Photo by Flickr user jackanapesWe found the dragonfly in a rocky stream not even deep enough for wading. Stooped in childish crouches, hands on our knees, necks craning toward the tiny giant, we watched for signs of life — holding a double breath lest we violate some unknown sanctity of the insect world. The icy water trickled over our fingers as we nudged it gently, determining it was safe to pick up for closer examination.
My brother and I had wandered from our family’s campsite to explore the creek while our parents napped, something they did endlessly on these long weekend getaways into Maryland’s western woods. Far away in that adult world, the camper was popped-up and leveled out, a dim haven for our exhausted parents, their quiet snores mingling with the buzzing of insects more fortunate than our dragonfly.
The waterway was larger there — deeper, faster — and had to be crossed using a rough-hewn wooden bridge. As we had followed the creek upstream it grew smaller and narrower until I thought we might come across an abandoned garden hose that someone had left running years ago and never returned to shut off. But before the source of the stream had been discovered, we found the dragonfly.
In life it would have buzzed and zoomed, sending me ducking and cringing against the maddening beat of its wings. But this dragonfly was harmless, and I felt brave carrying the tiny beast. Mom would be quite impressed with our find, I knew, and would bend over my hand to better see its slender, armored abdomen and the way its wings glistened. Mom knew everything about everything, and I was sure we would learn something fascinating at the end of our journey.
Our initial trek had carried us quite a distance from our traveling homestead, and while we picked our way over craggy rocks, smoothed stones, and fallen trees, the drowned insect slowly dried in the palm of my hand. As the quiet camper came into view, the fire ring smoking silently a dozen yards further on, our lifeless passenger revived. With a quick test-buzz of its wings, and a startled upward jerk of my hand, I gave it an unthinking launch into the hazy summer afternoon.
My shriek, followed by my brother’s uproarious guffaws, stirred our parents, and we were sent racing to gather twigs to help relight the hidden coals for our dinner fire.
Later, in the darkness, after marshmallows were consumed in that complex ritual of oozing chocolate and crumbling Graham crackers, my brother and I lit our roasting sticks ablaze and raced to the little bridge to sign our names in the night with the glowing neon tips. We ceremoniously bent over the dark burbling water, and plunged our sticks down, down, down to quench the embers. Back to the fire, we thrust our sticks into the coals and waited for the burnt, soggy tips to burst back into light. Over and over and over we did this, before crawling into our sleeping bags, smelling of sweat, bug-spray, and wood-smoke.
I am a grown-up now, my mind miles above my feet, eyes turned inward, ears abuzz with the next items on my to-do list. Watching my daughter stoop to examine a pebble, I realize how long it has been since I crouched, childlike, over anything; craning in fascination, proudly carrying my treasure home in triumphant discovery. Something within me stirs and I quietly fold myself down to her height. She is so small, so close to the earth; she can’t help but notice the forgotten world under my feet.
Over her winter-capped head, I see the maples behind our home budding into a dim haze of tiny red flowers. Spring is arriving, and from deep within I hear a whisper. “Come back to the woods,” it beckons. “There are streams to explore and dragonflies to discover. Come back and remember that you are alive.”