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The Phasmid who befriended my son

Above The family backyard in Deniston, Sydney Photo: Jenny Newell

When we moved back to Australia in 2016, after 5 years of living in the gritty urban intensity of Harlem, New York, we found a place we wanted to live in Sydney that was close to being the opposite. When the rental agent let us into the sweet 1900s house in Denistone – an actual house, right there resting on the ground, we looked out onto a plush garden rolling down a gentle slope, a seam of rocks to play on and dense eucalypt forest at the end beyond the fence, alive with the flashes and cacophony of birds. I surprised myself; I had to blink away tears. I wanted intently for us to be able to win this house. Our middle son, Tom, had found New York hard – the sirens, noise, traffic, subway, all of it – and had often asked if we could move back to Australia. He once said as we walked along 110th Street to our apartment, ‘wouldn’t it be good if all this’ – his arm sweeping around the built-up vista around us – ‘was all trees?’ I agreed heartily.

Yet, when we did move back, the inevitably stressful process of tearing ourselves away from a home, a landscape of specific, precious places and people, and landing into a new, unfamiliar set, Tom found himself a bit torn inside too. He was terribly sad and lost for weeks upon weeks. Our application for the house was successful, and we moved in.

One blaringly hot day, in the morning, I noticed a small, beautiful green stick insect near our bathroom sink. I encouraged it to climb onto my hand, and brought it out for Tom and his brothers to see. They were all enchanted by it, but though they all had a turn with it climbing on their sleeves or hands, this phasmid chose Tom. It at times would step onto the others, and walk about a bit, but it soon would lift its front legs, lean back and wave its legs in the air, seeking a new perch. When this happened, Tom would lean in, and the mantis would place its tiny feet on his arm, step onto him, walk along and stop still for long stretches. After a while, as it started to explore around Tom, he waited until it was down on his jeans and took off his T-shirt. The phasmid soon made its spindly way back up, its feet holding itself onto Tom’s chest.

The phasmid soon made its spindly way back up, its feet holding itself onto Tom’s chest
The phasmid with Tom
Photo: Jenny Newell

The phasmid stayed around. It hung out in the house for the day, sometimes on Tom, sometimes on the furniture. Tom wanted to make a little house for it, a sandwich box with leaves inside and plastic wrap on top with holes pricked through to let in air. I googled what would be needed to keep it well, and we seemed to be doing the right things. We kept it overnight. By the end of the next day, though, it became quite still, and it didn’t seem well. People aren’t usually adept at replicating ecologies; the intimate interconnections generally escape our notice. We took the ailing stick insect out and let it go in the garden. It slipped off into the undergrowth.

I was grateful to the phasmid for what seemed to all of us like a special acceptance, a welcome. After more time, Tom slowly adjusted to his new home, became less sad, and settled.

Tom has more of a capacity to notice interconnections in the living world than anyone else in the family.  While in a house he is usually quiet and still, reading book after book, or immersing himself in Minecraft. Out in a forest, though, he sparks and grins, darting around, climbing up everything he can, peering into the leaf litter at some tiny beetle or seed or sprout that has caught his eye, calling us over to see. When my older brother, David, visits he takes the boys on ‘praise walks’, on the way to the park through the forest they go out and notice things, and each chooses something they want to praise, for being what it is. This seems a new practice of notice and care for our eldest son Ben and for our youngest, Kieran, a true New Yorker who in the first week of our arriving in Denistone, was sitting playing under the table, saw a small spider and called out, alarmed: ‘Mummy! Look! Nature!’ Tom’s time in forests, riversides and gardens all seem like exercises in praise.

Not long ago, a little after Tom’s 8th birthday, we came across a mob of kangaroos in an open grassy area  and Tom went over to them. The lead male was on alert, standing up straighter, and all the mob lifted their heads from the grass, watching this approach, the smaller ones already leaping off to a safer distance. Tom saw them starting to leave, and stopped. Then he knelt down on the grass, leant forward, hands tucked to his chest, and started nibbling some grass. The kangaroos relaxed. Some went back to eating, the lead male stayed watching, and he and a few others came forward towards Tom, perhaps to have a better view of what exactly this creature was doing.

Tom lives out an intimate interconnection to the natural world that I know in more abstracted – though also keenly felt – terms. I know that we are all a part of the great system of planetary life; part of the give and take and ebb and flow of air, water, sustenance, as much animal as those around us. I have not had any experiences like Val Plumwood’s being crocodile prey to make me feel more viscerally part of the chain of eat and be eaten. A long time ago, as a 20 year old, I decided to become vegetarian after witnessing a fairly ordinary Australian event: a driver in a national park hit a kangaroo, yet he barely slowed down, didn’t stop to see if it had been killed, if it needed to be put out of its misery, or if an orphan joey needed caring for; just kept going, unconcerned about the lives just impacted. I decided I didn’t want to be as complicit as I had been with our normalised system of unconcerned taking.

I fear for many things and how they will fare in coming decades; I find the losses too distressing to contemplate for long, my mind slips away from them. I know it is likely we will soon be trying to find ways to live with over 40-degree days routinely, that days over 50 degrees will be something that we will have to endure. I also presume we will be able to maintain some mechanical ways to keep ourselves at survivable temperatures indoors. What those temperatures will do to the phasmids, to the parrots, to the kangaroos is almost unbearable to think through. At the Australian Museum, where I work with Pacific peoples and collections and the museum’s climate change initiative, I am trying to find ways to encourage people to try to think through these things, to talk, and to start to approach the paradigm shift from seeing the natural world as resource to seeing it as the great unified whole that makes up the planet, interconnected and interdependent, requiring notice and care. I am not sure that our efforts at the Museum to increase engagement in the planetary crisis through our exhibitions, education and public programs are yet making a substantial difference. It is hard to know. I am sorry it’s all so late. For my children and the children of all species, now and to come – I honour your beautiful, infinitely precious connections. Long may they persevere.

Below Tom’s time in forests, riversides and gardens all seem like exercises in praise Image: Jenny Newell