About the time we are sure it will never come, the Carolina Jessamine flings its yellow ribbons over the fences and woodlands of northwest Florida, reminding us that spring is on the way. At the same time, something wonderful is happening in the tidal marshes, wet seeps and ditches, ponds and blackwater creeks. Naiads are stirring from their winter homes in the oozy bottoms. These extraordinarily homely and voracious creatures will soon crawl up grass stems, aquatic plants, dock timbers and lilypads and begin the magical transformation of metamorphosis. They will leave their shelly exoskeletons behind after long months, and in some cases, even years of living underwater, and become dragonflies and damselflies – creatures of dazzling color and intricate form.
Called odonata, meaning “toothed jaw”, dragonflies and their smaller cousins, the damselflies, depend on other insects for food. Both are efficient and deadly predators, who sometimes dine on others of their own kind, in turn providing food for fast flying birds, occasional spiders, bats and other insects such as robber flies.
You can watch the odes passively anywhere you happen to be – in your yard, at the beach, taking a walk. They inhabit the space from your feet to high above your head, each species choosing various strata of air space. For instance, you will not see a Royal River Cruiser (a creature of wide expanses) sharing the space of the diminutive Amanda’s Pennant, perching on a blade of grass.And then again, you can hunt for them. I am not a collector of specimens to kill and pin in a box, placed in a drawer but rather, a collector of their images. Many of my happiest, most active hours are spent “ditchin’”.
Ditchin’, as I call it, is a hot, sweaty pastime. I am hunting dragons and damsels with my camera. Between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., when the sun is bright, the dragons become used to me in my old shoes, hat and grubby clothes, sometimes cooperating so well that I can place my lens within inches of their faces. One of my favorite ditches runs along County Road 2301 in front of Garner’s store, and many times I am asked “Whatcha doin’?” by customers and children on yellow school buses. So I tell them. Sometimes I show them the images in my digital camera. And something unusual always comes up to be captures on my memory stick. A year ago it was a green lynx spider who had become pink in order to camouflage herself and her egg sack amid the pink blossoms of ironweed. This fall it was the gaudily-colored caterpillars of the Banded Sphinx Moth, quietly denuding the host plant of leaves and growing by the hour.
But my favorite place of all to watch the dragons fly is just across the street from home on my neighbor’s dock in the shade of a maple. Here the alders touch the glassy surface of this little canal off Econfina Creek where native waterlilies, Nymphaea odorata, bloom profusely. It is here I come to think, ponder and dream as I watch the dragons, damsels, the blooming aquatic plants, the insects and other creatures who make up this community of small, wild things. As I watch the dragons, large and small, the fishing spiders, the fish, the clusters of pearly snail eggs hatching on the pickerel weed, there is no room for the brain clutter I bring to this place of broken shade and sunlit water. It is an easy vehicle for detaching one’s self from all but the stillness and the life of the creek.
I walk the edge of the bank. Because there is usually no one about at any hour, it is quiet. Road noises are muffled and sometimes I must tear myself away, for it is here that problems are resolved, the self, nurtured by the quiet beauty of this environmental capsule, calm restored to the soul. “Ode” watching can do this for you.
Damselsflies are comparatively fragile and much smaller, requiring a little more concentration to find them. Once you know what you’re looking for, where the air is still and protection is offered by foliage, you will see them hovering and perching easily. As colorful as the dragonflies, you can find them among your plants, morning and evening, darting in and plucking prey you can barely see off leaves and stems.But it is here by the dock I watched the drama of “Little Blue Eyes” and her mate (the Handsome Meadow Katydids), unfold. It is also here that I met a Southern Leopard Frog, and a tiny Praying Mantis hatchling, who avoided a mishap by swimming frantically for shore, rescued by my extended human hand.
Here in the grasses, I saw my first Lilypad Forktail, a damselfly less than an inch long and as brightly red as a fire truck, lighting up the evening. And following another of its kind, fell into the creek and drowned my former camera.
As I watch these small beings go about their lives, the dragonflies cruising the creek patrolling their territories, selecting, defending and breeding their mates, catching and eating their prey, laying their eggs, mine is forgotten completely for a brief time in the solitude of the creek.
Try it. Find your own spot of water and absorb yourself in this new activity of watching the odes. It will heighten your awareness and your ability to observe small details. You will lose track of time and trouble; tranquility will replace turmoil. Balance will be restored, chaos quelled, priorities arranged. It works for me. It will work for you.
So, dear reader, here is my small gift to you: The zen of watching dragons fly.
Thoughts on a peaceful pastime…