When a hypothesis becomes a theory

Our youngest child is captivated by nature. As his mother, my interest in the natural word and its many-legged denizens became rekindled through his passionate preoccupation, and I’ve grown vicariously and then authentically enthralled by these animals as well, often spending great deals of my own time researching them and feeding the individuals for which he’s created habitats inside our home. I’ve worried over whether his praying mantis’s diet is varied enough, I’ve stopped what I was doing to refresh a cotton ball with water to keep the grasshoppers’ enclosure adequately hydrated, I’ve researched how to overwinter an ootheca and how to help one hatch come spring. I’ve held infantile, hangnail-sized praying mantis nymphs in my palms and breathed hotly onto their incredibly intricate and miniature framework to resuscitate them from exposure to cold. I’ve left overripe grapes in a bowl to catch fruit flies, not to rid our environs of the pests, but to catch and release them as fodder into the jug full of spiders. I’ve dug countless earthworms out of the soil and offered them, one at a time, in the basin of an acorn cap with a long stem for a handle that we call “the egg-cup”, to the tongue-flickering jaws of the tiny DeKay’s brown snakes we found in the yard (yes, my son also loves reptiles). I’ve celebrated upon making the discovery that stick insects consider the blackberry leaves from our garden a delicacy, and I’ve embarked on a project wherein we cast all of the deceased specimens and instar-sheds he collects, many of which he hands me upon climbing into the car after school, in clear resin using silicone molds. To love a child means that his loves are conferred upon you in an associative sense. Fascination begets fascination.

He’s dressed up as a spider for two Halloweens so far, most recently sporting a rather involved black widow getup including a hand-painted acrylic hourglass to embellish a black shirt with that cochineal badge, the maker’s mark of his favorite species of arachnid. He’s written several books about all manner of bugs, most recently a nonfiction research journal on centipedes. His bed is full of plush insects and spiders. He has stacks upon stacks of artwork devoted to his observations as a naturalist and shelves of books featuring a beloved host of animalia and other creatures, including a beautiful volume detailing the world of microorganisms (he calls them his “microfamily”). I helped him create a YouTube channel we’ve called “Arlo’s Animal Wonders”, and he signs off each video with a signature tag line, an idea he borrowed from his current idol, Coyote Peterson. He brings his prized possession, an insect vacuum (given by a dear friend for his last birthday), everywhere and even carried it the entire 4.3 miles on our most recent hike. He’s begged me to buy whole fish and crabs at Costco so he can inspect their anatomy; the branzino fins and snapper tails from our last piscine investigation are still on the back porch fossilizing until they’re desiccated enough to join his indoor trove of treasures. On his last playdate, he and four friends each dissected two whole prawns–one raw and one cooked–with dinner knives and tweezers. That night in his bedroom, upon learning that I’d disposed of the carcasses, he cried until I promised I’d excavate them from the trash can.

One evening we found yet another infinitesimal moth flitting around on the third floor while he was getting ready for bed. Despite my imploring that he just change his clothes and brush his teeth, he thundered down two flights of stairs to fetch the empty mayonnaise container he was planning to use as a collection vessel and insisted on capturing the moth. Once he’d successfully screwed on the lid, I knew from experience that a conversation needed to happen so he’d be prepared for the probable outcome that the moth wouldn’t make it ’til dawn. (When his stick insect died, he lay for a long, long time on the hardwood floor, holding the limp body and considering it so lovingly, so wistfully, that I thought my heart might just deliquesce and leak out on the spot.)

I said, “Buddy, what happens if the moth can’t live overnight in that container? I mean, are you going to be okay if it isn’t alive tomorrow? Like, what if there’s not enough air in there for him to last that long?” And his answer, “Well, then, we will have learned something,” was the sentence that provided the final piece of evidence to confirm my suspicions that not only is this child a scientist, but a scientist can be a child.

In loving memory of Mary Oliver, departed from living but forever here for life.

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