Learning to see

I don’t recall when I first saw a dragonfly and knew it for what it was. I’m certain that in spite of a well-intentioned book given to me as a child on the dragonfly’s lifecycle I had no real understanding of it well into adulthood, beyond a vague awareness that the eggs, laid in water, developed into emerging flight.

My knowledge expanded years later when I joined a local water quality monitoring program. Teams went to assigned locations to sample local streams and identify the resident critters, as indicators of the health of the stream. As training for this activity I attended a workshop on identifying the key benthic macro invertebrates for this purpose, and came home in despair, my brain grappling with seemingly indistinguishable images of mostly brown larval mayflies, stoneflies, caddis flies, damselflies and dragonflies. Yet with experience I came to distinguish them easily, and the dragonflies—robust predators throughout life— so captured my imagination that I signed up for a workshop specifically about them, with an all-day field trip. We were advised to bring small lightweight binoculars, and by the end of the day I had used them so much that my eyebrows were cramping.

Having learned about dragonflies, I can’t miss them. On the other hand, my mother, who had spent years tending her flower beds and had a sharp eye for weeds, was astonished when I pointed out the large dragonflies patrolling overhead, so obvious to me after that eyebrow-cramping field trip. They were not part of what she looked for, and so had remained unseen.

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