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Nocturnal Hunt

by Susan P. Blevins

I have a small vegetable and herb garden at the back of my house in Houston, which includes among the tomatoes, eggplant and cilantro, a couple of basil plants. They were doing very well until I noticed that every morning, huge chunks had been gouged out of the leaves. I know from experience that the best time to find the culprits in a garden is at night, when itís totally dark. One time I went hunting for something that was devouring all my plants up on the fourth floor terrace of my apartment in Rome, where I was living at the time, and sure enough, using my flashlight to locate them, I found over seventy snails happily chowing down on my plants. I kept up the hunting each night until there were none left.

So I did the same thing here in Houston after I returned from a very uplifting choral concert. I grabbed my flashlight and headed for the sleeping garden behind my house, focusing the light on the basil plant. Sure enough, there it was, a huge, long, black insect, caught in flagrante delicto, devouring my ever-shrinking basil plant. I raced into my garage for a pair of garden gloves and a disposable Whole Foods container, and went back to the crime scene. It was still there, but not for long. I cut off the leaf it was enjoying and dropped the protesting intruder into the pot, ramming on the lid with fast beating heart. Did I think it was going to attack me? I donít know, but I was once bitten by a very ferocious tomato hornworm, and I preferred not to repeat that experience.

I did not want to kill it, after all, it was just busy doing what it was born to do, but clearly it would destroy everything succulent in my garden if I failed to find a solution. I consulted the online oracle and saw that I was dealing with a voracious vegetarian (so my thumb was quite safe), called a California Timema, related to the Walking Stick insect. The larger female spends most of her life carrying around the smaller male on her back, (that may sound all too familiar to some women who read this), dropping her eggs as she goes, which stay in the ground through the winter and hatch in the spring. I think that I had found the female because she was very large, so my fear now is that there is a male out there somewhere, also chewing his way through my garden while he looks for his missing steed.

I came up with the perfect solution. It was well past midnight by this point, when I slipped out of my house, pot in hand, and walked down the block to the house of a man who I happen to know treats his girlfriend very badly. With no compunction at all, I tipped out the Timema into the soft and fragrant foliage of his herb garden wishing her bon appetit, and returned to my house, feeling well pleased that not only had I avoided taking a life, but that I was able to act as the deus ex machina and deliver symbolic justice on someone who well deserved it.

An addendum to this story is that yes, I did indeed find the male in my courtyard a couple of nights later, and I was happy to reunite him with his trusty mate. She was probably less than happy.

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