Rainbow photographed by Beth Williams Liou

This photo of a rainbow was posted on Facebook the other day by Beth Williams Liou. She took it on Long Beach Island in New Jersey. It happens that Pat and I were on the island that day with two of our daughters and our four grandchildren, and were waiting for a table at a restaurant when someone spotted the same rainbow.

First, those of us who were standing outside the crowded restaurant stepped out into the parking lot and looked up at the sight. Then some people who were already seated got up and came out. Even some of the wait staff rushed over to have a glance. There was a lot of excited chatter, and several people were taking pictures of the rainbow with their cell phones. Maybe that’s how Beth Williams Liou caught this image.

As often happens with me, I knew while this event was taking place that I would write a column or homily about it. It turned out to be a column. What immediately struck me was that all of us for whom this rainbow became the center of attention are immersed in a world of seemingly endless technical advances — 3D movies, HDTV, WiFi, Wii, hand-held devices of every description. But we aren’t so jaded yet that we won’t look in awe when nature from time to time reminds us of the source of all genius.

One of the best things about a rainbow beyond its sheer beauty is that it’s a trick nature pulls on us humans. Where we see bands of color, for instance, there actually is a continuous spectrum of light. And the rainbow itself doesn’t really exist at all; it’s only the way our complex but still limited senses and nervous systems perceive the refraction of light passing through tiny drops of moisture. If we try to chase the rainbow, it is never where we look. If we do something else before giving the rainbow our attention,  it disappears.

”We have not the reverent feeling for the rainbow,” crabby old Mark Twain wrote, “that the savage has, because we know how it is made. We have lost as much as we gained by prying into that matter.” I don’t know if we were a band of savages on Long Beach Island the other day, but I don’t think any of us was any less impressed by the spectacle overhead because we knew how it was made.

Image from purplepoddedpeas.blogspot.com

As we were sitting in traffic in a forest somewhere north of Port Elizabeth, the conversation turned to the dragonfly that was making several vain attempts to land on the black Mustang in front of us. It was 89 degrees, so we wondered if the insect found the metal trunk lid too hot to handle. What with all the trees on both sides of the road, there wasn’t much else to inspire us, so I asked Pat if she had called dragonflies by their alias, darning needles, when she was a kid.

healthyhuman.net

It turned out she had used that term, and that , like me, she had been told by adults supposedly looking after her welfare that a dragonfly left to its own devices would sew her mouth shut. I heard that story from my mother, and I believed it. Of course, I know better now – intellectually, that is – but I still shy away from dragonflies.

I have since learned that dragonflies are good friends of ours in that they eat mosquitoes and flies. I don’t know why adults who perpetuated the lip-sewing myth singled out the dragonfly for opprobrium, especially since those same adults told us kids that we could do hard time for molesting a praying mantis — and precisely because the mantis is a valuable predator.

Whatever the reason for this vicious canard against the dragonfly, it has a long history, as explained in this excerpt from scienceessayist.com:

In their book A Dazzle of Dragonflies, Forrest Mitchell and James Lasswell explain that the dragonfly-epithet “devil’s darning needle” has its origins in Europe of the Middle Ages. The long and slender shape of the insect’s body, combined with the superstitious belief that it, like the fly, was in league with the darkest of forces, produced a myth durable enough to make the journey with the colonists to the United States. Today in Iowa, the authors write, “devil’s darning needles sew together the fingers or toes of a person who falls asleep…in Kansas, they may sew up the mouths of scolding women, saucy children…and profane men.”

Dragonflies, of course, do no such thing. In fact, creatures belonging to the order Odonata (Latin for “toothed,” a reference to the chewing mandibles dragonflies share with most other insects) and the infraorder Anisoptera (Latin for “unequal wings,” because dragonflies have broader hindwings than forewings) have no sting, let alone needlepoint. They are perfectly harmless to humans, if not to their prey: smaller insects, including ants, bees, and the mosquitoes . . . .

glf-mantis-27bSo there was a praying mantis on the screen outside our kitchen window this afternoon. When Pat first spotted it, the mantis appeared to be about to grab a lady bug, and we tapped on the window and expressed our disapproval. The mantis desisted and the lady bug went on its way.

I was glad, because I like both lady bugs and praying mantises. Well, I did anyway. Many people cringe at the site of a mantis, but I’ve always thought of the mantis as kind of regal, introspective — sort of a symbol of peace.

I got to wondering why it is that one sees only one praying mantis at a time. When was the last time you saw two of them together? I always tell my students that when a question like that arises in their minds, they shouldn’t let the moment pass without searching out the answer and adding to their store of knowledge.

praymantisI took my own advice and looked around the Web for the answer. I didn’t find an answer to my original question, but I learned a lot of other things, disgusting things, about these creatures. I guess I knew they were carnivores, because they get credit for keeping the insect population under control. I didn’t know that they can get as big as six inches long — not in the United States, fortunately, and that they will attack and eat almost anything. I found a video of a mantis devouring a mouse.

praying mantis 2And then … then I came to the part about cannibalism — including sexual cannibalism. Trust me, you don’t want to know.

Before I had the wisdom to stop reading, I found out that the mantis is thought to have evolved from the roach family, which now strikes me as fitting.

For a couple of generations, kids have been told by presumably well-meaning adults that it is a crime to kill a praying mantis. I found several sites, including Snopes, that claimed that there is no such state or federal law. I also found sites that claimed that the mantis is protected in Connecticut, where it is the state insect, but the Praying Mantis Page on the state’s official Web site doesn’t mention that.

You can read Connecticut’s rationale at this link:

http://www.ct.gov/ctportal/cwp/view.asp?A=885&Q=246504