at first, fearing death, I was reassured to read online that this was an adaption to changing light conditions. Sure enough, the next morning, the eyes were pale green again.

Marcel did have one small black mark on his upper right eye which seemed unaffected by the light conditions. This scab-like blemish may have been an injury, though it didn’t seem to impact him much. I knew he was moving around the bed in search of insects, as I’d see him in different locations throughout the day.

Sometimes as I did my yard chores, I’d glance at his garden—it was his now—and check for his long brown silhouette, visible even across the lawn. His steadfast presence comforted me, not unlike the quiet companionship of my cat. Mia had not been a particularly snuggly creature. More insect-like than feline at times, she could lash out if startled or picked up the wrong way. If I were lucky, she’d climb onto my lap or stretch out at my side. But much of our 17 years together were spent with her lounging nearby while I worked at my desk. In her quiet way, she’d seen me through five novels, six textbooks, numerous editing projects, and more graded papers than I could count.

Without her, my deadlines loomed, and the pages didn’t stack up. Between the loss of her, and the construction noise next door, words were not being written. But my yard had never looked better. And at least Marcel was getting me thinking again. I’d managed to write some words for those social media posts about mantids, and more words were assembling in my mind. Marcel was giving me new things to think about, and the feeling I had something to say.


One afternoon, two weeks after he first arrived, I came out to check on Marcel. He was gone. Frantic, I looked all through the zucchinis, kale, and cucumbers, at his usual spots. I even gingerly separated some of the zucchini stalks with my hands, to peer in. Marcel camouflaged well, but I could always spot him after a couple of minutes. Not this time.

I sighed, sure he had moved on, and wished him well. I went to get the hose. At least now I could water properly. I gave the bed a good soaking, and then moved to the herb garden—and jumped backward.

There was Marcel, hanging upside-down in the dill plants, which had grown over a foot tall and were turning brown. They disguised him almost perfectly.

I wished I’d witnessed his journey to the other bed and into the dill. It didn’t look easy. He would have had to hop or fly over a foot to get there. In fact, he did look exhausted, almost lying on the leaves, horizontal, an unusual position for him. He looked up at me and appeared amused, as if he’d played a great trick on me.

Stop it, I chided myself. I was projecting emotions and thoughts onto an insect. Mantids weren’t that smart. Were they?

I Googled. Praying mantids seem eerily intelligent. They’ve been studied for their incredible calculations in approaching prey at different speeds. They also seem to recognize familiar and friendly humans versus unfamiliar, unfriendly ones. Some studies show that mantids can be taught through visual cues. Their eyesight is astounding. One study affixed them with 3D glasses to better understand their visual acuity. Not only do mantids have incredible vision, they have tendencies to return to the same hunting areas, and appear calculating in that way. Yet some entomologists maintain that mantids are motivated more by food-driven instinct than intelligence or decision-making skills. Their brains contain a million neurons. In comparison, ours contain around 100 billion. We should probably keep some perspective.

I may have been giving Marcel too much credit for switching beds, for preferring my dill to my dying zucchini. I may have been projecting when I imagined he wanted to stick around because he enjoyed my presence too. I was certainly guilty of anthropomorphizing.

But I wasn’t imagining things when I realized that I genuinely liked Marcel. That he was becoming not only a friendly insect; he was becoming a kind of friend.

◊ ◊ ◊

In the third week of Marcel’s garden residency, two days of hard rain broke the drought. The rain beat down. The earth drank deep. So did my garden beds.

I worried. I ventured out to check on Marcel sometimes. He’d returned to the zucchini.

I considering covering the bed with a tarp or rigging a shelter from an umbrella. I read that mantids don’t really love to get wet. I read that if you keep them as pets—not that I was seriously considering this, not really—you could just mist their terrarium now and then, or put out a little lid with water to keep the humidity up. Not that I was actively researching terrariums, or where to buy live crickets, or how to feed them. I might have been just passively researching these things, with a writerly curiosity. If I were the kind of person who could overwinter a mantis in my house, what would I do?

This was only a whimsical thought, I told myself, as I watched droplets of rain bead up on Marcel’s tweedy wings. My family would freak out if Marcel became an interior guest. They were bemused by my intense interest in this insect, not enamored.

The rain brought a nip to the air, a whiff of fall. A tree at the edge of the yard lifted a branch in the wind and displayed shocking yellow leaves. I wondered how much time we had left. Marcel hung from the canopy of zucchini plants leaves. He was very, very still.

Concerned, I reached for my phone and read that mantids hang when they molt, that you should not touch them during that time and interrupt this delicate process. No worries there. I still hadn’t dared to touch him, and probably never would, even though I’d watched videos of humans stroking their heads and backs or letting them crawl onto their hands. I knew I would only flail and harm him. I liked our social distancing, which was generally around 6 inches.

Upon further reflection, I determined he probably wasn’t going to molt again. He looked full-grown to me. He measured about as large as this species can get, and we were nearing the end of the season. More likely he’d just had it with rain, and the sudden scarcity of meals. I scouted some nearby shrubs for a lone, damp fly I could toss him. A live one, of course. They will not eat dead insects. But there was not a fly to be found. Or I wasn’t the greatest hunter.


When the rain let up at last, Marcel remained immobile for hours. When he finally did move, he was slow. The words weathered and weather-beaten flew into my mind, and I suddenly comprehended them on a whole new level.

Marcel crept to the top of a zucchini leaf and looked on. I watched with a heavy heart. My cat Mia had become immobile and withdrawn, more still and silent with each passing day, conserving all her energy. I did not feel as close to Marcel as I did to the cat I’d known for nearly two decades. But I didn’t feel ready for another loss so soon. I dreaded the morning I would likely find the papery shell of Marcel in the garden bed. I would have to dispose of him somehow. Eat something, please, I silently urged him. You need to keep up your strength.


The next morning, to my relief, I found Marcel in hunting mode, with his catlike, prowling movements, circling the perimeter of the bed, moving from post to post with surprising speed. On my next check-in a few hours later, I didn’t see him at all. When I bent down to pick up the hose, I found him, and he looked up at me, as if more startled than I was. He was on the exterior side of the garden bed, near the wall of the house, clutching a flailing insect. A grasshopper. He paused, then bowed his head and ate.

I respected that he’d taken his meal elsewhere and spared me the scene. I understood. I am not the neatest eater of chicken wings, and prefer to eat certain things in private and let others assume I have nice manners.

Mixed emotions sloshed inside me. I was relieved and proud that Marcel found a meal. And mildly horrified that he could eat something alive. But that is what these mantids are wired to do. This was the natural course of things.

At least it wasn’t a hummingbird.

That evening, the greatly revived Marcel surprised me again by taking up a perch in the trellis. His long legs splayed out across a square and appeared darkened to match the chicken wire. He was still camouflaged, but not as well as he was in the leaves. And he was perched remarkably high up, with the dying cucumber vines so thin they offered little in the way of protection.

I looked up at the darkening sky. The first bats were coming out of the woods behind my house, circling the lawn. Bats, I knew, were one of the few predators of the mantis.

Marcel. Go down, I silently urged him. You’re not safe where you are!

He did not move. His eyes darkened in the waning light. I repeated my advice, aloud this time. Did mantids hear human voices? Quick research taught me that they could hear remarkably well. But understanding, of course, is a separate issue.

Darkness fell. I wished him luck, and retreated inside, after guarding the garden as long as I could.

◊ ◊ ◊

Marcel survived the night, but still clung to the trellis, more exposed than ever as the cucumber vines deteriorated. Throughout the day, he inched a little higher up the trellis, until by day’s end he was on the top again. As long as the light held out, I lingered. I admired him. I tried to memorize every detail. I had the sense he was leaving soon, either for a fresh geographic location, or a new state of being. I didn’t want him to be plucked off by a bird or a bat. I knew he was vulnerable to predators and the encroaching autumn. But I was not able to offer him shelter inside. I would have to let nature take its course, with gratitude for all I had gained from him.

The next day, September 11, he was gone.

His departure hit me harder than I thought it would. I did not cry. But I felt his absence acutely. I could hardly tear myself away from the garden, in case I missed his return. I checked the beds hourly, and the nearby shrubs and trees, but he did not appear. Not that day, nor the next. At last I registered the finality of his absence. Whoever had taken him out of this world, be it bat or bird, I hoped it had happened swiftly.

I had one bright orange zucchini flower left, a perfect buttercream confection of a blossom taunting me with hope. This zucchini would also fail to thrive. But I decided to feel gratitude for this perfect flower that would only last a day.

I now felt curiosity instead of fear and revulsion when I noticed other insects around me. That new curiosity extended to the bees that flew in and out of a hole in our backyard, in a barren patch of grass. Earlier in the summer, I’d asked my husband to get rid of that nest. I assumed any bee’s nest in the ground was undesirable. We’d always eradicated ground nests in the past. My husband would spray something noxious in the hole, and the bees would be gone.

My husband had not yet eradicated the nest, probably because I didn’t remind him; the bees were not plaguing us or causing apparent harm. I did a little bee research, as I’d done for Marcel. I learned that many bees, including some honeybees, do make nests in the ground, and are not always interested in stinging people.

I had no idea how common ground-nesting bees are. The bees in my mind that were worth protecting were the benign bees in children’s picture books, with hives conveniently located outside our yards, or they were cultivated in boxes, by beekeepers. Clearly, I still had much to learn.

Marcel, unfairly branded on that discussion thread as an invasive and a pollinator predator, actually saved pollinators in my own yard—a whole hive—by teaching me to slow down and be curious, to respect instead of react, and to learn what I have before I destroy.

In the days after Marcel’s departure, I researched pollinator-attracting plants. I ordered milkweed seeds to plant for monarchs next year. I placed asters in pots near the vacated garden bed to attract more bees. I admired instead of eliminated the goldenrod and thistle popping up in a wild patch at the edge of my yard, and the insects it attracted.

There’s no bigger predator in my backyard than myself and my fellow humans. We wield tremendous power to decide what lives or dies, who goes or stays. I would no longer extinguish insects or “weeds” from my property again without determining what they were and what role they might play.


One evening, about a week after Marcel’s departure, I went out to the two raised beds and considered whether it was time to rip out the remains of zucchini and cucumber. Perhaps I’d plant some decorative mums to herald the coming fall. Or starter lettuce that we could eat for a few weeks. I leaned on the bed with a sigh, missing Marcel.

Then something moved by my hand. I jumped back with a start.

On the post of the garden bed was a small shape, almost perfectly camouflaged against the grainy wood.

Not Marcel. Not a mantis.

A frog. About as long as my thumb. Watching me with tiny eyes, its throat visibly vibrating.

I took out my iNaturalist app. Snapped a picture. The identification came up right away: gray tree frog, who stayed for a day and into the evening.

I hadn’t yet managed to cultivate a vegetable. But I was now open to whatever wanted to hop, crawl, or slither on into my garden bed.


One week later, I was heading upstairs to bed and about to turn off the entryway light when I saw a familiar shape in the narrow, horizontal window above the front door.

Could it be?


Yes. It was.

Clinging to the window frame, his antennas twitching wildly, was a mantis.

My heart pounded. Had Marcel made the epic journey around to the front of the house?

I went up to the window and looked close. He moved quickly, dazzled by the array of insects flocking to the porch lights. He made no attempt whatsoever at camouflage, even though it was full-on bat hour. I put my face right up to the glass. “Marcel?” I said. He couldn’t hear me. But he may have sensed me. A few seconds later, he did turn to look.

His eyes were fully pigmented, almost coal black. I saw that darker speck on the right eye, though, and knew this was no impostor. This had to be Marcel.

I felt a recognition pass between us. And the sense that I was getting in the way, that he wanted to spare me a scene. Did I really need to see him attacking insects?

I was capable of watching him eat now. I’d come far from the child who recoiled at feasting spiders in the lake house windows.

I wondered how many more meals he’d have. The thermometer was plummeting toward the high 40s at night. Marcel’s days had to be numbered. All I had to do was open the front door and sweep him inside. He was so close. He could overwinter in the lovely fern in my three-season porch. I could rush order a terrarium for him.

But I did not open that door.

I took one last, long look at him. Then I left him to his hunt. Clearly, he knew what he was doing. He’d traveled a long journey to the other side of the house, to the light, to the better hunting grounds. He had let me know he was doing fine. He was exactly where he should be.

As was I.


Diana Renn is the author of a middle grade eco-mystery, Trouble at Turtle Pond, and three young adult mysteries. Diana’s essays have appeared in Pangyrus, WBUR’s Cognoscenti, Publisher’s Weekly, The Huffington Post, Mindful, Writer’s Digest, and elsewhere. She was awarded a Massachusetts Cultural Council grant for a collection of essays she is writing about community science and neighborhood naturalists. Diana serves as a mentor with Creature Conserve, an organization that connects artists, writers, and scientists working on conservation issues. She lives outside of Boston. Visit her online at or on Instagram: @dianarennbooks.

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