A review of Cindy Crosby, Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural and Personal History, Illustrated by Peggy Macnamara (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2020).
When I mention to people that I work on dragonflies and damselflies (Insecta: Odonata), they invariably share with me their own personal experiences with odonates: vivid recollections of odonates landing on their arms when fishing, memories of dragonflies perching nearby following a significant personal trauma, and fond reflections of childhood summers filled with damselflies. As one travels, the stories one hears of dragonflies and damselflies may vary, but the general fascination with odonates that people express seems universal. It’s hard to separate the deep cultural significance of odonates from our personal memories, and rarely do we find a book that discusses these aspects alongside scientific data. Cindy Crosby’s new book, Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural and Personal History, does just that, melding science with personal journey while displaying beautifully that the two aspects need not be separated.
Curious about dragonfly and damselfly anatomy? Interested to know the cultural significance of odonates? Concerned about conservation of these remarkable insects? Nature lovers do love a good tale about odonates, and Crosby’s new book does not disappoint in this regard. Crosby covers several topics in the seventeen chapters of this near-pocket-sized volume, packing the book with quotes and personal observations by community members, from Kurt Mead to Dennis Paulson, from Marla Garrison to Kim Smith. Commentary by these odonate-o-philes is used to provide context, history, and clarity throughout the text. However, this book does not simply cite community members to describe the global pursuit of odonatology; Cindy discusses her own life as an odonatologist, both with memoir-style details about the day-to-day journey of an odonate enthusiast and with reference to her readings of recent scientific publications on the dragonflies she discusses. She gives insight into the Dragonfly Society of America’s meetings, where she collects shoulder-to-shoulder with other odonate experts and nature enthusiasts alike. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Crosby’s first national meeting of the DSA (in Decorah, Iowa) was also my first DSA meeting, and in many ways her journey of odonate discovery is parallel to the journey all of us go on as we become obsessed with these remarkable insects. Accompanying her written journey in the book are colorful watercolor plates depicting the author’s path and the insects she so adores. These illustrations by Peggy Macnamara are stunning, combining biological illustration-style realism with the soft watercolors of landscapes.
Particularly interesting chapters cover migration, dragonfly art, and steps for creating a dragonfly-friendly garden. As someone with a dragonfly tattoo, I have often marveled at the fact that so many choose this beautiful insect as the most permanent of fashion choices. Crosby also wonders at this and lists a sampling of the Odonata-themed items in her life, including clothing, wallet, beverages, socks, and dishes. As I can attest, once you begin chasing dragonflies, they tend to gather around you in various material forms. Then the world expands in many directions with local inflections. Sarot and later Corbet, for example, discussed the various local terminologies used to describe odonates in cultural lore: darners, spike-tails, demoiselles. Crosby discusses this lore, as well, peppering it with her own discussions with the public and many dragonfly scientists and aficionados.
In discussing migration—when will the first migrating Anax be seen in her yard?—Crosby’s notes will feel relatable to anyone longing for signs of spring and summer. She also asks questions repeated by everyone I know, from my young children to my elderly Nan: “Why do dragonflies migrate?” and “Why don’t damselflies migrate?” To answer such questions, she weaves facts from the primary literature with community knowledge, sparking new questions for the reader. In one standout chapter about creating dragonfly and damselfly habitats in one’s yard, Crosby seamlessly links the perceived cultural significance of odonates to the desire to have them nearby. From mosquitoes to blackflies, horseflies to midges, dragonflies and damselflies are terrific natural predators of the flies that plague us, and Crosby provides tips on making a habitat suitable to support odonates, finishing with her signature personal reflections about a very relatable moment of relaxation on her lawn chair, watching dragonflies.
Chasing Dragonflies could easily be a book about birding, about horticulture, about someone’s passion about fishing. But the uniqueness of odonates is what makes this book such a compelling read. Unlike a book about, say, flies or snakes, the subjects of this book are considered by many to be mystical, ethereal, and divine, and the nature of dragonflies and damselflies keeps us turning pages to learn more about them. Crosby’s writing describes a path of self-discovery, ecological study, and organismal biology, and thus, it speaks to readers across disciplines, whether those readers find themselves crawling, swimming, or simply sitting still in pursuit of dragonflies.