A dragonfly rests on Aislinn Sarnacki's hand as it readies itself to take flight on Aug. 8, 2022, in Dedham, Maine. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

I arrived home yesterday to find a giant dragonfly clinging to the wooden frame of my front door. With deep green eyes and shining wings, the creature looked entirely out of place.

Moths perch by my front door plenty, attracted by the porch light, but dragonflies? Never.

Expecting the insect to zip away at any moment, I drew closer, but it didn’t move a muscle. No turn of its head. No shiver of wings. I started to suspect it was frozen in death, my house its final roost. But perhaps it was asleep. Leaving the dragonfly in peace, I headed indoors. It didn’t so much as flinch as I opened and closed the door just inches from its outstretched wings.

The unusual sighting got me thinking about how often encounters with wild animals stir my emotions. In the case of the dragonfly, I felt wonder at its beauty, plus a tinge of sadness at it possibly being dead.

I know I’m not alone in this. I’ve often heard people describe their experiences with wildlife as “special” or “incredible.” Maybe it has to do with our need, as people, to connect with the natural world. After all, it’s where we came from. For millions of years, humans were just walking around in the woods, very much a part of nature. It’s only in recent history that we’ve set ourselves apart from other living things in such a significant way.

As an outdoorsy person, I come across wildlife often. Just a few days ago, when hiking Cadillac Mountain in the early morning, I came within 10 feet of a white-tailed deer. It was standing right beside the hiking trail that I was following. Upon seeing the gentle animal, I froze, then watched as it crossed the trail, walking slowly, and disappeared into the forest.

It’s challenging to describe the specialness of that moment. I felt a sense of kinship, perhaps because the deer didn’t seem frightened of me. (Though logically, I know it’s because hunting is prohibited in Acadia National Park, and deer have become used to all the people who visit.)

A white-tailed deer stands in the woods near a trail on Cadillac Mountain on Aug. 3, 2022, in Acadia National Park. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

Not all wildlife encounters fill me with such wonder. Thank goodness. My hikes would be overwhelming if they did. But every once in a while, I’m taken by surprise when the company of a hummingbird brings me immense joy or a spider gives me the courage I need to accomplish a goal.

At the risk of getting too deep into the philosophical weeds, I know that my experiences with wildlife are colored by my own thoughts and emotional states. For example, the other day, I was feeling a little depressed while hiking up Tunk Mountain in eastern Maine. I had a few things going on in my personal life, and I knew that outdoor activity might help elevate my mood. At the top of the mountain, I noticed a group of turkey vultures wheeling through the sky, and the sight brought tears to my eyes.

Normally, turkey vultures don’t make me cry. But in that moment, they reminded me of the simple joys in the world. Plus, from my position on the mountain, I felt like I was a part of their group. Sometimes they flew above me, sometimes below. One vulture appeared to study me as it flew by. I felt like I was soaring with them.

But that was all my own perception. In reality, the vulture was probably looking to see if I was eating a carcass that it might later visit for scraps.

To move from philosophical to spiritual, there are beliefs about animals acting as messengers and symbols. Last spring, I read about some of those beliefs after an unusual experience in the woods near my house.

I was walking through the forest, identifying plants, when I came across a dead barred owl lying in the grass of a sunlit clearing. The large bird had yet to decompose, its feathers still glossy and beautiful. With its wings relaxed and head nestled in the grass, it looked as if it could have been sleeping.

I felt sad, of course, but moreso, I felt a sense of peace. If the owl had been lying beside the road, it would have been a different story. But deep in the woods, surrounded by unfurling leaves, the owl seemed to be in the right place, a part of the natural circle of life.

Still, it was surprising to come across such a large dead bird. So, I was compelled to look up owl symbolism — more specifically, dead owl symbolism. The results were all over the place. Some people consider it a bad omen to find a dead owl, while others consider it good luck. It can mean death, hope, change and much more.

Whether or not you have spiritual beliefs about animal symbolism, it can be fun to learn about and think about in relation to your life. It’s a way to reflect, and it can be fun to incorporate into artwork, such as tattoos. I’ve noticed that people do that a lot.

Dragonflies are thought to represent change, transformation and self-awareness, among other things. Maybe my recent visitor was trying to tell me something.

A few hours after finding the dragonfly on my door frame, at twilight, I emerged from my house to find it in the exact same spot, unmoving. Resigned to the idea that the little creature was dead, I decided to move it to a more natural resting place in the nearby forest.

Careful not to touch its intricate wings, I slid my hand under its body, and to my surprise, its spindly legs slowly moved to grasp my ring finger. The dragonfly was very much alive. Through my finger, I could feel its body hum with vibration. After a deep sleep, it was warming up to take flight.

I held it for about a minute before it took off. Its departure was so fast that I couldn’t follow it with my eyes. It seemed to just disappear. Poof. Like magic.

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...