Friday, August 06, 2010

`Flexions and Reprisals'

There’s much to admire in otherness, which gives us another reason not to indulge in boredom. The final day of Cub Scout camp was the hottest, dustiest yet. Almost everyone was cranky. Kids dragged their feet, kicking up more dust. It hung in the air like the mosquitoes clouding the archery range. I sat in a lawn chair with a water bottle, feet on a picnic table, watching dragonflies with Dennis Paulson’s Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West (Princeton University Press, 2009) open on my lap.

On a family trip in the summer of 1966, we stopped for a swim in the Missouri River at Chamberlain, S.D., where the Army Corps of Engineers had built a levee. The temperature was one hundred twenty degrees and my brother and I got the worst sunburns of our lives because we spent most of the swim studying a leafless bush on the shore covered with hundreds of blue-bellied damselflies. They looked like neon wires, somebody’s vulgar idea of a non-traditional Christmas tree. The fascination with these beautiful, efficient hunters has never left.

For the first time, with Paulson’s assistance, I identified a dragonfly by species – common whitetail (Plathemis lydia). Only the male’s “tail” (actually, abdomen) is white. I saw a female whose abdomen was brown on top and black on the sides with white comma-shaped markings. Her wings were transparent but for three black spots on each. She perched for several minutes on a mound of moist soil near a low marshy spot. I assumed she was drinking but Paulson suggests otherwise:

“May remain in same spot for up to several minutes with male in attendance. Often flick water drops forward with eggs, laying 25-50 eggs at each tap. Females lay around 1000 eggs total, at around 25/sec. Reproductive adults can live up to 36 days.”

Otherness, yes, but not entirely other. The single-minded ferocity, evanescence, gratuitous beauty – all as human as they are dragonfly. Our styles are different. In “The Pool” (Taken in Faith, 2002), Helen Pinkerton projects herself into the otherness of a fish in a mountain pool. The fish hunts dragonflies, the most efficient of hunters, and in turn is hunted efficiently by humans:

“One day the brittle fly is cast and you,
Leaping and drawn at once, are pulled beyond
The flexions and reprisals of the pool.”

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