Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Fabre and the Praying Mantis

 "Only a genius can write a scientific book that throbs with life and is still scientific.  Read Fabre's descriptions of insect life, those fascinating stories from which one has to tear one's self away, and compare the description of the same insect in a text book of biology - one is a living story of living creatures, the other a lifeless account of dead, dissected things." D. Avery, Parents Review, vol. 31. no. 9 edited by Charlotte Mason

Indeed, Jean Henri Fabre, son of semi-literate peasant farmers in France, became famous throughout the world for his scientific observations of insects and spiders.

We are living some hundred years since his death and there are scientists today who are thinking his observations are outdated and unscientific.  They have gone so far as to launch a three year study on the supposed myth, "perpetuated" by Fabre on the tale that the female mantis eats the male after mating. Peterson's First Guides: Insects had the nerve to state this as early as 1987 in their publications saying: "contrary to popular belief, recent research suggests that the female does not eat the male while mating."

Fabre, in his own words, writes but one sentence in his book Insects:  "Indeed, she even makes a habit of devouring her mate, whom she seizes by the neck and then swallows by little mouthfuls, leaving only the wings." Why did the science community take his word for it? Why did they not question nor study the mantis for themselves to prove it true or not? I think it is because anytime anyone went to look more closely at the fly, or spider, or any other creature after reading his work they realized Fabre had described just what they were seeing. If they didn't actually see something he described they confidently took his word for it. Everyone accepted Fabre's observations as scientific truth, even Louis Pasteur visited him because Fabre "already had a reputation as an expert on insect life". 

This video, by New Atlantis, is the result of years of research following mantises through their life cycle again and again.  Be sure to watch through past the credits to the postscript.

At l'HaRMaS, we had a few live praying mantises for display, one of which we named Hildegard. Megan Hoyt introduced us to Hildegard, "a twelfth century polymath who wrote books, music, created art, and was a Benedictine abbess and mystic". The beginning of this documentary reminded me of an "praying" abbess...

Fabre was a scientist. He spent hours each day, most days each week for months and years. He recorded his observations in minute detail and shared his passion in marvelously descriptive and fascinating books. Fabre was right and what he recorded was true.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

How a Book Got a Boy Out Of a Snowsuit

I tutor.  Through one of my other students I got a call from a mom who wanted literacy support for her young son. She warned me that he was not willing and when the day arrived for our first time together she came to the door without him. He had refused to get out of the truck. She went back and forth cajoling and encouraging until he finally got out but stood in the snowbank just outside my backdoor. His mom and I thought she should leave while I kept an eye on him.

I opened the door and invited him in. He gave me no response or indication that he even heard me. I opened the door again and gently told him that he was welcome to come into the house whenever his wished and when he did I would read him a story. I held my breath. Within a few long minutes he came to the door and I let him in. He shook off one snow boot and slowly pulled off one mitten then stopped.

He stood there in my heated house wearing a full snowsuit: snow pants, winter jacket with toque on under the hood and the one boot and mitt. I pulled up a chair to the back door where he seemed rooted and read to him. After a half hour I took out a d'Aulaire and a Macaulay book hoping one of the illustrations would entice him and asked him to pick one. A single finger from the un-mittened hand slowly emerged and pointed to Pyramids. He even took the invitation to sit down on another fold out chair beside me. I added a few minutes of silence at the end of each page so he could examine the pictures: I knew he was looking because I could see his eyelashes lower and twitch. We sat like that till his mother arrived twenty minutes later. I never did see his face nor hear his voice.

The following week his resolute mother brought him back and again left him standing in the snowbank outside my back door. I opened it and said we could read some more of the pyramid book if he came inside. He did and this time agreed to take off both mittens and both boots but kept on his winter jacket and toque. He willingly walked with me to the couch and sat beside me. I asked him if he remembered what we had read last week. He nodded. I asked if he wanted me to read more. He nodded. After about five pages I asked him to read the next page. He did and from then on we alternated. We would pause and talk about the story and the pictures and wonder. I finally had a conversation while looking into the sweet face of a nine year old boy. I stopped reading before the end of the book figuring I needed the rest of it to get him back into my house for the next week.

It's been a couple of months now and just last week he walked for the first time by himself all the way from school to my home. We chat and read and joke and laugh. It is the story in the living book that can bring strangers like us together. It is that book that can transport us to faraway places and execute leaps in our imagination. That perfect book can also encourage one to shed the barrier of a snowsuit.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014


A female red winged blackbird is repeatedly yanking yellowed grasses and flying them to the cedar tree.

A common grackle landed right in front of a black squirrel and proceeded to shoo him out of the area.

The frog I saw a week ago in my pond has not been seen since. I've searched often.

Every tree has a soft focus look about them in contrast to their winter starkness. Their flower and leaf buds are swelling.

A male red winged blackbird just chased a morning dove right out of the yard.

The air is warmer and humid. It rained most of last night and today.

The sky is dark grey in the horizon but the sun is out right now where I am.

And the birds are singing. It makes my heart glad.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Constellation Narration

I did a constellation chart with my daughter when she was about nine years old. It turned out to be quite beautiful. When she was a teen we attended a Royal Astronomical Society meeting and set up a private tour of the local observatory to explain further what astronomy was all about. That inch wide but deep work we did instilled a fascination for the subject that has now lasted ten years. She is even taking astronomy as an elective course in university.

I have a few young students this year and thought it would be nice to revisit this subject. We read the same book; it's not fabulous but for an introduction it works. What is great about it is that the constellations are presented in an order that makes it easy to jump from one star group to another. I have my students carefully copy out each constellation as it relates to one they already know. I have them do it in their nature notebooks going back to the same page so as to get as many of the constellations together within one picture.

My eight year old student insisted that each constellation had it's own box, she is at a stage where even her copy work has boxes around each entry. I was concerned that she wouldn't retain the relationships between all the star groupings.

Once they narrated what they knew of the position of the constellation they were allowed to pin it onto their star chart:

 We had been adding one constellation a week since September. We then had a six week break over the Christmas holidays and I thought I would find out what they still knew about the constellations when we met again in January. I asked them to draw their star chart from memory with their proper names.

I was amazed. They both were able to recall each constellation and place them fairly close to their correct positions. I, too, did this exercise. I do have them all in my nature notebook but do not have a star chart of my own. I was able to recall that there were eight constellation but could only draw in five and name four.

Everyone needs a star chart.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Milking Cats

A kitty rescue from a farm. She got separated from her siblings and was considered too young to survive on her own.
How can you resist that?

We took her. The farmer gladly gave us a box of cat food as incentive to be released of the responsibility. She had to be fed by syringe. I bought cream. She sucked that down easily.

My neighbour agreed to kitty-sit while we were out for the day and was horrified that a cat so young didn't have proper milk. So she sent her husband to buy cat milk. Yes, cat milk.

We came home to this. I burst out laughing in disbelief!

This is what I pictured in my head and laughed and laughed and laughed. Ridiculous

No where on the carton or online did it specify what kind milk was actually used. I am assuming it is cow's milk. Upon closer inspection I see that it is CATMILK  and not cat milk.

Had me giggling for days.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Saving Twenty Grams

It's a mouse issue not a mouse problem. Somehow they continue to arrive in my kitchen and have snacks. The first course of action would be to eliminate them so I bought those snap traps. They are like a large clothes pin and when mice venture near it's supposed to be a killer. The deal was that someone else would check the trap each morning and dispose of the carcass before I saw it. The problem was that sometimes I could hear the trap being dragged around for a while first. It wasn't the promised instantaneous death, it was lingering and painful.

The day I threw away those traps was the day we had to hunt for it and found it under the dishwasher.... WITH A SINGLE PAW STILL IN IT!! no dead body attached. a lone sad paw.

So now we have live traps.  I use butter. It works. I catch one mouse at a time and let him go free. I've been told that the same one just comes right back in the house but I don't think so.

For it's size it was hard to figure out if there was a mouse inside even if I tipped the closed trap back and forth.  The trap was very sensitive even if we mistakenly brushed past it. So I devised a little experiment.
I placed the empty trap on a scale and set it so the needle read zero.  I was rewarded the very next morning by finding that the trap had been triggered. I weighed the trap and it read almost 20 grams!
We have a house guest that confirmed my finding.

Confidently and happily I went to the back door to set free and admire what I had saved.