Mama Hagenius versus the Head
Creekbound with the daughter. Worth driving one hour north and west to attain the Arkansas Ozarks, to attain temperatures in the lower seventies and cool clear water. My daughter had not been to this particular creek. And she is a connoisseur of creeks anymore. Though she prefers them mosquito free and without the hazards of leeches and the larger snakes.
Into the water and soon we were immersed in damsels—multiple genera, mating and winging it. One particular robber fly seemed to specialize in the lifeblood of teneral damsels. I am convinced he chose the tenerals only, the newly hatched, the tender and pale. And as he sucked them dry they curled up on themselves like the wicked witches legs beneath the house of Oz. In the end he clutched only a knotted tube, colored like ash and ricepaper. He cast them off like gum wrappers.
Least Clubtails (our Stylogomphus albistylus) appeared soon afterward. And I am rapidly moving this odonate up my list of favorites. I find the males very wary. They are little more than damselflies on full glide, on crack and go. I love that flapdown wing attitude of the cocky rock perch, that vanishing trick they pull upon the birch leaves. Making you think you imagined them in the first place. Like corneal flaws of uncommon structure and speed.
My daughter splashes ahead after darters and crayfish. Zabulon Skippers flash and stick, run mad circuits over water and over humans and stick again, folding open in the sun: “you think you know orange, I’ll show you orange.” And each larger water pool holds its own Hagenius, the Dragonhunter (or Dragonhuntress). They stop us each time. My daughter has never seen one up close. And often these giants are fearless. They taunt me as I stand with the net. I miss and miss again trying to catch one for her.
And then at the pool that we stop for, the one that is deep and green, colder than the sunstruck shallows, my daughter is swimming with just her head above the water when a female Hagenius zips up and hovers four feet from her nose. It splashes as though egglaying but it looks more like it is getting testily territorial with this floating human head. It is surely a strange register on the thousandfold eye, this freckled face. Popping the tail under, staying in place, the dragon proposes dominance and order. I position myself nearby and wait. She vanishes this first time downstream but not before rattling her left wings against my daughter’s skull with her exit. We laugh. The floating head touches at that place in her hair. When the Huntress returns to flag water again, this time she is mine.
In hand, supposedly subjugated, the Dragonhunter is still daunting. They do not look conquered. They look like they could tear flesh off in chunks. This female has a nice ice cream scoop of orange caviar under its fantail. It had truly been egglaying. (My daughter had been correct. Me, the male, assumed the more aggressive purposes, wrongheadedly.) The insect's hind legs are amazingly long. I had not noticed this before—an airgrapplers gear, clawhooks for the heavy load. We admire them. I photograph the eggmass. And then my daughter, as always, gets to release her.
More miraculous though, I am in the pool cooling soon after, watching a Cruiser popping her own eggs along the bank line. I’m trying to see if it is Gilded or a Royal when my daughter shouts “dragonfly larvae.” (I don’t believe she has ever shouted this before.) But she points in the water next to me. I turn and I am dubious, I am in shoulder high stream water. I think personally that it is a round cut of dead leaf I’ve stirred from the bottom of the pool with my feet but she insists. The circlet tumbles like innocent flotsam. But when I scoop it in my hand I instantly know I do have the other end of the Hagenius lifecycle in my hand. We have fast-forwarded from the egg. And I carry this extraordinary creature over to the rocks.
It is a moon creature. It is a half dollar wafer of crabboid, creek marauder. Its dorsum is camouflaged with mossy green flecks, its underside the pure reddish brown of stone and leaflitter. What an alien stream presence. I want to call the mother Hagenius over and ask her what she means by this. And how in the world does one such as she fold out from such a scaled tablet as this, this flattened coin of a bug-eyed nymph. It is a mystery I would love to see happen—a miracle morphogenesis. But alas we cannot wait.
The nymph is shy. It keeps its legs folded until we leave it well alone and then it stretches and tries for the underside of something, anything. We get it back in the running water. It drifts a bit and grabs. It pulls out of sight.
I find no others. We turn over rocks and find hundreds of damselfly nymphs. We find water pennies, animate bumps that scoot. I don’t know what manner of insect they are. Immature beetloids? But the big Hagenius whizzes over and around us a few more times. She has not been stunned long by my net. She works more eggs off. I shake my head. The local world order is good for the soul. It has been long since I was so cheered by something so inherently ugly in its structures as the nymphs of this Hunter. But my daughter will never forget them. Hell, she may have Dragonhunter eggs in her hair. But she will never forget them. And in that memory bank my image also stands. And this, as always, is ultimately the gleaming stone I keep.