The dragonfly perched on the sun warmed granite of the bench… more than I am allowed to do, as it  still has to be drilled and fixed immovably in place. I was precariously perched on the edge of a flowerbed, camera in hand, watching my son hand-feed the huge sturgeon in his pond…not exactly comfortable, but perfectly placed to watch the fascinating creature that had come to visit.

My son’s garden is in the town and we live in an area with little natural water, so every dragonfly we see here is exciting. This year, with the pond’s new and more open aspect, we have seen more than usual, from the tiny, iridescent demoiselles with their velvet-dark wings, to the big hawkers, but this was the first darter we had seen here. With its stained glass wings and deep red body, it was a beautiful visitor and one that showed no inclination to leave.

There are over fifty different types of dragonfly and damselfly in Britain, some of which are now on the red list as endangered species. Like many other insects, they are suffering from changes in land use and management as well as the problems cause by pesticides. It would be a tragedy to lose any one of these gorgeous creatures, each of which play their part in our lives as part of the balancing act of Nature.

They have been around an awfully long time. Their ancestors, the griffinflies with wingspans of up to thirty inches, ruled the insect kingdom around three hundred million years… long before the advent of the dinosaurs, when humankind was no more than a whisper in Nature’s dreams. Today’s dragonflies have changed little since then, so in many ways, they are a glimpse of Earth’s distant past.

In England, they were once known as the Devil’s darning needles, and it was thought that if you fell asleep by a summer stream, they would sew your eyelids shut.  This old legend, at least as it now stands, sounds like the kind of tale you would tell to youngsters to stop them lazing in the sun instead of working, and yet, to the Zuni, dragonflies were messengers between man and the gods. Perhaps, as eyes closed in dreaming can also see across the boundaries of reality, the two stories are not as far apart as they might at first seem.

I watched the brilliant little creature exploring the garden… a whole new and undiscovered country  for a being so recently emerged from the world in which it grew. Dragonflies hatch in water and spend most of their lives there as larvae, only emerging at the end of their lives as the glorious winged beings that delight our eyes. They can live years as larvae, just feeding and growing, before their transformation, but most live only weeks as dragonflies.

I think this little dragonfly was but newly emerged as he seemed content to be still and gather strength from the light. I couldn’t help thinking how beautifully Nature illustrates our own journey when we see the similarities, rather than the differences, between the lives around us and our own.

Most of us spend the early parts of our lives ‘underwater’. For many of us youth can feel cold and dark, a time of insecurity and fear that only takes on an alluring sheen when seen through nostalgic eyes. The earlier parts of our lives are about learning to survive, both physically and in society.

Many feel themselves lost, tangled in the choking weeds of suppression, victims of circumstance or the control of others. It is only with age that many of us begin to emerge as our true selves and it can be a struggle to break free of the shell that life and conditioning has built around us.

We may then cast around, looking for a place our new self can feel at home, seeking a new path or direction to replace old habits and outworn patterns… until we realise that all we need to do is to be still and gather strength from the Light. When our wings have dried and our true colours glow, then, perhaps, we can be our true selves… and the latter part of our lives may teach us how to soar.

The stream

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While I would much rather contemplate the swirling waters of a river and watch the birds take their morning bath, there is nothing much to do in an urban traffic jam except people-watch. The stream of humanity, though, offers its own gifts. From the children making their way to school, those who walk quietly and those up to obvious mischief, to the old man with the elderly collie, both hobbling arthritically in the chill morning air, or the young mother pushing the next generation in a hi-tech contraption that makes your car feel like a museum piece, there is always something to see and a train of thought to follow.

This morning, it was a young woman who caught my eye. She would, undoubtedly, have caught eyes other than my own. She was very conscious of that too… hair, make-up, dress…even the way she was walking, completely conscious of herself to the exclusion of all other considerations. Not through any kind of selfishness, but through need and insecurity. When you are young, the world exists only through that blurred lens that seeks validation and an understanding of one’s place in the world… from the self or from others. I remembered that feeling… the discomfort of being young.

There was something about the way she checked every car driver in the traffic jam, to see if they were looking. Not just hopeful, but appraising, as if only in their admiring glances could she find some reflection of herself that reassured. Everything about her was designed to draw all eyes, yet her own were not happy.

If I could turn back the clock, I thought to myself, I really wouldn’t want her youth, with all its self-consciousness and insecurity.  I wouldn’t go back there at all. Just a few years ago, I couldn’t have understood that. Youth, when you are in it, is far better than some imagined decrepitude… like reaching forty….

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The words of an old song wandered through my mind…

The Fountain of Youth is dull as paint

Methuselah is my patron saint

I’ve never been so comfortable before

Oh, I’m so glad that I’m not young anymore

Let’s be honest though, I’d love to turn the clock back just a little bit, just on some things… I’d love to run up hillsides the way I used to and I wouldn’t mind the body going back five years… as long as the rest of me didn’t have to go with it! But I wouldn’t choose to be any younger than I am. I like the comfort of maturity. The quirks, the odd creaks and the grey in my hair all have stories to tell that a younger me would neither appreciate nor understand. I like the idea of having served my apprenticeship at life, yet still having so much to learn, to see and to do. It is only now, when that once-dreaded ‘forty’ seems to belong to the years of youth, that I really begin to appreciate the adventure… and realise that ‘being over the hill’ just means you have a whole new landscape opening up before you to explore.

Watching the stream of humanity through the windscreen, I saw us all as both the river and the vessels tossed upon its surface. The very young as paper boats, fragile and taken where the current wills. A little older and we become sleek vessels, sailing a course of our own, yet easily damaged by current and obstacle. Older still and we adopt a more leisurely pace, choosing both our moorings and our journeys with a little more care and thought.

The cliché of time as a river has been overused, but for good reason…the water that flows from the source to the sea has seen many things on its journey and carries within it traces of every landscape through which it has passed… and the memory of every moonlit night, every star and every creature that has been reflected in its surface or swum in its depths. It knows life and death, birth and renewal; it is made of the stuff of tears, yet it flows in silence or in laughing ripples towards a place where it is no longer an isolated stream, but joins with the waters of the oceans and the skies, to begin the cycle again. And where that water will fall once more, no man can tell. To be part of that cycle is the true adventure.

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