In high summer, when soft green butter lettuce is woven into a tapestry of opal basil and garnet radicchio, I stand in the center of the garden stretching my tired back muscles and watch the dragonflies work the warm afternoon air, harvesting a feast of insects. One of the fiercest and most effective carnivorous predators in the garden, a single dragonfly consumes twenty percent of its body weight daily by ingesting beneficial and pestiferous insects, including up to three hundred mosquitoes a day, as well as a few tender larvae from its own Odonata order of the “toothed ones.”

This splendid, ferocious insect has long been a favorite guide of mine, indicating and maintaining health in the garden and in the surrounding watershed. The Oglala Sioux consider the dragonfly a “winged messenger,” coursing between worlds. Born in water and molting to airborne adulthood, the dragonfly stitches together visible and invisible realms with each rapid pulsebeat of its netted wings. An ancient being, the dragonfly has survived essentially unchanged for almost three hundred million years. The fossil remains of ancestral dragonflies appear in soft coal deposits laid deep in the earth during the Carboniferous Period.

©Martha Paulos/Photdisc
©Martha Paulos/Photdisc

In folklore the dragonfly is both worshipped and feared. The traditional symbol of good fortune and happiness in Japan, the dragonfly is called the “devil’s darning needle” in European culture, believed to suture closed the lips of disobedient children or to revive dead serpents in the underworld. This occult reputation is likely earned from the fearsome anatomy of the insect’s giant, glinting eyes and its ten-segmented abdomen, so like a wizard’s wand in appearance.

Dragonflies live most of their existence underwater until they take to the air and disperse. In each stage of their metamorphosis, they are increasingly predaceous and keen eyed. Dragonflies mate in midair, clasped in a primordial embrace, turning like a heart-shaped wheel in the summer sky. During copulation the male dragonfly makes sustained undulating movements of his abdomen to rout out the seed of any other males who may have mated with his consort, and then hovers in attendance as his partner deposits her fertilized eggs in the water. All dragonfly eggs hatch into aquatic nymphs—primitive, large-eyed creatures with insatiable appetites who live underwater for as long as two years.

Earlier this summer, on her birthday, a friend of mine stood by the Tassajara Creek with the garden far behind her and watched for more than an hour as an adult dragonfly was born out of the shriveled casing of its old shell. The nymph crawled free of the river and onto a rocky ledge above the water just as the back of its head cracked open and a new dragon emerged from the split-open husk of its skull. In that brief moment when aquatic respiration became terrestrial, my friend’s eyes locked gaze with the huge compound eyes of the winged messenger—dark, cobalt blue wraparound eyes with more than twenty-eight thousand cell lenses.

Laboriously, the insect withdrew its head, thorax, and upper abdomen from its old skin, hanging backward in vulnerable exhaustion. Then the remainder of the abdomen was withdrawn, and as the insect pumped new blood throughout its system, the abdomen expanded like a bellows, wing buds unfolded into a pair of large-veined cellophane wings, and the dragonfly took flight, “moving like thought,” my friend observed, down the main artery of the summer river.

The dragonfly is a vigorous meditation and gardening guide for me. With more than five thousand species worldwide, the order of Odonata has survived over the millennia for a few good reasons: Dragonflies are endowed with a singular, efficient body design; they live in multiple worlds of deep water and bright air—made of both, they cling to neither; and they require, and help to create, ecological health wherever they abide. Standing in the iridescent blue fire of this winged messenger, in the flashing light of those primeval compound eyes, my own practice grows uncompromisingly fierce.

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