"I was, in fact, homesick for wildness, and when I found it I knew how intimately - how resonantly - I belonged there. We are charged with this - all of us. For the human spirit has a primal allegiance to wildness, to really live, to snatch the fruit and suck it, to spill the juice." - Jay Griffiths, Wild: an Elemental Journey

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Small Wonders, Both Beautiful and Violent

Last weekend, I went backpacking through Michaeux State Forest near Gettysburg, PA.  My inspiring mountaineering friend, Shelley, drove up from Virginia to join me.

I have gone on many backpacking trips, and blogged about nearly every one of them.  While I could certainly write about the excitement of night-hiking through dense rhododendron paths on Friday night, the great time we had drinking moonshine by the fire, or the incredible (and illegal) swims we took in the crystal-clear reservoir, I actually want to focus on the very small aspects of this trip.  Like literally, very small.

I want to write about the critters, y'all.

I just finished reading Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, so was primed to observe and appreciate all life around me in the woods, not just mammals as usual.  That combined with the fact that I have been meditating more regularly these past few weeks which has caused me to slow down quite a bit, and I found myself noticing so much more than I usually would.

For example, when we made a fire on Friday night, I noticed one particular log that seemed to be undulating.  At first, I thought it was the waves of heat coming from the flame.  But I looked closer and saw hundreds of ants scurrying out of the cracks and holes in the wood.  One end of the log was sticking up in the air, and the ants that had apparently been inhabiting it were frantically running to safety, away from the fire.

When I looked even closer, I saw that each one was carrying a tiny, white egg larvae.  And they weren't frantic at all.  They were carrying their offspring out in orderly lines, like little firefighter soldiers.  Amazing.

When we reached the reservoir that would be our second night's camping spot, we were awestruck by the clear water, and sweaty from our day's hike.  We immediately jumped in - before noticing (or caring about) the "No Swimming" sign further down the path.

Shelley enjoying her swim

Me gazing across the beautiful water
Little sunfish came up to greet us, curiously hovering just near our legs, but never daring to touch us and say hello.  We could see straight down to the bottom, so noticed every time the sun caught their tails and caused them to light up a neon turquoise.

We also watched a little head that bobbed out of the water every now and then, about 10 yards away.  It was sometimes a box turtle, and sometimes a water snake in our imaginations.  We never did find out which.

To dry off, we found a sunny spot near the water's edge and spread out my tent groundcloth.  We were visited by dozens of dragon flies while we relaxed and dried off in the sun.

On Shelley

On me
That night, we fell asleep to a chorus of frogs.  

The next morning, something incredible happened.  Nature had saved her best act for last.

As I was sitting back at our sunny spot by the shore, boiling some water for breakfast and coffee, I noticed something different about the grasses that yesterday were the playground to the large, purple dragonflies.  They were littered with tiny, translucent, molted skins of nymph dragonflies.

During the night, the dragonfly nymphs must have descended en masse and jointly emerged from their baby skins.  Then I noticed that one was still in the act!  She had saved her show for us!  Shelley and I saddled down on our elbows and watched in awe as over the next 20 minutes, this white, mucousy glob turned into a dragonfly.

(All these photos are thanks to Shelley.)

Phase One: Just emerged, she clings to her shell

Phase Two: Her eyes widen, her body enlarges and darkens,
and her wing nubs become visible

Phase Three: She stretches her new, mucousy wings

Final Phase: This is not the same dragonfly as above.
We did not have time to stay and watch her to completion.
This is the end result of a different nymph's journey.
But nature couldn't end there.  She had to remind us that she is more than just pretty.  She is also not to be messed with.

As we watched the beautiful dragonfly pictured above, completely emerged and in full, glorious form, a bee swooped in and tackled her to the ground.  This little bee pulled her wings off, and then gripped on to her head, vigorously biting and twisting.  At last, the bee popped the dragonfly head off and flew away with it in his grip.

And with that full cycle of experience and wonder, we donned our packs and hiked home.

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