by Beth Waterhouse

One June day, four dragonflies chose to emerge from their nymph stage. A group of men and women were in various postures of deep observation and stages of amazement.

The brown beetles were muddy looking things, jagged edged and nubbly brown, each about an inch in diameter. They had crawled up the side of the rock wall and latched four of their six legs onto the stony surface. There, stuck tight for the next few hours, they gave themselves to the process of becoming.

A split occurred neatly across the beetles’ back and neck, into a “T” opening, and they slowly burst. Out of the opening emerged a brown-green dragonfly head, thorax, and set of folded, wet wings. The new dragonfly, meanwhile, was still attached to the “host” nymph by two or three microscopic white umbilical threads. The dragonfly reached out with four of its own six legs and held onto the host legs, matching their position, then, leaning forward, tugged its long folded tail upward and out of the carapace.

Now an entity, yet still attached to the host, the dragonfly began to “process.” It seemed to be running through something like diagnostics. Wings laboriously unfolded into delicate latticework. Tail slowly straightened, dripping emerald green fluid, which one observer tasted and pronounced salty. That same green life-fluid pumped visibly through the tail and body as we watched. As the insect grew steadily greener and telephoto cameras clicked, the dragonfly cared not a whit about us watching. After a couple of hours of unfolding and drying, the dragonfly crawled free, detaching from the host. We held each carapace, now dry and lifeless, in the palms of our hands.

Something magic had taken place in the eyes. After the emergence, as the golden eyes of the nymph dimmed, the green eyes of the new entity simultaneously brightened. Transference! This detail, the taste or pumping of the fluid, the oblivious nature of a normally wild and flighty insect– kept us spellbound for much of the afternoon.

Sadly, one of the four dragonflies did not make it. The “birth” seemed to breach, tail first, meaning that the dragonfly could not get its leverage set and the body never fully emerged from the nymph. The wings half unfolded but stuck together. The tail ruptured, still dripping green fluid. It was so tempting to help, but we did not, expecting that Nature was far more delicate than we could be. It inspired, among the women, our own stories of birth experiences and miscarriages.

The day’s gift included a wealth of time to think, draw, and write about what had happened. What exactly crawled up the rock face that day? Was it a nymph with a dragonfly in its belly or a dragonfly carrying a beetle on its back like the shell of a turtle? And if it was the latter, when had that transformation taken place—days earlier? hours earlier? And if it was the nymph, then when exactly did life transfer? Was it when the eyes dimmed out or when the thread of life was finally broken? Or was there no such “moment” at all, but Nature’s shape-shifting inside one life?

We later learned that the nymph winters over in the mud for as long as ten years, while the life of the flitting dragonfly is very short—one month or two. The dragonfly in flight is as busy as it appears, with time only to mate, lay eggs in the water, and continue the cycle. As it has continued for millennia.

Finally, three dragonflies, one at a time, readied for flight. Their wings went into a steady vibration—like the last of the flight-testing sequence. Then each lifted to a new and dryer world of air and pine-needle perch, blue sky and June breezes.

My final thoughts are about vulnerability. There, on the rock face and oblivious to outside forces for many hours, were four steadily developing and greening creatures. They were motionless except for the microscopic pumping of green fluids or imperceptible vibration of wing tips. These dragonflies were sitting ducks (or shall I now and forever say sitting dragonflies) for the many gulls, herons, or even crows who typically scan the area. The final faster vibration, apparently needed to ensure flight, also marked their surest vulnerability. ‘Darkest before dawn’? Most vulnerable just before new life.

July, 1998