Meadowhawk Watches

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 18) by Jack Phillips.


White-faced meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtusum), three days after the summer solstice in Pottawattamie County, Iowa. (Photo by Robert Smith.)

I reversed my usual route and decided to climb the steep face of the bluff that loomed over the little roadside parking. It is best to come down this west face rather than to go up, but on that early morning the oddly-cold late-June wind, barely beyond the solstice, advised a jacket and promised to push me up. She was little help, and soon my exertion made the jacket gratuitous. Many times I have learned not to trust the wind, but I was anyway beguiled by her confident demeanor gained by her long blow up the river valley.

I stopped to take a breather and to pack my wrap. I had only reached a shoulder, and soon gained the summit after another steep and hard ascent. There I found an unusual calm. The high savanna ridge was sunny and still and resplendent with diamond flowers, purple prairie clover and some white, and here and there an impatient rudbeckia well ahead of normal blooming. As I stood still and breathed hard, I was suddenly surrounded by squadrons of bright dragonflies of myriad colors and nimble flight.

They had their own reasons for mounting that ridgetop, as became apparent as they looped and landed on sunny perches to take the sun. They needed to warm up before commencing their ectothermic duties of hunting and mating and derring-do. I looked around at the familiar faces of pondhawks, blue dashers, whitetails, twelve-spotteds and widow-skimmers — all content to watch me watch them. I find it fascinating and a little unsettling that they can turn their heads like little deities with monkey faces. With each of my furtive steps, some would flit and some would hold. I reached out to gently touch a glowing-green female pondhawk on her wingtip; she remained unperturbed.

A few steps on, a host of mango and cherry seraphim darted from the woods and took positions on bluestem and rye. Some were saffron. With my close-focus binoculars, I studied their faces and even the hairs on their legs and veins in their wings. I made a new entry for white-faced meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum) in my odonate survey for this site. With each step the meadowhawks turned their faces, and I suddenly felt all eyes on me. I put away my notebook and lenses, feeling that I had crossed a sacred boundary and had received an undeserved vision.

Sometimes the dragonfly pantheon offers less taxonomy and more divinity and asks less documentation and more reverence. Their lives and that high place were not to be reduced to species lists as though a bit of Latin could reveal their true identities. I needed to be precise in my science but even more, to be attentive to the wild mystery that surrounded me. I walked on that high savanna as on a sacred place, but not through any scientific knowledge or spiritual insight on my part. It had been consecrated by dragonflies.