I think I've posted this on DK before, ran into it recently as I realized to my regret that the Cicada Brood II tide had not reached my shores. I'm always grateful for the comments and support from DK for my writing, and I hope you'll indulge me this repost...

Potomac Damselfly

I paddled upstream as the sun rose behind me, bright red-orange, hazed by the dawn mists that flowed low towards me with the river, nestled into the valley's grey-green forests. I found my path through a zen garden of old, river-worn rocks, bonsai trees and bushes growing from cracks in the stone, in shallow lees of sand and pebbles. The river strained taut through gaps in the rocks, furling whorls and standing waves, a clear intensity that sheened purity, clarity, a breath-sound-smell of a timeless morning. The dawn light, the mist, and the still of the river instilled in me a quiet awe, a sense of how long the river had flown this way, how slowly these rocks had been smoothed, the taut gnarled lushness of plants and low swept-back trees that had endured flood and drought, storm and ice, seeds that had rooted in gravel pockets and rock lees, unfurled within a wild river.

Two osprey circled slow overhead, waiting on the afternoon's thermals. I watched one stall, backbeating with its wings, and then dive. The other circled low, and its shadow passed over me - a deliberate gesture, of mastery, and acknowledgement. I imagined it floating over this world, watching its shadow move below.

I paddled into the water-lee of the next island, a low rut of boulders lined with sandbanks and trees, and grounded my boat on the island's stern. A fine course of the river ran through the middle of this island like a stream, a few inches of water flowing over a green-shaded cobble bed, the trees arching overhead like a bower.

I reached back and brushed my shoulder, and found in my hand a crushed damselfly, still twitching. It had landed so lightly that I'd mistook it for a mosquito, or a leaf, an irritant. The body was frail and perfect, dusty blue, a fine crystal sheen in the spaces between the frets and webs of its broken wings, like the windows of a cathedral, rainbow-tinged like soap bubbles. I wondered if it had molted this morning, crawled up out of the water as a naiad, struggled out of its skin, unfurled its wings and dried them in this sunrise.

I was angry at myself, angry that I'd spent so much effort, car and kayak, oil metal plastic and muscle, to come to this place to kill so perfect a being. I was angry at my indulgence, that some sense of entitlement had allowed me to crush, with a casual whim, a being that had been born here, had hunted and hidden aquatic in these waters for months or years, had emerged fresh and took wing, maybe just this morning, for me to kill.

I held the damselfly for awhile, meditated on it, and then put it back into the river, watched as the water carried it away.


I remembered a kayak trip a few years back, during a cicada summer, when they were in such abundance that I could close my eyes, and map the landscape from the contours of their calls, dense along the forested banks. It had been a hot summer afternoon, the river moving slow and heavy, a liquid mirror reflecting thousands of flying cicada, and hundreds stuck struggling in the river. The fish had already gorged themselves. I watched cicada fly low, a curving buzzing flight, close with the water, and immerse, blunder-caught like flies in a web. Maybe they fly towards their own reflection, searching a mate. Or maybe the reflected sky below beguiled them as another world.

I was on a 3-day trip, and had miles ahead of me, had to keep going. I would pick out the next bend of the river, where the trees met, and would paddle in a straight line towards the junction for miles, hours, it seemed, chasing the hypotenuse. The cicadas would twitch-thrash their wings against the water, struggling futilely. The water would hold them until they starved, days maybe, and then their sogging corpses would sink slowly, or accumulate like dead leaves in slackwaters and eddies, a tangled debris of wings bodies and legs, as the bright red of their eyes faded to black.

I curved and balanced my boat's path through the water-stuck cicada, scooping the lucky few with my paddles and hands, dropped them on the kayak to dry in the sun, as I kept the waterbeat of my stroke. They would crawl slowly towards me, the highest point on the island, and climb me like a tree, perch for a few minutes as their wings dried, and launch buzzing from my head.

I paddled on, rescuing as I went. But why was I saving only the closest cicadas? Why not stop for all of them? What was so important about my destination? And when they left me, how many would fly back into the sky-water, to die behind me? How adequate were my actions?

Cicada had been flying here for millions of years, dying legion throughout. I was Serendipity incarnate, one last chance for those I saved to fly back towards the forest scree-calling, mate, cut wounds into trees and lay their eggs, a new generation that would crawl dark in the dirt, grubs seeking out roots, climb out seventeen years later, unfold wet wings to dry in the sun, and fly into another summer. The cicada would last longer than I, whether or not I saved them.


After watching the damselfly float away, I got back into my kayak and paddled downstream, through the rock garden, to the island where I'd camped the night before. As I approached the island's bow, a low beach of sand pebbles and shells, a flurry of damselflies arose, flew clustering around me. They landed on my boat, on me, on my arms hands and shoulders, and I stopped paddling, drifted with the river and them.

I'd paddled this river for years, had never experienced this. They were the same species, the same age as the damselfly I'd killed. They must have hatched at the same time, maybe even from the same brood, and these had followed the river downstream, found shelter at this island. It felt like a judgement, a vengeance.

But I'd had time to think as I paddled, following the waterflow downstream, past cormorants and blue herons perched on logs and rocks, osprey overhead. I was a disturbance, but from the damselfly's perspective, no more of a disturbance than a falling tree, than a thunderstorm, than the quick slurp of a carp. My actions, my presence, were as inherent to this place, as were the damselfly's. I had come here from love, and so had the damselfly. And in the cloud of damselflies that flew around me, rested on me, I saw abundance, and resilience. They'd been here on this river before me, and would be, long after I was gone.

Originally posted to erratic on Tue May 21, 2013 at 09:03 PM PDT.

Also republished by Backyard Science.

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