“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” — Pema Chödrön.
If you want to get a fresh perspective on life, jump into the water. That’s where I find myself this week, monitoring dragonflies and damselflies on the prairie. So much of insect life on the prairie is virtually invisible. To really see some of the damselflies requires full immersion.
It’s sunny—one of the few dry days this week. Out on the prairie, the white wild indigo is in full celebration mode.
The bumblebees are making the most of bloom time.
Honeybees busily buzz around the wild asparagus blossoms.
The gorgeous prairie wildflowers are offering a show in early June that would put Las Vegas to shame. Scurfy pea (what a great name!) throws purple all over its silvery tumbleweeds.
Prairie sundrops earn their name, splashing light where they lie knee-high, barely keeping up with the grasses and wildflowers growing lushly all around.
There’s plenty of dragonfly action on the prairie trails. Calico pennant dragonflies—red males, yellow females—might be mistaken for butterflies by the non-initiated.
And who could blame someone for thinking so? Each year the pennants’ fluttering appearance seems magical. I could get easily get distracted from the morning’s task at hand.
But today is for the prairie stream. I pull on my hip waders and get down to business. It’s a bit windier than I’d like for dragonfly monitoring, but the brook is nestled into a low spot on the prairie and there, the breeze doesn’t do as much as ruffle my hair. However, getting into a stream in waders is a challenge. Especially when the sides of the bank are steep and your knees aren’t what they used to be. I sit and clumsily scoot-slide down the steep sides of the bank.
It’s a different world, down in the stream. The prairie above recedes from my view and my thoughts. All that exists is the water. It’s surprisingly high, well up to my hips. I cautiously test my footing. Streams are always dicey; sometimes the bottom muck sucks your boots into it unexpectedly, leaving yourself in a bad predicament. Other times an unexpected hole opens up as you take a step and you lose your footing. I’ve never fallen—yet—but I fully expect that is in the cards at some point.
All it takes is a glint of color or motion out of the corner of your eye to distract you. You glance up. Ebony jewelwings! The white spots tell me this one’s a female.
The males aren’t far off; spaced evenly along the stream. Perched on the grasses.
Look down, and there’s a violet dancer damselfly in all its shocking variations of purple.
Just to the side is a newly-emerged American rubyspot damselfly in the teneral stage, abdomen drooping, its colors in the process of brightening. Its wings look newly-minted. I’ve been watching for this species, which hasn’t appeared along my stream-side route this month. Like clockwork, they knew when it was time to emerge.
There you are. I’ve been wondering when you’d show up.
Picking my way down the stream, I test each step. The process gives “mindfullness” fresh meaning. I stumble at one point, where a drop-off is invisible in the murky water, and grab at the closest vegetation. For the first time in my life as a prairie steward, I’m grateful for the invasive reed canary grass lining the shore.
As I regain my sense of balance, I notice a new form of a blue-fronted dancer damselfly—a blue morph female, rather than the more common orangey-tan— enjoying a protein-packed lunch of unknown bug. I’ve seen plenty of blue-fronteds over the course of my monitoring, but not this variation. Cool! I thought I knew this species. It’s another reminder that there is so much I don’t know.
The stream is the romantic hot spot of the prairie for dragons and damsels. All around me are various stages of damselfly mating in progress. In the early stages, the male (like this blue male stream bluet, below) grabs a likely-looking female behind the head…
…and the two dragons or damsels form “the wheel,” which often looks like a heart. Two ebony jewelwings make a beautiful one, don’t they?
The male guards the female (either by hovering in the air, or continuing his death-grip behind her head) until her eggs are safely deposited in floating mats of vegetation, grasses, old wood, or directly into the water. Take a look below as a pondhawk female (green) dragonfly taps her eggs into the surface of the water, while the male (powdery blue) hover guards just above.
The whole process of ovipositing—egg laying—moves fast, doesn’t it? But a dragonfly or damselfly’s life is a matter of weeks, sometimes days, or even hours. To keep life moving forward, they don’t mess around.
Unlike the dragonflies, there’s nothing fast about my work today. The rewards of stream wading are these: Reminding myself how it feels to move quietly and slowly. Learning that what I think I know isn’t always the whole story. Finding new perspectives on places I thought I knew well. Surprises at every bend of the brook. Realizing that when I don’t jump in I miss so much. And most of all, perhaps, the mind-clearing effort of paying attention to every step, punctuated by new delights all around.
When I’ve finished wading my short stretch of stream, I’m exhausted. The careful focus on footing. The watchful parsing of shoreline vegetation for a flash of color, a glimmer of motion. The sheer energy exerted to get from point A to point Z in the water that is getting to be more of a challenge each season.
But the bombardment of marvels all around me in the stream fills up my “inner well.” You know that “well;” the one that is depleted by meetings and noise and front-page news and angry drivers and toxic people. I always leave the stream feeling more at peace. Like the world is a beautiful place.
I don’t wade every pond and stream where I dragonfly monitor; it takes too much time. But there’s not a day when I don’t wish I could. There are joys and revelations I’m missing because I stay high and dry on the shore, counting dragonflies where it’s easier. But I’ll always see less than I would from the sidelines than if I fully commit myself to the water.
Think about it. Every pond, every lake, every stream is filled with rhythmic dances of life going on each moment. So many amazing things happening in the world!
All we have to do is look. And keep our sense of wonder.
The opening quote is by Pema Chödrön (1936-), an American Tibetan Buddhist nun. Her books include, When Things Fall Apart and Start Where You Are.
All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) with unknown bumblebee, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) with an unknown honeybee, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; scurfy pea (Psoralidium tenuiflorum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie sundrops (Oenothera pilosella) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calico pennant dragonfly male (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calico pennant dragonfly female (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), female, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), male, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), teneral, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue-fronted dancer damselfly (Argia apicalis) (female, blue morph), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; stream bluets (Enallagma exsulans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pondhawk dragonflies (Erythemis simplicicollis) as seen from my kayak in Busse Woods, Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Schaumberg, IL; green frog (Lithobates clamitans), Nachusa Grasslands Beaver Pond Stream, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pond at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pond at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.