Like dragonflies, we are all emerging | Zoology
Editor’s Note: This column was written in partnership and with the approval of Anahi Gill.
I leaned down, then knelt down, then finally sat down on the sun-warmed grass to be at the dragonfly’s eye level. Usually they go away so fast that I can’t see them well, but this female calico pennant was hanging off the end of a milkweed leaf even as it was shaken by an afternoon breeze.
Her huge eyes were the color of sweet cherries, and the light shone in the same way on their curve. Golden triangles paraded along her ebony belly. Dark spots on its hind wings, intertwined with yellow veins, shone like a stained-glass window in the sun. Really, she was a work of art.
As I remained mesmerized by the delicate beauty of the dragonfly, thoughts of my to-do list dissipated. Instead, a memory surfaced from an essay written by one of my students last semester when I was an adjunct teacher. “Whenever I feel estranged from myself or want to give up,” she writes, “the most beautiful creature appears”. Anahi, a Northland College student whose parents are from Mexico, had written about a frustrating time in her life and how encounters in nature can ease sadness and stress.
These thoughts echoed through me, but one of his following sentences stopped me dead in my tracks: “We praise dragonflies for their attractiveness, but we never consider the challenges they face so that we can see them. “
I immediately saw the truth in his statement. While an adult dragonfly may dart and twinkle for a few weeks in the summer, it can take years for it to get to this point.
“A dragonfly has four stages in its life cycle,” Anahi wrote. “They lay their eggs, develop into larvae, transform into molts, and then become adults. Sounds simple, right? Well, this is where we go wrong. When I first read Anahi’s essay, this sentence seemed simple too. But later, when she told me how young she was when she started translating letters from lawyers, hospital bills and work instructions for her parents, who were still learning English, I realized that this sentence had a deep melancholy for the long childhood of dragonflies.
Once dragonfly nymphs hatch from eggs, they can spend six months to six years in this youthful stage, before emerging to become flying adults. Like tiny dinosaurs, the nymphs roam the bottoms of streams, lakes and ponds, chasing mosquito larvae, minnows and snails with hydraulic jaws. But even as fierce predators, they risk being eaten by fish and frogs, and being fed for baby loons.
Anahi, too, faced challenges. She watched immigration officials arrive to take her father away. She endured racial slurs, stereotypes, mean words and looks. She traveled to Mexico on her own to get in touch with cousins, while her parents stayed at home and tried to share the experience by proxy. And, she went through the college selection and application process largely on her own, as the first person in her family to attend college.
Now in Ashland, she often searches for a bench on the shores of Lake Superior, where she can observe dragonflies and escape the pressures of her life for a few minutes. She wrote: “Dragonflies have survived 300 million years because they have strategies to adapt to new environments.
As a biology major, manager of the lacrosse team and the center of a close-knit group of friends she treats like family, Anahi has metamorphosed into an active young adult. Soon she will graduate and spread her wings. That’s why, I think, when she wrote a research paper on dragonflies for her entomology class, she saw the similarities and metaphors of their life cycle.
After reading a semester of heartfelt essays filled with emotion and wisdom, and sitting opposite this soft-spoken young woman as she told me about a life both similar and different from mine, I see the world a little differently. And I read his essay a little differently too.
“Before transforming during the last molt at the nymph stage, the dragonfly walks towards dry land and sits near the water’s edge,” Anahi wrote. “Once they find a safe place away from predators, the thorax starts to slip. The dragonfly begins to emerge from the exoskeleton of the nymph. During this stage, they also have to wait for their legs to regain strength. While they are waiting, the legs and abdomen begin to dilate. This process is called emergence.
“Even if the legs start to gain strength, you have to be careful because they can get tired while waiting, because it takes time to develop. They end up foraging near water or whatever is nearby. Once they are ready, they slowly begin to move and fly further and further.
The calico pennant that had caught my attention finally darted towards a perch on the other side of the garden. “Gorgeous,” I thought, and more.
Emily Stone is a naturalist and educator at the Cable Natural History Museum. The Museum is open with its exhibition The Mysteries of the Night.