#17 My Re-enchantment Story

Photo: A Meadowhawk. Note the tiny bumps covering his eyes—‘facets’, I believe.

Dennis Paulsen, my dragonfly mentor, once told me that the more he learns about dragonflies the more enchanted the world becomes. Experimentation, testing, analysis of natural phenomenon does not lead to ‘disenchantment’. We cannot explain away all the magic, no matter how much we learn. Knowing how the sun sets does not make a sunset any less ‘enchanting’. Today, for me, it’s dragonfly eyes. If our eyes were proportionally the same size as theirs, we would have the equivalence of cantaloupes on the sides of our head. I’d been reading descriptions and looking at diagrams when I found myself inside the eye of a meadowhawk bathing in gauze-filtered light. The gauze was actually rhabdoms, thousands of impossibly tiny filaments vibrating with energy. These connect the lens which sits beneath the facet on the eye’s surface, and the crystalline cone to the fiber optic nerves in the center. This ‘system’ is known as the “ommatidium” (l love saying that outloud). There are 30,000 of these systems in a meadowhawk’s eye, each acting independently of the others.

A tiny gnat passes.

Since the surface of the dragonfly’s eye is curved, each facet ‘sees’ the gnat from a slightly different perspective, and each ommatidium system carries a unique minuscule atom of information—color, speed, direction, context, and more—through the rhabdom filament to the fiber optic nerve. The information accumulates in the dragonfly’s brain where multi-dimensional, 360-degree reality is formed. The dragonfly responds. There’s so much more I want to learn about this, so stay tuned.

#16 My Re-enchantment Story


Photo. After mating a different Blue-Eyed Darner laid in the moss. We were wrong, thinking he was dead.

A month after emerging from the water where he’d been the past four years, the Meadowhawk spent his days hunting gnats and looking for a mate. Today, the competition was fierce, more males patrolling the pond than females. The chances of finding a lone female were slim compared to interrupting a liaison between an existing couple. He’d prepared by translocating his sperm from his genital pore, an opening near the end of his abdomen (the ninth of ten segments) to his penis in the second segment. Then, in the distance, a perfect female attracted his full attention. That a different male was attached to the back of her head and that they flew across the pond in tandem, did not dissuade him. He launched a surprise attack aimed midway along the enemy abdomen with enough force to break the bond connecting them. He then circled back above her and pulling up short, grabbed her head with his cerci-tipped abdomen, and guided her away. In safe space he maneuvered beneath her. She then grasped his abdomen just in front of where it attached to her head and guided the tip of hers toward his sperm filled penis. They touched. She liked how he fit and how he felt and they clamped into place. He would transfer his sperm from his penis through her vagina via her genital pore into her bursa copulatrix, where she stores the results of her most recent coupling. But first, he used the flagellum attached to his penis to scrape away sperm that might be left from her previous ‘encounter’, increasing his chances that his genetics get passed on. Finished, his abdomen still attached to the back of her head, they fly off across the pond.  Her eggs drop down through the oviduct in her abdomen. Then she chooses. She directs her eggs to be fertilized into either her bursa or her spermatheca containing older sperm from many different males. In tandem she and her mate fly low across the pond dropping one just-fertilized egg each time she taps the surface with the tip of her tail.

#15 My Re-enchantment story


Photos: What I think is a Blue-Eyed Darner (Rhionaeschna multicolor)  I pulled out of the moss. And, my favorite, my fingers, the dragonfly having flown the microsecond before I snapped the photo.

Staying with friends near Ridgway, Colorado, I took a walk through tall perfect grasses down to an irrigation pond, looking for dragonflies. The water level of the pond had dropped as it was lined with mud and a beautiful band of yellow moss created a bright circumference, ten feet wide, a brilliant contrast to the deep green center. In my excitement I didn’t pause to let the ether settle I startled the large darners hovering at the edge. One, flying too low caught its front left wing in the yellow moss, and was dragged down. There it laid, frantically drumming its free wings against the moss. I panicked hearing the vibrating sound of the dying dragonfly. I had to do something to save it, especially since I may have been responsible. I thought about stripping down and swimming out through the moss to the dragonfly thrashing ten feet out.  Or could I find something long enough to reach out and possible drag the dragonfly to shore. I was thinking that some nearby tall dry reeds might work, when I saw what looked like a long length of white plastic pipe. It had been there a while based on the new growth tangled around it. I pulled it free and found a rake attached to the end, which seemed like a miracle. But then didn’t Einstein say ‘everything is a miracle or nothing is’? I’m committed to the ‘everything option’ (Thank you my friend, Michael Richardson). I was able to push the rake end through the moss and then twist and maneuver it underneath the struggling dragonfly and pull it and the moss chunk that trapped it to shore. As it continued struggling, I carefully pulled the stuck forewing from the muck, as its other wings beat softly against my hand. After a tedious minute delicately pulling the stuck wing, it finally came free. I noticed a slight tear near the pterostigma. The dragonfly, a magnificent blue and black darner with the blue pearled eyes sat on my fingers, cleaning itself, testing its wings. I was able to snap a few pictures before it flew off.

#14 My Re-Enchantment Story

Photo: A magnificent Flame Skimmer which seems to have been attacked, possibly by a bird. Although his wing muscles are exposed, he flew off undaunted.

First, one lone Great Mossy Darner. Within a minute, two meadowhawks and an unknown (I really need to learn the damsels) dancer on the short twigs poking through the pond’s surface. I sat and with my tripod (elbows on knees) began watching. The darner came straight at me, its  head on a direct line as its body cut right. The opposite of a ‘head fake’, the head reacting slower than its body. (The ocelli, their ‘third eye’, directly controls the wings, bypassing the brain. Dragonfly head: follow the body or fall off. Not much of a choice.)

I thought of other flyers, bees for example: slow, methodical, ambling in short bursts flower to flower. Wasps, erratic, like happy children, loving speed and power. Butterflies, delicate, their wings fragile, as if too many flaps might break them. They use their wings to move vertically, saving them on the horizontal. Grasshopper, such a ruckus! hysterically launching then crash landing, tumbling to a stop. Dragonflies, so powerful, controlled, and surgical in flight. Not one wasted movement.

Compared to darners, meadowhawks made more vertical adjustments. The Flame skimmers, always shockingly present) seemed directed in flight, in constant transit, on call.

A new Darner appeared, also male. Competition?  As if choregraphed, they tumbled and lunged and wove together a meter above the pond’s surface. Both their ocelli working, they vibrated from attack to retreat like nerves firing. To the south, a male Widow Skimmer spread on a sunflower stalk, the whites on its backlit wings glowing in the sun. (No ragged wings of the one I saw Sunday).  Then a Twelve-spotted skimmer perched on a twig four feet away. It stayed like the gift I always wanted. Between the dark spots on its wings (three on each, times four wings equals twelve total spots) in each white transparent space a strange shadow vibrated in dappled light. Three meadowhawk pairs oviposited on a moss raft, mid pond, and one pair of dancers. The distant widow skimmer didn’t move for twenty minutes, but then, neither did I.

#13 My Re-enchantment story


Photo: my first Widow Skimmer of the season. Quite beat up, wingwise, which didn’t seem to affect his flight. He did seem to rest a lot, when compared to the two others I watched.

Seeing the Widow Skimmer yesterday at the town pond was just one element of an incredible day, which didn’t begin that way. At all. I started around ten, up the trailhead across from the fire station, past Castle Rock, up to the Professor Valley Overlook, down past Queen the Erotic Juniper, and out. Then I crossed Loop Road, and headed across the rocks, through the dead cheatgrass, between sage, to the north end of the pond. Nothing. Not a gnat, let alone a dragonfly. Absence as presence. I couldn’t believe it. I walked south along the east edge to the outlet gate and sat down in the dirt.  Finally, a Great Mossy Darner appeared, alone. Then two meadowhawks and then and then. And then one of the great dragonfly days ever.

I’ve often thought that a mysterious substance must exist, a dimensional ether, semi-tangible, that my simple existence disrupted, reverberated, sending all the beings into hiding. Once I’d settled in the ether calmed and smoothed, reconstituted. Peace returned to the pond.

Then dozens of Verigated Meadowhawks ovipositing (the males attached to the back of the female’s head as she tapped the pond’s surface to drop an eggs—If she drops one egg each time she ‘taps’ the surface, she left 50 eggs/minute during one period.) A pair of tiny damselflies was also there laying eggs. Three male Widow Skimmers passed in front of me involved in a spectacular dance (battle?). As always, Great Mossy Darners seemed to be on patrol, on the lookout for any possible danger. And the Flame Skimmers! OMG, my first of the year, three of them, no questions asked. The height to which a dragonfly rises is proportional to its size, which makes sense. The darners reach ten meters, higher than the powerline which crosses the pond. The meadowhawks, two to three meters. The tiny bluets, inches.

I’d struggled wondering why I’d seen so few dragonflies at the pond this summer. Now, I think that the extremely wet winter and spring may have delayed their ‘flight seasons’.

#12 My Re-enchantment story


Photo: Night before last, just before dark.

A few days ago I read that a recent poll showed that 7 of 10 people believe in angels. (https://www.sltrib.com/news/nation-world/2023/08/01/do-you-believe-angels-about-7-10/) Last year, 81% of those asked said they believe in ‘God’, down 6 points from 2017. Of those, 58% said that the god they believed in was the one described in the Old Testament (older White male, long beard, keeps track of everything we do all day, makes judgements, and intervenes when asked). 98% of those who say they believe in God, angels, devil, etc. attend weekly religious services. Earlier (https://brookewilliams.site/2-my-re-enchantment-story-july-3-2023/) I referred to the book, The Myth of Disenchantment. The “myth” as nearly as I can tell in this very academic book, is that the world has never been disenchanted because people still believe in spirits and angels and god, etc. I struggle with this definition of enchantment because so much of it is tied up in and based on modern religion. It has nothing to do with evolution, which I believe is inherent in enchantment, and vice versa. In Utah many people believe in the biblical God, in angels and devils and attend church weekly. These people are mostly Mormons. A Pew poll shows that 81% of Mormons believe either that humans have always existed in our current form, or that we’ve evolved via a God-designed process. Mormons, in their “weekly religious services” are taught that we live according to a well-defined plan, that the past, present, and future are all known. If indeed life is “enchanted”, it is in a very ‘convergent’ way—that everything about it ‘converges’ on a “truth” revealed through Mormon prophets. This is different from ‘enchantment’ as I’m coming to understand it, a much more open ended, ‘divergent’ version.  Enchantment is not the controlled belief in some biblically predicted outcome, but like evolution, is the ability to adapt to any changing conditions. Enchantment, I think, is based on an all-pervading and perpetual force for good in the universe.