Tiny Bones, Big Dreams
Long Beach, New York, in the 1960s was paradise for a child like me. Even though our house was small and there was no backyard, it was only a short walk to reach the empty lot at the end of the block, an empty lot that became my laboratory for the natural world.
The vacant lot was overgrown with ragweed, briars, and poison ivy. There were also stands of milkweed and every stem had the caterpillar of a monarch butterfly clinging to it. I’d carry several of the caterpillars home to watch the chrysalis develop. Whenever I could be, I was down in that lot, catching every kind of insect I could find. Grasshoppers were one of my favorites because of how their mandibles worked. My maternal grandfather, Arnold, was proud of my bug collecting, and also that I knew what “mandible” meant. I had been reading since I was four, mostly The Audubon
, and I always wanted to use the right word. My mother had bought me the books when she recognized my passion for bugs and other animals. My father was very quiet most of the time, but I knew he understood how important all creatures were in my life. But the most directly involved and expressive was definitely my grandfather.
“It’s not big enough, Marc, not big enough.”
He looked at the grasshopper I had caught and encouraged me to find an even bigger one. Some of the grasshoppers I caught were actually locusts and could fly, so I had a butterfly net to help. Off I went again in search of an even bigger bug.
On this occasion, I hit the jumping jackpot. I had walked behind the house, where I found the biggest grasshopper I had ever seen. It was enormous, at least three inches long, and it didn’t have any wings. I crept up to it and grabbed it. Grandpa would be really proud of this one.
“Grandpa, look what I found!”
I could tell by the way he looked at my prize that it was indeed an excellent specimen.
“That’s a big one, Marc. I can use that one to make my drawings.”
My grandfather created the models for the Welch Biological Supply Company, and he worked from models based on real-life specimens. The grasshopper I had caught would enable him to capture the tiny details when he made his resin model. I was very proud of my contribution to his work.
There were some bugs I was never able to catch for him. He wanted a praying mantis, and I looked hard to find one. When I finally did find a mantis sitting on a branch, I was so mesmerized by it I couldn’t move. The mantis turned its head toward me and just stared at me while it cleaned its front legs like a cat. It was like watching an alien life force. I was so fascinated by the way it looked that I didn’t try to catch it. Another bug Grandpa wanted was a dragonfly, but I was terrified of those. They, too, were fascinating to watch, but someone had told me that they were like darning needles; if you grabbed one it would bite. It took me years to learn that this was false.
That may have been an old wives’ tale; but the puffer- fish bite was a reality.
More than almost anything else, my grandfather loved fishing, and I was his constant companion on those outings. He kept his bait in the refrigerator drawer, usually live eels. Other times we’d dig with our pitchforks in the sand to find the best worms. Fishing with my grandfather wasn’t just about fishing; it was about his sharing his knowledge of all living things. He knew how things worked, how legs worked, how mouths worked, and why they worked the way they did. He was a walking encyclopedia. Hanging out with him, I saw everything in living detail. I saw “how” worms and sand crabs buried themselves in the sand. I saw “how” birds dove underwater to catch fish. If I couldn’t see “how” crabs were able to scuttle from side to side, my grandfather would explain it to me. If the crab was a female, and she was carry ing eggs underneath her body, he explained why we had to let her go so that we would have more crabs the following year. I was always learning, learning, learning.
Except for the puffer fish.
We caught it by accident, and my grandfather put it in a bucket by itself.
“Don’t touch it, Marc. Those fish have sharp, sharp teeth because of the crabs and shrimps they eat.”
I looked at the fish and thought how remarkable it looked. Maybe just a little poke.
I screamed. The bite really hurt, not only because of the sharp teeth, but also because of my grandfather’s sharp words. He explained again how those teeth worked. I truly felt like a hapless shrimp.
Our fishing expeditions were full of explanations and demonstrations. He “showed” me how a sea robin used its unusual fins by capturing one of the fish and putting it in one of his buckets. He “showed” me how the stinger works on a stingray we caught. He “showed” me how the flounder’s two eyes move from the side of its head up to the top. When I was with my grandfather, I lived in a world of magic made real.
Away from the ocean and back in my neighborhood, my favorite captures were crickets, most of which I found in empty beer bottles and soda cans. I watched endlessly to understand more about them. I even fed them Cheerios so that I could observe how their mouths worked when they ate. The cricket has four jaws: one going to the right, one going to the left, one going up, and one going down. Like a little scientist, I studied how all four parts of the mouth moved up and down on the Cheerio. It was so rhythmic and precise. I also studied how their wings moved in order to make noise. If I had any questions, I went to the encyclopedia my mother had bought for me. Those books also taught me that when the female cricket breeds, she sticks her ovipositor directly into the soil. The crickets I caught lived in little jars in my bedroom, so they were always close at hand for observation.
Most children wake up in the morning to a room filled with toys and trinkets. I woke up to hundreds of eyes and thousands of legs.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Man for All Species by Marc Morrone and Nancy Ellis-Bell. Copyright © 2010 by Marc Morrone and Nancy Ellis-Bell. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.