Last week, when the summer sun shone its full heat over the land, I went for a walk in the country. I decided to start my walk at one end of a little crease in the calcite battlements that are the South Downs, a crease that has been carved by the ancient and sinuous journey of the river Arun. Where this river meets the downs there is a village called Amberley, a chocolate-box sort of place populated largely by millionaires who now live in what were once the hovels of peasants but which are now both ridiculously quaint and ridiculously expensive. Immediately north of this village however, is a wide area of very flat, marshy floodplains, part of which are owned and managed by the Sussex Wildlife Trust. It is through these brooks that I walked and where I had a beautiful encounter with some of their wild denizens.
It felt rather like God had left his oven door open, as the sun at its zenith poured down waves of thermal radiation over the landscape, making me sweat but energising every invertebrate into feverish action. Bees and butterflies were everywhere, the purple flower-heads of clumps of thistles were attracting large numbers of Meadow Browns, Gatekeepers, Peacocks, Red Admirals, flower beetles and bumblebees of several different kinds. But while these insects were largely silent save the beating of their wings, the grasshoppers were singing a loud chorus; the tall grass verges either side of the path were fizzing and buzzing and whining with the sound of hundreds of stridulating males.
Eventually, the path crossed over a ditch, one of many that criss-cross the brooks, and I stopped awhile to see what marvels of creation had made this very thin and shallow line of water their home. The water itself was like crystal, very slowly flowing from one end to the other and so crisply clear that I could see in high detail the silty base to the ditch. Grasses, sedges, irises, pondweeds, brambles and purple loosestrife speared upwards from either bank and spread out into the ditch, all the brightest emerald and so full of life I could almost see them growing.
But what really brought this humble ditch to life were the bright sparkling forms of flying jewels – or as we know them – dragonflies and damselflies. The most eye-catching and numerous of these were the demoiselles; delicate pieces of clockwork art that look as though they had been forged from finest silver by a master craftsman, then spray-painted with metallic blue and green so that the sunlight scatters in shards off their twig-like bodies. The male Banded Demoiselles launched into the air over the water to engage in dog-fights while the females looked on from the comfort of a leaf. Also present were several Beautiful Demoiselles, living up to their name with four wings of solid black-green held tightly over their bodies as they soaked up the sun on the floating leaf of an aquatic plant.
Thin flying needles of blue and black stripes made their way along the ditch toward me, it was a pair of Azure Damselflies, a male and a female floating together in tandem, connected by the grip of the males claspers around his mates neck. Then another damselfly caught my eye, it was perched on a sedge stem with its wings held partly open, its body had a dark green sheen and a few patches of powder-blue, it was an Emerald Damselfly, the first I’d ever seen. Smaller than all of these were Blue-tailed Damselflies, which have a blue thorax and a blue tip to their abdomen but are black in-between, giving the appearance from a distance of two isolated blue specks floating along in the breeze.
Looking further down the ditch I caught sight of some dragonflies, which differ from the damsels in looking less like sprites and more like finely articulated machines. Two large individuals shot like jets over the bank and down to the waters surface, before curving rapidly up and away again, the rear one evidently chasing an intruder off his stretch of the ditch. Even from 20 metres or so away, I could see that their wings and bodies were a shade of warm copper-brown, highlighted by spots of earthy yellow – they were Brown Hawkers.
Many of these dragons and damsels will have spent the first year or two of their lives crawling through the silt at the bottom of the ditch, feeding on other water insects – or each other. Powered by the sun’s light, which makes its unseen journey through the food-web from plant to grazer to predator to apex predator, these water-nymphs rose out of the water, into the air, the very physical embodiment of this water-filled landscape, a beautiful creature composed of the materials and energy that make up these ditches and meadows. They are the water’s gift to the summer; slender, precious beasts that shimmer and glint a multitude of colours, crackling their gauze-wings in the hot, dry air, feasting on the seasons glut and making one observers world a beautiful and delightful place to be.