Where the Wild Things Were
By Betsy Karasik
When my brother and I were very small, our parents bought a lot on a cul-de-sac in Glen Echo and built a house there. Our street was still largely undeveloped, and our house was perched on the edge of a ravine that sloped down to MacArthur Boulevard, offering a panoramic view of the Potomac River. We could even see CIA headquarters in Langley. The Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 was recent history, and my Dad used to speculate that when the upper-floor windows glowed with an incandescent light yellower than the fluorescence from the other offices, another international incident was brewing.
Nature, which had yet to feel the full impact of the construction, lawn mowing, weed killing and other suburban assaults to come, abounded. Almost every summer’s day was marked by encounters with birds, toads, box turtles, frogs, squirrels, chipmunks, opossums, raccoons and, most fascinating to me, a spectacular variety of insects. I spent afternoons roaming the overgrown lots with the kind of white-mesh butterfly net every kid my age had then. My captives included beetles, butterflies, dragonflies, praying mantises, grasshoppers, millipedes and some fearsome-9looking spiders. Most of all, I treasured the enormous luna moths I found at night under the streetlights, their pale green wings and furry bodies so exquisitely alien. My captives would be brought home to serve some indeterminate sentence in a jar or terrarium. If I was not too negligent, they survived their captivity and were released.
I had an endless string of “pets” that my parents tolerated with benign amusement. A toad, unimaginatively named Toady, was kept in our window well for months. I supplied Toady with grasshoppers and crickets, and admired his dazzling golden eyes, which resembled the mottled gilt finish on the antique mirror in our front hall. A long-suffering series of turtles resided in cardboard boxes in the garage, where we plied them with iceberg lettuce, cantaloupe and bananas. Once, I caught a three-legged turtle who laid four white eggs in the lawn clippings we used for bedding. The turtle and the eggs, left in the care of a neighbor, disappeared mysteriously while we were on vacation. In the creek below the house were crawfish, snails, salamanders and tadpoles. One day I put a jarful of plump tadpoles in a Pyrex dish filled with water in the playroom. The next morning I discovered the tadpoles strewn across the floor. To my amazement, when I put their leathery “corpses” back in the water, they rehydrated and commenced swimming.
I know I am extreme, but I now find it painful to see any creature, even an insect, mistreated. No child of mine would be permitted to keep a monarch butterfly from its migration or a praying mantis from its breeding cycle. Seeing with today’s sensibilities, I cringe when I think about the way we interacted with nature. Most of our behavior was not intentionally cruel, although we did sometimes stage battles of red ants, black ants and pill bugs or suffocate butterflies with ether and pin them to cardboard. But, so much worse, we took nature itself for granted. It never occurred to us to wonder whether our collecting, our landscaping, our use of weed killer or our very presence might be destroying a sacred cycle of life that predated us by millennia.
By the time my brother and I sold the house in 2004, after our parents had passed away, the rest of the street had long since been built up. I hadn’t encountered a toad, box turtle, praying mantis or luna moth there in decades. My father, however, had become quite the backyard naturalist in his later years, bringing in birds with a buffet of sunflower seed, suet, hummingbird nectar and thistle. I visited him almost every Saturday for over 20 years, and we would eat lunch facing the picture window in the kitchen and enjoy the black-capped chickadees, goldfinches, tufted titmice and dozens of other bird species framed by that still-glorious view. But we both knew something precious had disappeared. I still feel a catch in my throat when I think about that suburban eden of my childhood, and all the creatures whose lives enriched our imaginations even as we drove them into exile.
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