Karen J. Weyant
By June, we belonged to our favorite swimming hole. Two miles from my best friend’s farm, the headwaters of shallow Toby Creek widened into a pool over six feet deep. Late mornings, with her band of little brothers and sisters, we trailed down a dirt road and dumped our faded beach towels on the makeshift beaches built from dirt thrown up from flood waters. An old railroad trestle cast shadows – and rust – over us as we swam and did somersaults, sometimes playing Chicken or Marco Polo in the water. Toby Creek was one of the few places our parents deemed safe for swimming – it wasn’t bloated with paper mill waste or tainted with acid mine drainage.
It must have been here where I was first introduced to the dragonfly. Devil’s needles, our grandmothers told us about the insects that scooted around the pool’s edge. They sew the lips of fibbing children together.
We didn’t believe them.
We were survivors of bee stings and bicycle spills and the bullying boys our age, so we weren’t afraid. Dragonflies, in spite of their scary appearances, were little more than big bugs. Back then, we didn’t know their names – not the Common Whitetail, its abdomen chalky white against black-banded wings or the Green Darner, its body blue and green sporting a long black dorsal stripe. We darted between them in the same way we maneuvered around the water bugs, the minnows, and the occasional black water snake that shared our summer playground.
Sometimes, dragonflies hooked together in strange, lopsided circles. I wasn’t dumb. I saw stray cats mount each other and birds fumble across our backyards in spring. What I didn’t know, my best friend – farm girl that she was – would explain. But it was years later that I learned about the violence of dragonfly sex – that females are often killed in the act, or at the very least maimed. They may fly away with a wing torn or an eyeball split open. At the very least, they have holes in their heads from the strong grip of their male counterparts.
Certainly, in those summer days, we were not aware of the savage sex practices of dragonflies any more than the specific names of other insects that scuttled around our pool. We did know some, including the Monarch butterfly, which was a staple in Ranger Rick magazines or in grade school science experiments. We also knew any number of bees that sought after the few flowers that grew along the bank. Still, I’m sure another member of the dragonfly family rested in the shadows. The damselfly, the dragonfly’s youngest cousin so to speak, is graceful but far less flashy. At rest, the damselfly folds its wings close to its body much like a butterfly but very different than the way the dragonfly rests with its wings spread out to the sides of its body. While the dragonfly adorns pins and necklaces and is the star of countless of scientific studies of flight, the damselfly is likely to remain in its shadow, like a little sister who will never quite live up to the standards of her older, more popular sister – the one who is pretty and poised.
Today, more than 5,000 species of dragonflies and damselflies live in the world. They sport bright colors that gleam in the sunlight and catch the reflection of their water habitats – emerald green, sky blue, even deep vivid reds. Dragonflies, especially, are acrobats in the air, able to hover and then suddenly dart away – either backwards or forwards in sharp zig zag movements.
Because of its beautiful wings and wind aerobatics, the dragonfly has become a staple in both folklore and mythology. Yet, its symbolism isn’t consistent. In many European cultures, the dragonfly is considered a pawn of the devil. One tale even says that the dragonfly has been sent from Satan himself to calculate the weight of a person’s soul. On the other hand, in some cultures, more specifically the Japanese culture, the dragonfly is a sign of strength and victory in battle.
My favorite story, however, is the dragonfly of Zuni culture. The tale describes the story of two children who are left behind when a village population leaves because of the failure of the corn crops. In order to cheer up his sister, the brother makes a dragonfly doll out of corn husks. The doll comes alive and convinces the corn gods to bless the land with bountiful crops. In doing so, the village people return and are reunited with the two children. Even today, the Zuni people recognize a good corn crop is in the future by the return of the dragonflies in spring.
As of right now, the dragonflies do return in the spring. Some species, such as the Spring Darner, emerge when we are shedding our winter clothes and scrubbing the road salt from our cars. As the weeks roll on, other colorful species dart into my secluded rural world. Generally speaking, dragonflies favor ponds, streams and wetlands. Yet, it’s also not unusual to see a stray zip through my backyard or across the local parking lots.
But while dragonflies are returning, other insects are disappearing.
When I see a ladybug today, chances are it’s not the same species of ladybug I saw in my youth. Instead, it’s probably the Harlequin Ladybird, a species that was introduced in America but now is competing with other kinds of ladybugs, including the two-spotted ladybug (the one that seems to serve as a model for stationery, stickers and children’s clothing) and the once common nine-spotted ladybug. When I think I see a Monarch butterfly, there is a very real possibility hat it’s not really a Monarch — a butterfly that was once so plentiful that my battered Golden Guide book I had as a child calls it, “One of the best known butterflies.” Instead, the flicker of orange and black wings probably belongs to a Viceroy, a butterfly who shares similar markings to its winged counterpart. Finally, with honeybees disappearing in a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder, the flash of yellow I see or buzz I hear may be a yellowjacket or a bumblebee.
Say endangered species, and most people will think of the polar bear, the mountain gorilla, or maybe the whooping crane. Insects seldom make the list and indeed are absent from calendars, stationary, jewelry, and even wildlife magazine covers. Sure, while some endangered and threatened insects, such as the honeybee, get some press, most are pushed way behind other animals. Who wants to see the Coffin Cave Mold Beetle, a tiny eyeless troglobite, on a pin or necklace? Or the Blackburn’s Sphinx moth, its wings the color of fine dust, on a calendar picture? Oddly, even the more picturesque insects, such as the Karner Blue Butterfly, with its silvery blue wings, seldom get much attention.
While we don’t give insects much thought, perhaps we should. Statistically, it seems that insects don’t just share our world – they rule our world. Insects represent about 80 percent of the world’s species, and those are the species that are known. Conservative estimates suggest there are two million insects left to be discovered. Other estimates place this number as high as 30 million. There’s part of me that wonders if those gnats I brush away from my face in the late summer heat are identified species or if they belong to the not-too-elite group of insects waiting to be “officially” discovered.
As I wait for the start of spring, I can’t help but think of the dragonfly that I saw last fall. True, we equate the swag of the dragonfly with summer sun, but some dawdle until late October, especially if the warm weather lingers. I was staring out my classroom window, when I saw a Shadow Darner, one of the last autumn dragonflies, resting on the concrete sidewalk. With dull green eyes, and a brown body that sports splintered blue spots, it stands out against the gray concrete – a perfect picture of how insects share our industrial world.
Yet now, I can’t help but think that the Pacific Hawaiian Damselfly, which is currently on the Endangered Species list, would make a better poster child for all of our threatened insects – those that we know and those we don’t. Its crimson red body and dark wings would stand bold in a natural world marked by hues of green and brown and a manmade world too often colored by gray.
Karen J. Weyant’s poetry and prose has been published in The Barn Owl Review, Cold Mountain Review, Flyway, Fourth River, The Nassau Review, Poetry East, Storm Cellar, River Styx, Waccamaw, and Whiskey Island. Her most recent collection of poetry, Wearing Heels in the Rust Belt, won Main Street Rag’s 2011 Chapbook contest and was published in 2012. She teaches at Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, New York. In her spare time, she explores the Rust Belt regions of Western New York and Northern Pennsylvania. Her website is www.karenjweyant.com.