Seeing Beneath the Surface
I came to Isa Lake to look for tiger salamanders. But, as I sit on the shore, my eye is instead drawn to the dragonflies and damselflies that flit about, inches above the surface of the pond. These elongated jewels move with a precision and efficiency that far surpasses any aircraft built by human hands: one cruises steadily with ruthless prowess in pursuit of prey, then pauses to hover, motionless, in defiance of wind and gravity. The plump, rounded body of a flame skimmer passes by, succeeded by the slender blue needle of a dainty damselfly. A single dragonfly may eat three hundred mosquitoes in a single day.
One large dragonfly, dark brown and inconspicuous in the presence of its colorful cousins, settles on the green platter of a pond lily leaf. A gust of wind catches the leaf edge where it curls up and away from the water surface. The leaf vibrates, sending ripples skating away in all directions.
These small-scale waves cross the larger ones blown up by the breeze, creating a dazzling dance of dark and light on the surface of the pond. I realize, suddenly, that the glare of the sun has turned the water into an impenetrable, shining curtain.
I reach to my head and retrieve my sunglasses from where I’d pushed them back. As if by magic, the polarized lenses allow me to see into the water itself. I immerse my gaze into that aquatic world and am astonished and the teeming life beneath the surface. Leeches, inches long, undulate like ribbons through the water in search of an unwary host. Backswimmers and water boatmen stroke through the pond with oarlike legs. A fingernail-sized true bug, its folded wings making an X on its gray back, burrows shallowly into the fine sediment of the pond floor and disappears from sight. I realize the muddy bottom is littered with the clumpy cases of caddisfly larvae. There are dozens—no, hundreds—no, thousands!—of them, mostly rounded in nickel-sized domes of tiny stones, but some in elongate tubes of gathered pine needles and fine twigs.
And, there—slipping weightlessly beneath a sunken, decaying pond lily leaf—I see a tiger salamander at last.