Among dragons & damsels

On some farm in the Gatineau Hills, last week, in retreat with an old buddy of mine, I was given a wonderful opportunity to rest, and gaze over a puddle. It had collected by a fine old maple at a low point of a rolling lawn, and at midday dragonflies hovered above it. And these not any dragonflies, but Vernal Bluets, which is to say damselflies, actually, whose blues — porcelain between black lacquer stripes — are of a sky lightness evocative of Heaven.

Now, this was exactly what I had come to see, though I did not know what I had come for, beyond the general aim of stepping out of the city.

I possessed but one field guide to regional Odonata, and that was foolishly left behind in the High Doganate: The Dragonflies and Damselflies of Algonquin Provincial Park and the Surrounding Area, by Colin D. Jones and a few others. Notwithstanding it is a paperback, full of glossy pix, I can recommend it to any reader within a million miles of Ottawa who may wish to fill his heart with hope, beauty, and joy.

Yet even so, of limited technical value, for my location was above the limestone plain, washed flat with fertile farming soil by the ancestors of the Ottawa River. Rather I was looking over it from the Precambrian, metavolcanic upland to the north, just beyond this field guide’s range.

We do not yet appreciate, I believe, the extraordinary variety of creatures on this Earth, not only from one order to another, but like religious, within each of the orders. The closer they are examined, through magnifying glass and even down farther into the genetic structure, the more distinctions we can make that are joyful and beautiful in themselves.

I am thinking here specifically of our northern Bluets, my favourite damselflies in the Coenagrionidae genera. Consider for instance their sexual parts, which interclasp by an irreproducible feat of minute mechanical engineering.

Two may seem in costumage the same species at a first glance, or a second, or a third: the similar colour pattern set out vividly in the median and humeral stripes. They overlap in range; show like habits, in like micro-environments. Individuals may be distinguished in subtle ways: for instance the shadings of the contrasting browns in the eyes of the females make each unique. Or, more dramatically, females may show brown instead of blue on their bodies, in a delicious “polymorph,” for the brown hue is the perfect poetical match, or simile to the blue hue (now a little more yellow; now a little more green), as if from the brush of a great artist, who understands colour from the inside out.

Now look to the cercus on one male, then on another. Not polymorphism here, but a decisive boundary between two species. The knob at the distal end — look closer — is a different shape. The Vernal Bluet has a black tooth, set into a basal depression, entirely missing in the Boreal Bluet. Unless I am wrong (and gentle reader should be warned that I lack an advanced degree in Anisopteran Entomology, to say nothing of the Zygopteran), the two kinds may hybridize, and often do. But thanks to this little trick of Design, they don’t do so easily, or for long. The Designer has made it awkward for them, and by this stroke, assured us that the two species will not meld or homogenize. He is in no doubt: He wants them to be different, and to remain so, and for a purpose that will be immediately apparent to no one.

Having fixed our attention on the cerci — for we are Catholics here, and no prudes — we may then reflect upon a world of sensual experience, extending beyond our reach and ken.

As we know from observation across the phylum Arthropoda, the cercum may have multiple “functions.” It may be the organ for copulation, but it may also be a complexly unified sensory organ for quite other uses; or a pinching weapon, or a means to carry or drag. It may be some combination of all these, and we cannot guess what else besides. Our reductionist science, or scientism, glibly assigns a function, adds this to a chart; then moves along to the next creature, and the next chart, to fill more blank spaces in a tedious database, which may then be manipulated by our dehumanized cyphers.

But as William Blake has observed, the senses are the inlets to our souls — to our immortal human souls, as also, to the mortal dragonfly souls. And, “how do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?”

Or, as Ezra Pound asserted: “The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world. Pull down thy vanity, Paquin, pull down.”

The allusion here is to the intensely lyrical, “Libretto” passage, late in the Pisan cantos — among the most memorable flights in English literature — which itself has many converging functions within the movement of the larger poem, including the presentation of a vision of Nature that resonates with that of Alexander Pope, in a mischievously droll way. From beneath it upwells a grand moral contrast that Pope would easily recognize. The smug, complacent, idolatrous orbitations of the transient fashion world (Paquin was a Paris dress designer, who flourished before the Great War) has been set against the humility, contrition, atonement — and upwelling Love — in a live religious tradition. It is Pound rising towards Dante:

Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace.
          Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place
In scaled invention or true artistry …

Indeed, a dragonfly is a wonder of exquisite Design — material and mechanical but simultaneously artistic — this little roving Eye of nature, that first appears, fully-formed with incredible precision, in the fossil records from more than three hundred million years ago.

It was, however, only half a century ago, that as a boy given to hiking wherever he could get, I had my own first “quasi-religious” experience of watching a dragonfly nymph emerge from a pond, and undergo its metamorphosis into glory. I saw it emerge from its dead larval skin, and crawl tenuously onto a log. Under the dazzling sun, it was pale, crinkled, utterly feeble. And then, in the space of minutes, its abdomen extended, its veinous wings unfolded and filled out, its colouring began to appear murkily, then solidify in sharp, unmistakable pattern. This new angelic creature pulsed, stretched to its fullness, took its first flight — knowingly, towards the safety of the woods. It was a miracle I had witnessed from beginning to end, and to this day I find it useful to recall, when contemplating the mysteries of Creation and Resurrection.