I arrived in Bath this morning at around coffee time. The air was close and broody; I sensed 'sunshine', tucked beneath the blanket of grey cloud as if it had been thrown over it like a warm comforter, affording it a lie in. Surely eventually it would rise... enthusiastic to 'seize the day', if only to mock me for having worn jeans and a jumper!
I found myself in the city of Bath today. Weary, having milled around the shops all morning, I sought out a quiet place to sit and rest whilst Mum braved the confines of a changing room; a clutch of new clothes in hand to try on. Waiting rooms... waiting places generally, can be dreary but this one was particularly lovely. It looked out over the River Avon; that is the open window beside me did. It was a gloriously sunny day. I sat there contentedly and watched as a pleasure cruiser motored along its course, entertaining myself by trying to make out the muffled commentary of the cruise guide.
Then, out of the corner of my eye I caught the sparkle of wings glanced by sunlight 'May flies'. A spiralling balletic swarm rising and falling, fairy like creatures engaged in their nuptial dance.
The last time I had delighted upon this spectacle was in Normandy whilst staying in Calvados at 'Le Moulin de la Mousse', a converted mill house beside the race (of course, where else!). I had looked to books then to realise an understanding of these exquisite creatures by way of which to underpin my delight. As an artist I am determined that my observations of nature should be more than flights of fancy and fantasy. I feel somehow obliged honour what I admire by growing a little wiser with each new observation, pursuing a better understanding of what I see, one that is cerebral not simply visual.
I now understand that they live for no more than a day on the wing (the final stage of their metamorphosis), having lived beneath the water for about a year as nymphs. Sentimentally, perhaps this seems sad; the famous poet Shelly once referred to them as creatures 'gathered into death without a dawn'. However for me, the counterpoint to this sentiment lies in the exuberance of their flight; in their nuptial dance. If our earthy demise were preceded by such joy, realising our progeny, I venture to suggest that it may not be considered mournful at all. As I watch them dance, bobbing up and down as if held by invisible strings of light being tugged by the air itself, I perceive that 'this is' their dawn, they are dancing it! Their flight is so joyful, I am incapable of mournful thought. I perceive no nuance of suffering, no sense of pending death and find myself wishing our demise was akin to the mayflies. Sprightly...beautiful, invested in making love... seemingly devoid of suffering. A desire surely harboured in many human hearts. Though, I'm guessing by that by the same token many would find my allegory far too fanciful... an artists whim. Perhaps my interpret ion of what I observe is, more often than not, 'fairy tale'... comforting fiction. Never mind, I feel blessed to find comfort in the way that I see things. Risking being perceived as fanciful by some is of little consequence.
They really are visually fantastical, few would argue otherwise. They have four gossamer wings, the hind pair much smaller than the fore, which they hold upright at rest and flutter like quick silver whilst in sprightly acrobatic flight. They have two or three long tails called cerci which I fancy they trail like fairy tale dress trains.
They never venture far from the stretch of water from which they hatched, their delicate wings unless caught on the wind, lack the necessary strength for distance flying. Indeed neither distance flight nor appetite need concern the mayfly during its fleeting life on the wing. The males of the species are possess the greatest acrobatic prowess, courting the females with their seductive nuptial dance moves. Once seduced, having mated, the females lay their eggs by the score, hundreds in the day-span of their life time. Some types of mayfly lay their eggs by simply scattering them into the water during flight. Others settle on the waters surface and, dipping their abdomens beneath its surface, deposit them more demurely. Others discreetly crawl down water plants to lay them on submerged stones.
Having hatched the mayfly nymphs live beneath the water for about a year. Some species are understood to be burrowers and diggers, such as the 'Ephemera' others are more agile clambering and climbing about their underwater world, for example those of the 'cloeon' group. Others, like the 'Caenis' confine themselves to a more sombre life on the bottom of the pond or river... I say sombre emotively, they could well be very happy fellows! There are yet others who are active swimmers, namely 'Baetis' and those that enjoy life amongst the weeds of fast flowing rivers and streams, known as the 'Ephemerella'. Just as the adults trail three long tail filaments, so to the nymphs, though some species loose a filament during moulting, resulting in an adult mayfly which likewise trials just two. All nymphs have tracheal gills situated on their abdomen to aide respiration. Some absorb oxygen directly from the water whilst others employ their gills as paddles to maintain a constant flow of water across their bodies; respiration occurring through the skin. The nymphs feed largely on plants, favouring green algae.
Uniquely, the mayfly goes through two further stages of metamorphosis before emerging as a fully mature adult or 'imago'.In its initial transformation from nymph to 'sub imago' it is still covered with a transparent skin, dulling its vibrant colouring, cloaking its glistening, translucent wings. Over the course of several hours it proceeds to moult once more before taking flight, though flight to me seems too inadequate a word to describe the spectacle of their transcendental nuptial dance.