As old as the hills

Anne Boileau ponders the life of the mayfly and pays poetic tribute to the ‘patron saint of angling’

My pond has sprung a leak. The level is low. I’ve lost heart and am allowing it to collapse into natural succession (don’t we all do that eventually?) but this evening I went for a walk along Abbey Lane to fetch some fresh asparagus from the farm ­– I stopped to talk to a young woman schooling her piebald horse on a long rein – then walked back past the abbey to East Street, negotiating the awkward and muddy kissing gate.

When I got home, I settled in the garden with a pot of tea and was delighted to see a host of dancing mayflies; they must have just emerged from the pond in the suddenly warm weather.

So much of what we observe in the natural world seems to be an expression of joy or a physical celebration of being alive; in the case of these dancing insects I saw it as a manifestation of delight and amazement at finding themselves no longer embraced by dark, heavy water as they had been for two years, eating algae in the pond; now they were dancing up and down, up and down like yoyos, in a different element: the sweet air; I wonder whether they dream about flying as they creep about in the mud and weeds feeding and growing for two years.

The sudden warmth triggered the male nymph to climb up a reed, slough off the exoskeleton to the first stage, a winged dun; then a little later he breaks out from that form to become an imago. This is its second flying form; the mayfly is smaller and less glamorous than a dragonfly or damselfly, but in its own way as fine and delicate, with a long tail and two pairs of wings. Despite their complicated life cycle, they are as old as the hills and occurred along with the dinosaurs.

I tried to count them, but it was impossible! At least 60 of them in the cluster; they will live for two or three days in their flying form; they have weak mouths and cannot eat; they will mate, the females will lay their eggs on the surface of the pond and then die and their spent bodies will be eaten by fish or frogs or newts.

The mayfly is one of the most popular aquatic insects for anglers to mimic when they tie their fishing flies, because trout love to eat spent mayflies.

In Winchester Cathedral there is a beautiful stained-glass window dedicated to Izaak Walton (1593-1683), informally known as the patron saint of angling. He wrote the best-selling book The Compleat Angler; still in print after 350 years. Here is a poem about that gentle priest and fisherman who loved to sit beside the river and catch fish for his supper. The window is speaking.

Study to be Quiet

He sits under a willow tree

on the bank of a clear chalk stream.

In my coloured glass the river flows

through night and day and night.

At noon the sun casts pools of green,

of yellow, brown and blue –  

they slide across the limestone flags

of Prior Silkstede’s side chapel –

so mayflies dance, rushes nod,

warblers almost sing.

Darkness falls, the cathedral doors

are bolted fast. All is still. But when

the moon shines bright and full

my river is drawn up into the night.

Beside the Itchen, the Kennet, the Dove,

Izaak watches for the flash of a flank,

the flick of a tail, a slicing fin. His bait

grasshoppers, lobworms, frogs.

Men stand and stare at me, at him,

in hushed tones swap tall fishing tales

of flies tried out, fish caught, fish lost,

and eels. Ah, eels, now there’s a thing.

At dusk he’ll take his net, his creel,

walk back to his rooms to write it down:

the sermon which broke from its chrysalis

on a shaking reed as he sat and fished

and read and prayed beside the waters

which flowed, which flow, then as now,

of Kennet, Itchen, Derbyshire Dove.

Through dusk to dawn to noon to dusk

Izaak Walton studies to be quiet.

Anne Boileau
May 2024