It was buggy and still at the lower end of Cherokee marsh when I left. Nearly home, a familiar helicoptering-like flight hovered across the inside of the windshield and landed on the dash. I reached over and it crawled on my finger. A mayfly.
Fly fishing (and fly tying) made me appreciate mayflies but I no longer fly fish much. I still look for mayflies, though, whenever I am near water. Subjectivity being what it is, I think mayflies rank among the most beautiful in the animal kingdom, the graceful curves, the long and elegant tails, the diaphanous wings held like a mainsail raked aft. The association with cold clear water.
They are a hundred times older than humanity. Mayflies belong to the ancient insect order Ephemeroptera which shares the root of the word “ephemeral” reflecting the fact that adults only live a day or so during which they dance their ecstasy over the water, mate in midair, and lay their eggs in the constant cool surface film before shuffling off this mortal coil – having distilled the essentials of the animal imperative to perpetuate the species into the space of a single warm summer day. They are so single minded (and single-purposed) that they don’t even have functional mouth parts.
Ancient is not primitive. That is a presumption of the recently evolved. The mayfly adult is evolutionary purpose sharpened to a fine point and hardened in the crucible of deep time. Thousands of species in nearly every clearwater niche are proof.
I diverted over into the school parking lot to take a picture of my stowaway. Calling them “ephemeral” reflects our own biases about time. Indeed, to them we are the ephemera (hat tip to Debra Rienstra for that observation). In the animals we typically think about, including ourselves, we default to a view of young and juvenile stages as transition stages on the way to adulthood where all the important action takes place. But for procreation, mayflies turn this perspective on its head. Mayfly nymphs may live for years as tiny aquatic predators or detritivores in the benthos. Critical nodes in freshwater food webs. For mayflies, the adult is only a brief transition between successive generations of nymphs.
Every summer we take our Au Sable students and visit a reach of the storied Boardman River upstream from Traverse City (where the famous Adams dry fly, a mayfly pattern, was invented and first used). The power line traverses the path of an old earthen dam that choked the river for decades burying it under many feet of silt. A legacy of our addled human-time hubris.
Activists and community heroes raised the financial and political capital to remove the dam. They braved the controversy. They probed the silt to find, and then expose the ancestral channel. They stabilized the banks with root-wads and rocks and contoured the upper banks to more faithfully mimic the old floodplain. They planted native trees along the margins to re-start the transition to a dark and wet riparian forest. They bouldered the reach to facilitate juvenile fish movement.
The oxygen-hungry mayflies (certainly one of the earth’s most grace-full creatures – in every sense) have returned. Dark and wet forests will take significantly longer. The activists won’t likely live to see the riverine corridor cradled in the protective and perpetual shade of spreading cedar trees and patient hemlocks and upstart balsam fir thickets. They won’t know the stillness, the pungency of ruptured pitch pockets, punky birch logs, and fragrant cedar duff. That’s not why they fought for it. I wish more of us understood that.
Biologists use the presence of mayfly nymphs as an indicator of clean oxygen-rich water. But they speak to us across the unfathomably vast reaches of prehistory time. Before mammals, before dinosaurs, before even the bulk of the insects that are familiar to us, they were there. And they are here – instructing us geological ephemera in an essential precious truth. Water is life. Take care of it. Take care of us.
Flowing water is a resurrection hymn.