Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Grasshopper Jars or Store Bought Pet Habitats?

Under the sink, Nana kept clean glass jars.  There were all sorts of jars--jars which had once held jelly or pickles or mayonnaise, or even gefilte fish.  And the jars were of all sizes; piled beside the jars were lids of steel or aluminum, I guess, but never plastic.

Clean and plentiful, the jars were there for the taking, and during grasshopper season, we took quite a few.  We had to find the correct lid, but it only took a minute or two.  One of us--my brothers and cousins and I spent hours outside in the summer heat--would sit on the hill along the side of the house, holding a prized grasshopper between gently pinched fingers, watching it make a drop of "tobacco juice" between its mandibles, while waiting for the others to return with the jar.  We would run out of the house with a glass jar in hand and stuff a few tufts of grass into the jar before releasing the insect into its new habitat. For one unlucky grasshopper, there would be a bit of soapy water left in the jar from its last washing, and the poor thing would adhere, hopelessly struggling, to the inside of the jar, and we children would learn a lesson about checking the jars for moisture.  But now, a luckier grasshopper would find a dry bottom, and plenty of food (we thought).  Then, someone would point out that without air, the grasshopper would surely suffocate.

"They breathe through their legs," someone would say, and we would all nod knowingly. (This is not true; but it seemed plausible at the time.  The truth is nearly as fun--they breath through spiracles (openings) in the thorax and abdomen.)  We needed to do something to let the air into the jar, or our merciful natures would force us to release our captive.

So we would do what most children did at that time:  We sought a hammer (a large stone would do) and an awl (a screwdriver would do) and began to pound holes through the lid.  The lid, of course, would be on the jar, and only great skill prevented us from breaking the glass while venting the lid.  The holes could never be so big that the grasshopper would escape, so we would make many small holes.

Then, in the warm afternoon sun, lying on the hill, we would admire our new pet while chewing on the "sugar tips" of grass ourselves.  If it was good enough food for the grasshopper, it was good enough food for us.

Today, if one can find a glass jar, the lids are often plastic, and they crack when one tries to punch a hole. But never fear.  Rather than build a habitat for a pet with what-you-can-find-around-the-house, you can buy an insect house, plain or fancy, but risk free, and keep your pet safely.  I laughed when I saw that one does not even have to touch the insects one finds.  With a bug vacuum, one may catch small arthropods safely, which I guess is fine if you wish to catch and observe scorpions or hornets or black widows; but most insects are quite harmless.

Which brings me to the point:  Have we lost something?  Is there some value in finding an insect by accident, tracking and hunting it in tall grass, holding it in a bare hand and feeling it tickle ones palm as it walks, or seeing it squirm as it struggles to escape, all while one is scrounging for a creative place to keep the bug-de-jour?  If instead we give the child the box and instruct him to take the bug vacuum and find something, are we not taking away that tiny creative moment and replacing it with ready-made purpose, precise instructions and a right way to do it?  Is it any wonder that, surrounded by pretty plastic things with switches and lights, the child cries boredom?  When we remove a step--e.g.:  figuring out where to put the bug after one has caught, it as it sits in ones hands--we remove a creative purpose that stimulates the intellect and stretches the imagination.  Egads.  What have we done?

So save some jars; if you fear your young entomologists might handle something dangerous, suggest he figures out a way to make a net or a trap.  Let him find things spontaneously, and scrounge for the right materials.  Some interesting specimens will escape, but let that strengthen the resolve of the child to solve the problem in his own way.

1 comment:

Kimberlee said...

Lovely post! I heartily agree. And I'm glad to know I'm not the only one with jars under my kitchen sink.