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What I saw in the woods

The other day I had a couple of hours of free time (without the kids) so I went for a bike ride on the old railroad trail near my house that skirts the southern edge of Bergen Swamp.

It was an absolutely perfect Indian Summer day. The scent of damp cottonwood and willow leaves along the trail was intoxicating, and the trees were really beginning to change to their pale autumn hues. The air was fresh and that in-between warm/cool that makes it feel like autumn and spring at the same time. Man, it was beautiful, just riding on and on through that delicious honey-colored afternoon light!

After almost a mile I stopped where a path tunnels off the main trail into the woods. The path curves a little and soon comes to a pond surrounded by willows and birch trees and cattails, where a tiny wooden bridge crosses an outlet that flows off into the wilderness. About thirty feet away, a Blue Heron leaped up and flapped its huge wings away over the pond, squawking like some primeval pterosaur. A few steps further and several turtles splashed into the water from a log they’d been sunning themselves on.

I love this spot! It’s incredibly serene standing on that little wooden bridge, gazing across hazy sunlight above the green pond to tall pines that frame the autumn sky. The sound of a train floats to me on the air; but it feels to me like I’m in the middle of wild nowhere with the fading bloom of life all around, and winter just around the corner. The narrow path curves off again through brush and vines and woods, off toward the deep swamp. I’ve followed it a little ways before, but never found where it ends. But today I head back with my bike to the main gravel trail.

Further down the trail I come to ‘Drews Nature Center’, where there is another much bigger pond (small lake, really) with a path going all around it. This is a very beautiful place that I’ve enjoyed for many years. As I walk along the edge of the water, which is hard to see here because of towering thickets of cattail and Phragmites, I disturb some geese who start honking and flapping away toward the far side of the lake. A hundred feet or so further and another long-necked heron leaps skyward and glides off down the bank. I never tire of seeing herons! To me they’re otherworldly; so giant and slender and graceful.

Then as I take a few more steps there’s a sudden buzzing of something large and noisy on the earth in front of me. I’m scared for an instant; then I look more intently and bend down to make out two large dragonflies locked in a mating embrace, buzzing furiously on the ground! As I crouch and look closer they separate and go zipping up into the air. For the moment they’ve disappeared.

But then to my right I see one of the dragonflies hovering at the edge of the weeds. It’s very big, maybe 5 inches long; black and turquoise blue with tinges of green. She’s just hanging motionless in air, four feet above the ground and a foot away from my face, hovering like a helicopter beside the tall grasses.  I can barely see her wings at all. We just stare at each other for a minute or more, both of us frozen. The sensation is wildly energizing and blissfully sublime at the same instant. I feel totally connected to this amazing life-form; and through it I am fused with the whole of Nature, so that ‘I’ do not exist.

Then, out of nowhere, the dragonfly’s mate returns! They twirl and spin fiercely through space with a sound like dry paper in a fan, finally locking together again . A moment later they continue their frenzied dance on the ground beyond the trail. I move along then, thanking them for their patience. Life must go on!

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