The following is an excerpt from Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History, written by Cindy Crosby and illustrated by Peggy Macnamara
In my mailbox is a birthday card from my brother Chris. I open the envelope and shake out a wooden bookmark etched with the image of a dragonfly’s wing. I’m touched. But not entirely surprised. To see anything dragonfly-related prompts my family to think of me. This connection to dragonflies has come about gradually over the past fifteen years—so gradually that some days I’m not quite sure how it all happened. But there it is. Dragonflies and my life are intertwined.
That day, I had returned from Florida, where I celebrated my birthday with my husband, adult children, and six assorted grandkids under age eight. It was the perfect week. Beach, pool, family cookouts, more beach time. Southern dragonflies buzzed through the landscape, many new to me. Interesting shorebirds. Exotic flowers in tropical colors. I felt happy. At peace. Rested.
Then, as our vacation was about to end, my phone vibrated. I saw there was a message from my doctor’s office. Opened it.
The word stared up at me.
Before I’d left home, I’d had a few tests. The doctor who did the first test, and then the second, was reassuring. I’ve done thousands of these biopsies! This one doesn’t look problematic. But of course we won’t know until the tests come back.
And now they had.
“There is no reason to write a book unless the process of imagining it changes one’s life forever,” asserted Richard Manning in his opening chapter of Grassland. This diagnosis dropped into a life molded and shaped by the rhythms of dragonflies. From April to the end of October, I’m restless whenever I’m indoors, wondering what I’m missing by not being outside. The life of the skies and the watery underworld of creeks and ponds have me in their grip; I don’t want to ever feel it loosen.
Dragonflies have become a part of my identity. They’ve been a solace through my cancer diagnosis and my recovery as I watched them fly through my backyard, where I was relegated to a lawn chair in the midst of writing this book and unable to chase them. Dragonflies were also an introduction to hundreds of kind and interesting people, many willing to share their passion for dragonflies and Odonates by phone and email and by my side in the field, mentoring a willing learner like myself. Dragonflies are my nemesis too, the cause of frittering away hundreds of hours of time that might have better been spent earning a paycheck. Or so some people might think.
Once you “see” dragonflies, your world will change. Every backyard barbeque, each walk along a river, or time spent weeding a garden—suddenly, you notice—they are everywhere! So many aloft. So many fluttering in the grasses, skimming ponds, hovering around traffic lights. Each one a bit of unique insect art.
In An Obsession with Butterflies, author Sharman Apt Russell says that adding butterflies to your life is like adding another dimension: “All this existed before, has always existed, but you were unaware. You didn’t see.” Russell’s butterflies have been my dragonflies.
Dragonflies say “mystery” to me.
There is so much we don’t know about the order Odonata. So much to learn. Dragonflies live most of their lives under the surface of the water. One fine day, they pull themselves out, split their old “skins,” and, changeling-like, become something beautiful, colorful, and new. Grow wings. Take to the air. Their brief lives are over before you can blink. Or so it seems. As Kobayashi Issa, the Japanese haiku poet, wrote:
Days are short—the
fleeting, as well
The first half of my life, I had a lot of pat answers to some of life’s most difficult questions. The second half of my life I live knowing some answers are going to be in short supply. Cancer, with its shattering shock waves and mysteries, reinforced this realization. The dragonflies, with their ancient lineage and predictable lives—yet shot through with mystery and the unknown—echo this enigma. Their lives are tenuous, as our lives are. Dragonflies move between water and air, transforming themselves, all while prone to the whims of weather and the vagaries of the next frog, bird, or other predator waiting to snatch them from life.
And yet, for hundreds of millions of years, they have been evolutionary survivors.
As I write these words, a pandemic is sweeping the globe. Illinois families are sheltering in place to avoid becoming infected with the COVID-19 virus. We’re unable to go about the normal rhythms of our days. Workplaces, nature centers, houses of worship, schools—all are closed. My husband, Jeff, and I drive to our daughter’s house and talk to the kids from our car, while they stand on the porch. I teach my classes online. Fear, anxiety, and uncertainty reign.
And yet. Temperatures warm. The month of April arrives. My crocus and daffodils bloom. I stand on the back porch and scan the skies. Although my life and millions of other lives are in complete disarray, the dragonflies are unaffected. The first migrants will arrive any day. Their rhythms of life go on. I find comfort in this. We don’t know how this global pandemic will end. But there is solace in the rhythms of the natural world.
CINDY CROSBY is the author of The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (Northwestern University Press, 2017). She is a natural history instructor in the Chicago region who coordinates dragonfly monitoring programs at the Morton Arboretum and Nachusa Grasslands, a Nature Conservancy site.