Life, on the Wing

By Tamara Jones
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Hold them up in the light, and they'll come around. The people at Butler Pond know this already about dragonflies, about the way the sun revives them from the stunned dismay of captivity, but Kevin Munroe repeats the lesson anyway before letting go of the blue dasher feigning death between his gentle fingers. The insect darts away and the dozen intrepid hunters, long-poled nets in hand, well-worn field guides in cargo pockets, search the Reston wetlands for more.

What began as civic duty became cherished ritual long ago with this annual dragonfly count in the Fairfax County suburb, and the volunteers happily surrender a whole Saturday to traipse through reed and rush.

There is a Junior Girl Scout determined to earn her nature badge, and the veteran Auduboners who freeze like pointers at the rustle of a blue heron about to take flight. There is the mute teenager stealing a nap in the gazebo, and the bubbly cancer survivor who jokes about the burden of responsibility as she fills out the census form: Six or eight black slaty skimmers? How many prince baskettails, and what about amberwings? Did anyone get a Halloween pennant?

Revered by some cultures, feared by others, dragonflies have never failed to capture human imagination. They can fly backward, do cartwheels across the sky, and mate midair, for starters. "They're amazing creatures," says Munroe, a 37-year-old naturalist who has been leading this expedition each July for more than a decade. Counting the dragonflies, determining whether species have abandoned polluted habitats, is a way to monitor the health of the streams and ponds and lakes where they live, he explains.

It's a small reassurance in a world of inconvenient truths: If the dragonflies are thriving, then something must be going right.

* * *

In the summer of 2003, Catherine Linberg had just moved to Virginia from Northern California with her husband, Mike Blanpied, and their son, Greg. Mike, a geophysicist, had gotten a nice promotion with the U.S. Geological Survey, with a transfer to headquarters in Reston.

They bought a house backing up to nature trails and woodlands so Greg could enjoy an idyllic boyhood. He was going into the second grade then, and Linberg planned to freelance for the textbook publishing company where she had been a copyreader. She looked forward to volunteering at Greg's school, remodeling the house, putting in a garden. It was too late to get Greg into camp, so they would just build their summer around community activities.

The night they moved in, the three of them camped out on air mattresses in the living room, huddling together through an ear-splitting thunderstorm. The power went out and Linberg remembers her forearm brushing the top of her chest in the darkness. She felt a hard lump.

She began her new life looking up oncologists in the yellow pages. Waiting for her verdict, Linberg found the distraction she needed: Reston's annual dragonfly count. About 20 people were milling around at Butler Pond that Saturday, and Munroe welcomed the newcomers.

"I was just out there with it: 'Hi, I'm Catherine, and I may have cancer,' " she remembers introducing herself. "And boy, is my back sore," she added for good measure. They had driven cross-country.

A woman who turned out to own a massage studio approached her with a friendly grin. "I can't cure cancer, but I can make your back feel better," she offered, and Linberg's face still melts into a blissful smile when she recalls the fabulous back rub she got there in the gazebo.

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