Being human has so many lovely perks: opposable thumbs, brains that can (sometimes) solve complex problems, the capacity to create and enjoy art. Even better, even more exciting and convenient, we don't have to stand on our food and eat it out from under us. I'd never really fully appreciated that last perk until this week, when I watched a juvenile angle-wing katydid going through contortions while it ate. The leaf it was standing on kept getting smaller and smaller as the katydid devoured more and more of it. About halfway through it either had to stop eating or fall off. Without even the tiniest pause, it moved on to another floor-table-casserole (or "leaf") and started over again. I have been fondly patting the kitchen chairs in passing ever since.
Theoretically this katydid should be hanging out in a tree somewhere. Instead it's settled into the amaranth patch in the microgarden for the last few days. The amaranth is just a small patch, about two feet long by six inches wide, but intensively planted, with plenty of leaves for a hungry young katydid to stand and/or dine on.
And dine it does, with the relentless precision of a machine, its mandibles perforating a leaf and meshing together, drawing food up and in, up and in, without pause, without a change in rhythm. It works its way from one side of a leaf to the other and then, like a typewriter carriage, swings back to the starting point.* During a windstorm the other evening I watched it sheltering on the middle tier of leaves, clinging with its feet to the leaf below it and with its mandibles to the one above. While the wind blew the katydid was anchored in two directions; when the wind paused it would take a bite.
To eat the shelter from over your head while you still need it—that's some hunger at work. Watching the katydid this week, I've been aware of its instinct as an implacable, almost mechanistic force. When that insect is ready to eat, nothing slows it down; it's on automatic pilot. The sense of robotic drive is all the more striking as the only other thing I have seen this living creature do is sit. Admittedly, it has a splendid physique, and when it sits it looks like the kind of intricate jade carving that ought to grace an emperor's palace, but still, all it does is sit. It's as if the katydid is on a toggle switch: when the switch is on it eats, when the switch flips off it comes to a dead halt. There's no middle ground, no competing instinct to moderate the hunger, no secondary activity to occupy it.
Other insects, just as driven, still seem to acquire character as a species. No one can tell me praying mantises aren't hungry, yet they're also curious and engaged. The baby ones that used to live in the chard in the microgarden would pounce on me when I watered and then be startled at what they'd caught and run away. No matter how driven ants may be, they still manage to find time to be irritable. Waterbugs are gregarious—really surprisingly friendly (such a pity they're vermin); bumblebees can be flat-out hedonistic when they think no one is looking. Character comes from movement, but stasis? What does stasis produce?
What does a katydid do but alternately eat and look like a jade carving? To have no one be "home" in a creature of that size—it's unnerving.
Maybe still waters run deep?
* Youngsters, ask your parents to tell you about typewriters.**
** Or better yet, just don't worry about it.
A postscript: Look what the katydid accomplished today while I was gone!
|All grown up|