Yesterday Samuel and I went for our usual morning walk around the boardwalk. As I pushed his pram down the dusty trail beside the river I started and stopped.
Was that a dead dragonfly on the trail?
I doubled-back and carefully picked up a grey, wizened and dusty dragonfly and placed it on the palm of my left hand to show Samuel.
I was startled when the dragonfly moved one leg out into a more comfortable position and I realized it wasn’t dead—at least, not entirely.
We stopped still and gazed at the dragonfly. In stark contrast to the young dragonfly that had landed on my shoulder the morning I published Forty Days of Yoga, this dragonfly had no vibrant colors at all.
It was the washed out grey of dirty dishwater and it’s abdomen looked like the life had been sucked out of it.
“Look, it’s trying to fly!” said Samuel.
And so it was, buzzing its two front wings while the back ones remained stubbornly still. I could now feel the pin pricks of its tiny feet pressing into my palm.
Was this the death-flutter of a dragonfly?
For a moment it almost felt too intimate and too confronting to have a dragonfly die on my palm. But there was something magical about holding this insect and being able to see it up close.
Its eyes were completely grey and covered in a fine film of dust, as was its thorax. As it buzzed its front wings, I blew on it gently to shift the dust.
A moment or two later, instead of dying, the dragonfly’s back wings joined the buzzing insistence of the front wings and it took flight, heading up and over the river!
I followed its flight path, pointing it out to Samuel as the dragonfly dipped and turned over the river and in front of the mountains, marveling that something so close to death was able to resurrect itself. The dragonfly turned back, flew over the river towards us and then settled on a dried-up blackberry bush a few feet down from us.
Moving with stealth, I inched Samuel closer so we could watch it.
Its wizened grey abdomen was no longer—it was pulsing and thickening and color was coming back into it. Even more astounding was its eyes—they’d turned to sparkling emerald and glinted in the morning sun.
No longer the dead, dried-out, grey insect I’d picked up from the dust, the dragonfly appeared to literally be coming back to life.
The most pronounced symptom was the pulse in the abdomen and then also the return of color to its skin and eyes. We sat there for five minutes or so, just watching and seeing, sharing a moment, before continuing on our way.
I felt like I’d witnessed a miracle and questions crowded my mind.
Had the dragonfly been close to death on the dusty path? What had given it new life? What had given it the strength to fly again? Why had the abdomen started pulsing and thickening up again, no longer grey and dried out? How had its eyes come back to color?
Later, in conversation with a friend, I mentioned that I thought something had happened to allow the dragonfly to breathe again. He told me that dragonflies don’t have lungs—that they breathe through openings in their abdomen.
Suddenly I could see a plausible explanation for the magic of the morning.
The dragonfly had ended up in the dust which had blocked the air from getting into its body. It was dying. But when I lifted it up out of the dust and blew air on it, I must have cleared away enough dust that it could again breathe.
And with breath coming back into its body, everything began to fire up again. First its legs. Then its front wings. Finally, its back wings.
I had moved the dragonfly out of the shade where it was cool. It turns out dragonflies can’t fly when their blood is too cold. Sitting it on my palm, I stepped into the sun and with the warmth of the light, the dragonfly’s blood and wing muscles heated up enough so it could fly again.
Down in the dusty shady path, the dragonfly was deprived of oxygen, warmth and light and so couldn’t fly or move into the sun to save itself. It was dying.
My small action bought the dragonfly at least one more flight in the late summer sun.
It reminded me of the magic of small moments in life—of taking care and paying attention and stopping to see what is. That in any moment, our ability to respond to the need of another could be the difference between life and death. We never know how the smallest of our actions can have the largest of impacts.
All we need do is be present to the moment and the gift of life it is always offering us. It was such a gift to commune with a dragonfly—it is a wondrous creature.
But then this is a wondrous life.
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Ed: Catherine Monkman