Notes from the Glebe

Dear Naiads of Rock Island, How Are You?

Oct 24, 10:11 PM

by Vernon Meidlinger-Chin

Ancient Greek myths spoke of nymphs: spirits of trees and streams who took the form of beautiful women. They were guardians of nature. They were as delicate as the natural order. And a nymph’s curse was as terrifying as a nymph’s blessing is wondrous.

Now at some point along the way, some scientists a little more myth-savvy than I decided that the word “nymph” ought to be used to refer to the immature forms of certain insects. Specifically, the larval form of any insect that does not pupate is a nymph. And in accordance with Greek mythology, nymphs that lived in streams, brooks, creeks, springs, and ponds would be termed naiads.

These two visions of naiads are really not that different. True, if you go digging around in a streambed, you’re going to find multi-legged invertebrates, not maidens with magical powers, but that’s just appearance. At the heart of the idea of a naiad, both mythologically and ecologically, is the idea of delicate creature suffering under human thoughtlessness. When we pollute and redirect waters, we kill the naiads of the waters.

Augustana’s slough is such a body of water. It flowed as a stream long ago down into the Mississippi, and like any other Illinois stream it would have teemed with dragonfly, mayfly, stonefly, and dobsonfly naiads. But when Augustana was built, that stream was diverted into the modern day slough, and a combination of stagnation and pollution killed the naiads. When I recently checked the slough mud for insect larvae, I found not a single naiad, but only the maggots of midges and blackflies.

We have replaced water nymphs with parasites. And while the wounded naiads cannot act as nature’s guardians, rise from their watery realms and deal out judgment, we still have the duty to protect, and not harm our precious freshwater resources. If we want to avoid the curse of environmental degradation we are rapidly bringing upon ourselves, we can take a local step and preserve the naiads.

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