|"Dance of the Mayflies"|
Artwork by Indiana artist Rod Crossman
(used by permission)
“The grass is green fire,” I say aloud. Iʼm lying in clover and bluestem, looking into the darkening sky. “I am fire, too.ˮ
My husband Dave glances my way, makes no move to find a garden hose or fire extinguisher. In 16 years, heʼs heard me offer plenty of out-of-context remarks. Itʼs how I ask for his attention. He knows Iʼll explain soon enough. We are resting, having spaded our part of a community garden at my workplace near the Mississinewa River.
I point upwards.
The sun sinks low in a Neapolitan ice cream sky among layers of blue raspberry, peach and vanilla. Itʼs a gorgeous backdrop for the aeronautics show overhead. “Mayflies,” I say. “Can you see them? Look. Itʼs as if the grass is on fire and theyʼre the ashes whirling upwards. The hot air lifts them up; they drift back down, only to get caught in another updraft.”
I watch, mesmerized. Each delicate mothlike creature measures an inch, maybe two inches long from its pointy outstretched front legs to the tips of its twin tails. They rise a yard, two yards in the air, then float downwards only to lift again, sometimes whirling up and off to one side. There are a hundred or more. Rising, falling. Rising, falling. The intricate dance of the doomed.
Mayflies famously live only a few hours after they take to the skies. They mate. The female lays her eggs in water—a pond, lake, or river. The adults die. The eggs hatch. Wingless nymphs emerge. They live underwater, feed on algae and dead plant material. Many fall prey to fish, dragonfly larvae and other predators. Survivors burrow in the mud, hide under rocks or aquatic plants. Over the course of the next several months they regularly molt, shedding the old skin theyʼve outgrown. Pads develop on their backs. These are their future wings.
Creatures of a day, Aristotle called them, ephémeron. There are over 2000 species of Ephemeridae. Those along the Mississinewa River hatch in early May. As if on cue, they rise en masse to the surface of the water, wait for their skins to crack open. They crawl forth, spread newfound wings and fly to dry land where they molt one last time. They now have no mouths, no way to feed themselves. No need. All that is necessary is within. They are called to the dance. An aerial ballet. A dance of fire.
And dance they do. Big-eyed long-legged males, smaller-eyed shorter-limbed females, rising, falling, rising. Lace-like wings, long thin bodies. “Lifelong dancers of a day,” the poet Richard Wilbur calls them.
Dave and I watch for mating behavior, donʼt see any coupling for some while. (Reading up on them later, I learn males take to the air first, await the femalesʼ arrival. Must have been a lot of mayfly testosterone up there.) Eventually we spot some insects coupling as they float by. Males use their longer front legs to reach back over their heads, hold onto to their female partners. Or male partners, perhaps. Several ménage à trois waft by. Ménage à quatre, as well. And ménage à sept, huit, maybe even neuf. This latter makes a rapid descent, weighed down by the number of passengers.
Rise, fall; lift, drift. I could lay here for hours watching. Except that Dave has the keys to the truck and itʼs a long walk home. I rise to go.
Come morning, when I return to work, I find a heap of dead mayflies beneath the security light. Mostly males, I assume. No need to return to the river to lay eggs. They died drawn to the shining.
Are these but creatures of a day? Dare I discount the lifetime they spent as inhabitants of a different world? I sympathize with them, I who came out in midlife, waited until late to crack open my shell, find my wings.
For all of us life is short; the end is sure. Everything in its time. When our call comes, may we dance as if thereʼs no tomorrow.