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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.

The Boardman River, site of a removed dam

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.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    As usual, thanks. And when there’s a hatch at our lakeshore in Ontario, it’s wonderful to me that so many can escape the fish to rise from the water, and then all the birds come to celebrate, especially the grackles on the rocks and the kingbirds from the branches. But thank you for showing us how beautiful they are, and remind us of our place compared to them. “His eye is on the mayfly.”

  • James Schaap says:

    Amazing! Thanks.

  • Tom says:

    I suppose it’s implied, so forgive me if I’m being too picky here, but I can’t help but notice this misses any reference to God’s hand in the ‘evolutionary sharpening’ of the mayfly (you might even call it ‘design’).

  • William Reitsma says:

    Well said. Great to give mayflies center stage in the midst of our broken systems. They are glorious and point to a Creator full of beauty and grace.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    As I’ve long reported, if you weren’t an Ecology prof, you should be an English teacher, literary giant.

  • Karen Ophoff says:

    Tim, whenever I see your name on this blog, I know I’m in for a treat. Your observations of Creation and ability to articulate them are gorgeous. Thanks.

  • Daniel Bos says:

    My Calvin English professor John Timmerman instilled this habit that still hangs on.

    “mayfly nymphs”
    “detritivores in the benthos”
    “a reach of the storied Boardman River”
    “they bouldered the reach”
    “a dark and wet riparian forest”
    “riverine corridor”
    “ruptured pitch pockets, punky birch logs, and fragrant cedar duff”

    NYMPHS: the stage of the insect that is still aquatic (such as an earthworm or a fungus) that feeds on dead and decomposing organic matter.
    BENTHOS: organisms that live on or in the bottom of a body of water
    REACH: 1. a continuous stretch or expanse especially : a straight portion of a stream or river OR
    2. the limits within which [a river flows]
    SILT: fine sand, clay, or other material carried by running water and deposited as a sediment, especially in a channel or harbor
    RIPARIAN: relating to or situated on the banks of a river.
    For example:”all the riparian states must sign an agreement”
    RIVERINE: 1 : relating to, formed by, or resembling a river.
    2 : living or situated on the banks of a river.
    PITCH POCKETSs: Resin or pitch pockets are of common occurrence in the wood of larch, spruce, fir, and especially of longleaf and other hard pines. They are due to accumulations of resin in openings between adjacent layers of growth.
    PUNKY: The outer edge of the wood known as the sapwood will become punky or rotten, but the inner heartwood remains solid.
    DUFF: the partly decayed organic matter on the forest floor.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      Thank you for reminding me of John Timmerman, that great reader and great teacher, and in his younger days in Paterson, great pitcher.

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