A Lancet Clubtail (
Few find bliss among dragonflies. I found it last week when a Common Baskettail darted over my shoulder to snatch a horsefly from its endless orbit around my head. Allison and I were sitting on a ridgetop midway into a weeklong paddle through the bog lands of the western Adirondacks. From this vantage point we contemplated the momentous transitions in our lives that this trip punctuated. Each tamarack and stream inlet represented a different anxiety or accomplishment—the end of my graduate studies and the beginning of Allison’s; the bated anticipation of a job offer; a half dozen half-baked ideas for small entrepreneurial ventures.
This spring and summer has sent me grasping for perspective and direction, and we found it unexpectedly among the lily pads and bog mats. Here whirrs a frenetic world in miniature, where overlooked animals play out a high-stakes and uncertain game. Each day introduces a suite of new challenges to tiny beasts whose struggles and achievements may strike us as surprisingly familiar and resonant.
For an hour I watched another Baskettail defending a territory the size of a throw rug. His entire thrust and life force for the evening was to intercept every insect, sparrow, and hemlock needle floating through his airspace. He avoided my shadow, darted from my sudden movements, and occasionally caught the bugs buzzing about me. But he had no concern for my canoe trip. Even if he had the neural capacity to do so, it wouldn’t change his directive: to annihilate everything in defense of the fragile eggs in the sedges beneath him.
His obliviousness to my world was oddly peaceful to me, perhaps because people share this ignorant quality with dragonflies. After all, we almost never concern ourselves with the aspirations of the bugs around us. That which falls outside our own throw-rug territories is of little consequence. Even if I fixate on the dragonfly for a while, it hardly changes the itinerary of my trip or the responsibilities I left at home in my inbox. The dragonfly is doing his thing while I do mine. I find humility and sanity in sharing a small beach with something that is so incredibly unlike me, yet equally engaged in the common problem of living well.
The next evening, the persistent wind stalled for an hour, and the water between the lily pads reflected the sunset. The watershed is prolifically stocked with largemouth bass, which we were out to catch. I changed from fly to fly in fruitless attempts to mimic whatever mysterious hatch the bass were targeting. Giving up, I turned my attention to the armada of dragonflies that had materialized, strafing low over the water lilies. Every few seconds, one would dip toward the water and tap her abdomen, laying a single egg against a lily pad or the surface tension of the pond. As one flew alongside our canoe a foot off the water, the pond surface shimmered, lifted, then erupted into a gape of teeth and gills engulfing the dragonfly. The bass somersaulted through the air and violently splashed back into the water. Soon the entire shoreline of the shallow peninsula roiled and splashed with hungry bass—an ephemeral warzone of propagation and predation unfolding under the glowing orange clouds of the most serene summer evening.
Days later and twenty miles downstream, we lazily puttered our canoe through backwater ponds tacitly delaying our inevitable return ashore. Turning again to nature to exercise some mindfulness in the face of our impending appointment with civilization, we were greeted by damselflies. A handful of these fragile, diaphanous sprites lit on my fishing pole, and my life preserver, bracing against the gale headwind generated by our meandering boat. Each lily pad around the canoe supported a damselfly standing over its collapsed exuvia—the exoskeleton of the wingless, aquatic nymph life form from which it transformed and emerged from moments ago.
Each of the delicate damselflies on the lily pads had a mother that survived the jaws of the largemouth bass, and a father that heroically and tirelessly defended it as an egg. Each nymph climbed up onto these lily pads having survived months or years underwater, low on the food chain, outliving ninety-nine percent of its siblings. When I accidentally knocked one off the canoe into the water, I felt a strange empathy and heartache that I’ve never before extended to a bug. We plucked him out of the water, draped him over my backpack to dry, and headed for the take-out.
An adult damselfly standing over the discarded shell of its former self.
Dragonflies, mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies all live the majority of their lives as these small, predatory nymphs, clinging to rocks and reeds underwater for months or years. They crawl out of the water and emerge from their own exoskeletons into their final winged forms, living a few more short days or weeks as breeding adults. This is the discarded husk of a transformed dragonfly.
A bluet damselfly (Genus
). Notice the eggs under the abdomen.
Common Baskettail (