How refreshing to hear the tetchy snarl of resentment echo in the pages of a field guide – seemingly a cool collection of facts rooted in research and field observation, and written by a professional entomologist. Such is the unexpected pleasure I found in the preface to Dennis Paulson’s Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West (Princeton University Press, 2009):
“These insects are just as special as another group of well-loved insects, the butterflies, and there is no reason they cannot become as well known.”
Sure, except for indifference mingled with repugnance. My maternal grandmother passed on two bits of folklore regarding the order Odonata (not the name of a city in upstate New York): Dragonflies get tangled in your hair and they sew your ears shut while you sleep. Born the same year as T.S. Eliot, she also read tea leaves and believed in signs and portents. There’s a human-devised pecking order among the world’s species, and dragonflies, despite their incontestable beauty, rank higher than mosquitoes (one of their favorite meals) but lower than fritillaries.
Paulson is director emeritus of the Slater Museum of Natural History at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. His book is definitive and beautifully illustrated, and documents the 348 known species of dragonflies and damselflies in the Western United States and Canada. If the beauty and speed of dragonflies have ever caught your attention, Paulson is your man. I already knew that most of a dragonfly’s brain is devoted to vision, but here are some specifics:
“Dragonflies have the finest vision in the insect world. The compound eyes in the largest species have as many as 30,000 simple eyes (ommatidia) perceiving the world around them. Because the simple eyes are individual receptors, insect vision is somewhat of a mosaic, and dragonflies are very good at detecting movement….The eyes are so large, especially in darners, that they wrap around the head and afford almost 360-degree perception.”
What does it feel like to see everything at once? Is it like holding the universe in one’s hand, as in Borges’ “The Aleph?” Or is the sensation more biologically mundane – more food, more sex? Louise Bogan wondered. Her 1961 poem, “The Dragonfly,” is entomologically acute, not impressionistic. She was a great admirer of Thoreau, particularly his observations of the natural world in the journals, and she sticks to the facts:
“You are made of almost nothing
But of enough
To be great eyes
And diaphanous double vans;
To be ceaseless movement,
“Link between water and air,
Earth repels you.
Light touches you only to shift into iridescence
Upon your body and wings.
You split into the heat.
Swift beyond calculation or capture
You dart into the shadow
Which consumes you.
“You rocket into the day.
But at last, when the wind flattens the grasses,
For you, the design and purpose stop.
“And you fall
With the other husks of summer.”
Bogan’s biographer, Ruth Limmer, tells us the poem was written to order for the Corning Glass Co. There’s little romance in the insect for Bogan – beauty, yes, but mostly organized appetite (“Unending hunger / Grappling love.”) Power, speed, phenomenal vision and savagery – and extinction. The poet’s admiration is tempered with dread. Paulson writes:
“After the immature phase, most temperate-zone odonates live a surprisingly short time. Small damselflies live no more than a few weeks, larger dragonflies a month or two. Dying of old age is rarely observed in odonates…”
Go here to listen to Bogan’s 1968 recording of the poem.