Saturday, September 3, 2016

For the Love of Nature: The Dragonfly

For the Love of Nature:  The Dragonfly
Copyright 2016, by Lori-Ann Willey


My Setting
In the late afternoon air, I sat and faced the gentle mountain breeze.  With my legs dangling over the aged, rough-cut dock boards, they hovered a couple of feet from the water’s surface.  My hands rested loosely and lazily upon my lap.  Nonstop, my eyes scanned the skies looking for a break in the clouds. The break, large or small, it didn’t matter.  My goal was simple.  With a clean-slated mind, I hoped that a writing topic would present itself in some way, shape or form. The color blue, once again escaped my view …the sky was cloud-filled, a solid layer of textured gray of varying shades met my eyes no matter their direction.  The clouds, once again, hastened darkness before it was due. 

August 31st is the date, but I did not need a calendar to tell me that the sun is “drifting” further and further away, lingers less and less, or that the days are shorter, cooler.  The calendar does not tell the plants when their lifecycle is complete, nor tell the critters when to prepare for the long winter months ahead. The calendar is a human thing. Mother Nature has a calendar of her own, and she does not depend on the inventions of two-legged critters we call humans.

I watched as the sky grew dimmer by the minute.  Nighttime was imminent.  The sun, always in singular form, the sky, too, has no boundaries, just obstacles of interruption, both man-man and nature-made.  That sun remained hidden much of the day, so she was not expected, nor missed come time for sunset.  It took those clouds -vast, bulbous, and gray-  all day to combine into the solid mass I saw before me …above me.

Light streaks of rain lined the sky that partially obscured the mountain from view.  With intent, or maybe not, the rain visually changed the landscape before me.  Almost instantly, Mt. Katahdin transformed.  No longer did she look alive, colorful, or picturesque. Instead, her appearance was one of a black and white sketch of well-placed diagonal lines, uniform, and perfect -a photo opportunity that I did not take advantage of.  If I had, it would have defeated the purpose of my sit.  

Instantly, I visualized the underwater world of long slender grasses as seen so many times while I snorkel.  There is such beauty there …underwater, that is.  At the same time, the rain-streaked sky offered its own beauty …just a different kind is all.  Differing in color, whether it be streaks of rain in the sky, wavering grass in the water currents, or the exposed fine-haired tree roots that reach for a nearby water source.  It didn’t matter. Nature is intriguing in all ways. In my mind, I link nature to people life in so many ways.  Both are beautiful. However, none of those were considered writing topics at the moment.  All that, was "just" the setting in which I sat waiting for a topic.

My Topic
Today, I thought about relaying my love of nature to those who cannot readily experience it as I can.  Hence, the start of a new blog series titled, “For the Love of Nature”.  My hope is to somehow, even for just a few minutes, bring you into my world, to tell you about my love for nature and all that she holds dear, for all that she protects …her own trials and tribulations of sorts. 

I could pull a million and one topics from a dozen or more hats, and then, further “go with the flow” of memories and experiences I’ve had over my 50 years on Earth.  Instead, I sat on the dock and waited for Mother Nature to present herself in an unsuspecting way.  I was prepared for a long sit.  However, I hadn’t sat for more than two minutes when the wings of a large dragonfly fluttered around my head.  It nabbed an insect too minute to see without a pair of “Grammy-Glasses” upon my nose. Instantaneously, my mind flashed through dozens of thoughts and memories.  I knew then, that the first entry in this blog series would be about dragonflies!

True Love Begins with a Story
As the large late summer dragonfly darted about the area, I thought about how, weeks ago, it had mated.  I envisioned their preferred egg-laying habitat and conditions, too.  Then, when the eggs hatched, how each egg, if not already fallen victim of pray, is now in the nymph stage.  Those dark-colored nymphs hide under rocks, in dead or dying vegetation, under or inside logs, too. Once in a while, I see them use the slow moving current to aid their travels about the area.  Either way, the bottom of the lake is where they feast upon living things smaller than themselves.  

The parent dragonfly that flew past me now lives its daily life as it waits to die.  Hours, days, or weeks, like humans, the dragonfly doesn’t know its exact lifespan either.  As the dragonfly continued darting around, nabbing one insect after another, I was drawn to my childhood years to a time when I was intimidated by the same insects that I now treasure.  As a kid, their bodies looked like thick, dull needles ready for the piecing of my flesh.  Their big eyes and long helicopter-like wings that sounded like shredded paper flapping in the wind never bothered me.   It was that needle-like tail that I watched with full intent!  It probably didn’t help any that my grandmother referred to them as darning needles that could sew up a holey sock faster than she could!

Nowadays, my love and appreciation for dragonflies is immense, and it all started one early morning about 20 years ago.  After our now full-grown children boarded the school bus on one September morning, I walked through an area of unmown grass that was taller than I.  The morning was quite cold already, but it became considerably colder when the dew-wetted grass clung to my bare skin that found a way to grip me with each step.  I remember how surprised I was that the tip of each dilapidated grass blade wasn’t covered with frost that morning.

As I walked along with my camera in hand, I found that walking through that tall tangled mess was much easier if I used my free hand to part some sort of pathway.   Though my hope was for less skin contact with that wet grass, in reality, I was already cold and wet.  The chill that morning was greatly felt upon my bare arms and legs, and it didn’t help that the sun had not yet risen over the treetops at the other end of the field some 900 feet away.  In the shadows or not, in an instant, I was no longer cold the second I spotted a dragonfly resting upon my arm.  It was just as wet as I was.  The dew upon my arm was smeared, whereas the dew was beaded upon its cold, lethargic body.  At first, I thought it was dead. Without taking so much as another step, I closely examined the beautiful insect to ensure I had not caused it injury, or even death.

With my arms nearly dripping wet, light clothes, too, I stood and took several photographs of the dew-covered insect. All 30,000 (that is not a typo) eye facets were covered with several thick water beads, too.  I wondered if the cold little creature could see me through all that wetness.  If so, did I appear distorted through the water droplets?  I also wondered if all those facets were still able to move individually while wet, or did the water weight them down in such a way that they became more fixed?  Normally, each of those eye facets moves about individually. Therefore, they can see and watch  many different objects at the same time. They also help to give the dragonfly a constant 360-degree view. Given the conditions that morning, I wondered if they could they see anything at all?

I was sure that the heat from my arm was welcomed by the insect, and I was rather surprised that it was not long before he turned his head to look at me all curious-like …much like when a dog is spoken to, and then, waits patiently for a command.  The mommy in me wanted to wipe it dry but knew that would be an impossible task.  Instead, I found a more natural way.

As the sun worked upward, I rose my arm so the sun’s rays touched the dragonfly in a visible, yet invisible kind of way.  The glistening sun upon its wetted body was breathtakingly beautiful.  Each dewdrop sparkled as if made of precious gems, each laid, poised, and at such an angle as to cast a pinpointed light into any passersby eye. My goal was to help warm and dry the insect. In return, I was thanked by Mother Nature who ensured that I was mesmerized by her beauty through the dragonfly that morning.  To me, even after 20 or more years, the experience is still both story and picture worthy.

In order to hasten the warmth and drying process, I continued to walk through the cold wet grass until my arms and legs were numb from the cold. The dragonfly was no doubt warmer than I at that point because I kept my arm raised to give him the most sun possible. Trying not to allow the tall grass to swipe the fly from my arm, it took me several minutes to exit the area. 

By the time I reached the shorter grass, the dragonfly walked about my arm with ease.  We had both heated.  Once I reached the house, the sun was shining fully and brightly upon us.  I watched as the beads of dew grew smaller as time tick-tocked.  The cute little buggah became less lethargic-like, too.  I had no doubt, that he appreciated my body heat and the sun alike. 

When I reached the deck, I rested my arm in such a way as to encourage the dragonfly to crawl onto a drier surface.  Reluctant he was, but with little prodding movements, I unfairly encouraged him to either fly or step away from my heat.  It did not work.  The darning needle-like fly repeatedly climbed further onto my arm after each touch of the cold, damp deck board.  He wanted warmth, and I wanted a friend.  It was a win-win situation.

Those few moments touched the depths of my heart that morning, and to this day, I believe the appreciation went both ways, a communication of sort between a human sap and a very cold 6-legged insect. I stayed with the dragonfly until most of the water beads evaporated completely.  More and more he became more lively …more aware of his surroundings, too.  After flapping his wings a few times, I’m sure to finish ridding unseen dew drops of varying sizes, he flew away.  I was no longer needed.

After recalling the cherished memory above, immediately, my thoughts went to another memory. 

The Emergence!
One spring morning many years ago, again with camera in hand, I happen to be walking along a body of water looking for an intriguing photography specimen when I happened to see a dragonfly dangling from some sort of hard-shelled insect.  At first, I thought maybe the dragonfly was caught in a spiders’ web, as there were plenty of those along the water’s edge, too.  Upon closer inspection, I didn’t quite understand exactly what I saw.   Curious, I sat upon the ground and swapped camera lenses.  With a macro lens attached, I used it as a sort of high-end, funky-shaped magnifying glass.  Once up close and personal, I was amazed at what I saw!

Captivated beyond belief, I watched as a dragonfly pushed bodily fluids from his abdomen, thorax, and wings over the next couple of hours.  “Water” dripped from its posterior one very excruciating slow drop at a time.  There is usually a total of three drops from there alone.  Over the expanse of time, the wingtips partially filled with a clear, green-like gel that resembled a thin layer of lime-favored Jell-O on a sheet of plastic wrap resting upon a pane of glass.  The faint reflecting prism of colors was magnificent.  I captured hundreds upon hundreds of photographs of emerging dragonflies that day, and quite honestly, I would not be surprised if I snapped well over a thousand, even.  Though that may seem rather obsessive and maybe even a little bit impulsive, but hey, that is how you get some amazing photographs.  Or, at least that is how I do!

Dragonflies spend most of their lives underwater in the nymph stage of development.  There, they can stay in the nymph form for a few years, shedding their exoskeleton several times.  When the time is right, conditions, too, they emerge from the water and crawl up a tree, or onto a large rock, driftwood, etc. They find a place where the breeze helps their drying process, and their mud-colored exoskeleton is camouflaged to further protect themselves against prey.

When a suitable spot is found, their claw-like grip is strong and they hold steadfast.  Whether it be gripping to a ceiling-like structure or as if hugging a tree, their claws, though almost too small to see, stay gripped long after the dragonfly emerge.  Sometimes I’ll see an empty nymph casing still hanging firmly in place many months, or even a full year later.  To me, that is quite impressive given how powerful the obsessed winds, snow, and rains are here. 

As an adult, each dragonfly emerges in the same methodical order.  Gravity is a great thing, even for dragonflies.  The emerging process starts with a small whitish-colored X-shaped crack in the exoskeleton at the back of the nymph’s thorax.  It is from there that the dragonfly sees daylight for the first time as an adult.  From the center of the X, where the two angles intersect expands outward, an opening grows to the size needed for the dragonfly to emerge. Sometimes, that opening process is very slow, but then, there are other times when the gaped hole appears in a quick blink of the eye.  

That newly expanded opening is from where the dragonfly slowly emerges after several throb-like motions.  Each “throb” has a purpose.  The emerging process is slow, and if possible, I always make time to watch from start to finish.  The dragonfly had spent several years as a nymph, only to transform into something that looks totally different.  Imagine if your legs were folded up in an accordion style and squished into an exoskeleton 1/3 the length of your body, or if you had wings, how flattened and shriveled up they had to be to fit inside that same casing. In adult form, that is the cramped lifestyle each dragonfly must endure until it emerges.

With the aid of gravity, eventually, the new dragonfly emerges, head first, followed by the thorax, legs, and then, lastly, the abdomen.  Everything about the dragonfly is almost unrecognizable.  Every part of the insect is nearly flat, deflated far worse than Tom Brady’s footballs.  Even the eyes are dented, sometimes even wrinkled or creased. Honestly, there are many times, I wonder just how painful the entire transformation is on the poor things.  Sadly, I have to admit, that at times, though, not very often, I find a dead dragonfly partially emerged.  Mostly, those look like they were deformed or were subject to prey during the process of outing itself.  Without proper inspection and/or knowledge, it would not be fair for me to determine one over another.

The dragonfly “empties” the nymph exoskeleton head first, almost as if working its way out of a sock, and all with the help of gravity.  Once the head emerges, it dangles as if to use that weight to help pull the rest of itself from the same casing. Slowly, the thorax area comes into view. Attached to the thorax section are the legs and wings.  Everything is pressed and compressed snuggly.

At first, unless you know what you are looking for, the wings are unrecognizable.  They are all squished, wrinkled, and pinkish-gray-like in color. The thorax bulk also adds weight and helps aid that gravitational pull downward …and, in this case, outward from the exoskeleton, too. Lastly, the base of the abdomen starts to appear.   It is at this stage that I have my camera more so at the ready.

The dragonfly seems to halt in this position for a while …sometimes up to a half hour or more while it continues to prepare its body for the next step.  Meanwhile, the eyes slowly inflate, as does the thorax. The wings slowly grow longer and less wrinkled, too. Insects have six legs, and each of those starts to wiggle and pull away from the body a little bit at a time, in slow jerky-like movements that are impossible to photograph.

Close to a half hour later, the dragonfly starts to move its body more as more and more of the abdomen shows itself.  The wings, long, but still pleat-filled, they take on the look of pulled open window curtain.  They drape motionless.  Soon, the dragonfly appears as if doing stomach crunches. 

Typically, the movements are subtle at first with long pauses between each crunch. After a few partial crunches, it moves onto full sit-up motions. Usually, before the fifth full sit-up, the claws are gripped firmly around the opening from which it came.  Within seconds, the dragonfly pulls the remainder of its abdomen from the nymph casing. The adult dragonfly is born!

It is at this stage that the newly emerged dragonfly is totally defenseless against predators, and unfortunately, dragonflies take so long to “inflate” that they become easy prey for birds, small critters, spiders, and ants, too.  I have watched a few dragonflies meet their demise well before they are capable of making an evasive move or escape. Sometimes, even I become a safe haven for dragonflies that were taken by a gust of wind. I had a few that were not quite ready to fly, but would have enough movement to flap onto my hand, camera, or hair. I am always very willing to sit for as long as it is needed for them to fly away on their own after that.

The dragonfly continues to cling to the exoskeleton with all six claws while the body continues to inflate, and then, as I mentioned above, squeezes excess water from its posterior. I consider it somewhat like an internal after-birth, a flushing out the system type cleansing, but in reality, I have no idea how or why that excess fluid benefits the dragonfly.

Factors such as air humidity, temperatures, and the wind all determine how long before the newly emerged dragonfly is able to fly away.  Over the years, I watched the process take anywhere from two to four hours!  I have even seen deformities, a popped eye, a bent wing, and a missing leg here and there.  Nature is not perfect by far.

An Annual Tradition
Each spring I anxiously wait for the right conditions.  When met, I can be found slowly walking along the shoreline with camera(s) in hand looking for the wet mud-colored dragonfly nymphs.  When I see one, I find a comfortable, sometimes all too common uncomfortable, spot to sit and watch a beautiful dragonfly emerge.  Hours and hours I’ve spent, and hours upon hours I will continue to spend watching it all in complete awe year after year with my mouth, justah grinnin’.

Though the process is always the same, the “birth” of a dragonfly is nearly comparable to the sound of a laughing child.  Neither gets old. Both greatly cherished.  Equally, they leave you wanting more.  What a privilege it is to see such emerging’s so up close and personal-like.  How can one not be in awe over such things?

Time escapes me when I am outside observing nature.  To me, there is no better place to be than laying on the ground or sitting in observance of my woodland surroundings.  Many times, I spend at least a couple of hours or more doing nothing more than watching the sun dance with the swaying trees before me. To some, I see “nothing”, but to me, I see it “all”, for nature is never-ever nothing.

I do not know what my next topic will be, but I assure you, you will know when I do.

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