Dragonflies playing dead and other baseline studies for our trip to Mars

I love the moist and humid 

of marshland,

watching

tall grasses break

the surface of water,

simply wondering

what fish must silver

the shallows

or what reptile

slither a shiver

down the spine ..

I took these photos while we walked the trail at Lobster Cove meadow and Appalachee preserves in Boothbay Harbor. They look like a poem. At 46.8-acres,  this preserve boasts of a freshwater wetland, large field and a quite densely forested upland [1] I loved every part of it and given half a chance, I would have perhaps spent my morning sitting by that soupy ferment of grass and sodden earth, creating botanical drawings or writing floral poetry ..

.. but this prose poem is really about dragonflies and a lyrical questioning of the viability of some species of the order Odonata, on planets that humankind propose to relocate to. Of what use then, is a dragonfly?

I'm hypnotized by the dragonfly's

agile life path 

or is it - a flight path? 


On taxonomy ~


Marsh trails at Lobster Cove,

court me in grass -

resigned they are,

to the trample of feet, 

or fate, in Maine,

land richly resplendent 

in the iridescence 

of one hundred and fifty five

species ---

emeralds, jewel wings, reds,

golds, pond damsels, 

darners, skimmers, hawkers,

predators, 

dragons that fly, 

and this isn't metaphor..



I flee to be happily feral 

in these teeming marshes,

soliloquising to this multitude.

This thick slice of populace,

if you police the species,

spawn irreverent ideas

of vagrants or migrants 

or residents. Of these

I ladle millions with simply 

the scoop of my hand, 

from a steamy soupy puddle.. 

Hundreds of dragonflies 

and damselflies,

are squadrons in the sky,

a flight arena weakening air.

They meld in a singular 

poetic brush stroke 

of airy romance

even as my botanical eye 

purloins them from a vast kingdom

to stricture within an Order, 

of specialised missions,

their godly wings for escort, 

or those that pivot 

to a singular pursuit

of combative intent 

and thus, genus is recruited 

to sub orders and 

other such self effacement

There are 155 species of Odonata in Maine which include the 112 of  Anisoptera,  which is comprised only of dragonflies. These hold their wings horizontal to the surface they alight upon, while damselflies (Zygoptera), hold them vertical, this being an important criterion besides the eyes, for easy differentiation between both, although they look quite similar.  Beyond that, you could mull over the variation of  corrugation patterns, the curvature of the various ridges and deep valleys on the plane of the wing membrane, or wing span and attached musculature while considering that individuals within the same species vary considerably as also, between the species. Yet, it was of great interest to me, that measurements based on the wing profiles from a single wing of very few dried specimens spearheaded whole studies and scientific hypotheses on the effect of these morphological characteristics on aerodynamics of the dragonfly. 

It’s a dragonfly, I want to know why it flies .. so ..

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Now imagine this complex wing architecture, the attached musculature that enables the independent movement of each of the four wings and the aerodynamic magic that propels the dragonfly through three dimensional trajectories, through space. The ability to manoeuvre in a way that they can fly backwards without any added expense of energy, their speed, agility and their capacity to hover, aids them in their remarkable predatory routines. It makes my heart skip a bit when I understand they exclusively intercept other flying insects while in flight, perhaps like humans attempt to do in aerial combat. These remarkable creatures can cruise, pursue, intercept while on their territorial flights, in chasing others like them or in stalking prey and some can even fly in formation.

Flying is arduous and requires efficient management of energy. In extensive studies of the relationship between the wing planform of Odonata and aerodynamic efficiency during flapping flight, it was found that dragonflies must generate 221% of the power that would be necessary to produce the same lift with perfect aerodynamic efficiency (i.e. from an ideal ‘actuator disc’ or ‘lifting line’ in laboratory conditions). Damselflies, operate with a less efficient wing shape in comparison and have to generate 275% of the power that would be required under ideal conditions, simply to fly [6] The overarching question in these studies of wingspan efficiency is, why are insect wing shapes so variable. No one has yet discovered an optimal solution from the standpoint of aerodynamics as insects have several adaptive and non-adaptive factors that contribute to wing shape, and only some of these adaptations will have any aerodynamic or mechanical relevance.

Currently, no suitable wing model exists, to replicate what is experienced by the mechanosensors present on the wings of these living creatures, that are responsible for relaying sensory signals required to power a flight. Eliciting predictable and repeatable flight responses in laboratory conditions has been tricky as well, but most importantly, inorder to generalize and validate flight strategies in the real world, field recordings are essential, but we find that a reliable field data logger for Odonata is yet to be developed.

Thus it stands, we do not understand many things about dragonflies and there are several reasons to continue to study them, least of all that such research will advance humankind’s understanding of unsteady aerodynamics, flight control, sensory integration and the evolution of flight [6] but each dragonfly has its own unique functional design and form, therefore, the task of learning about the metabolic cost of flying to each organism and drawing conclusions thus about flight strategies, is much more complicated than it appears. Until now, no human to the best of my knowledge, has produced a successful dragonfly except for another dragonfly.

My need to know and understand arises as a matter of habit, marking with gravitas this breezy situation which sometimes, a marsh walk can be. When I excitedly tell my husband about surprising facts I come across , I mean, who can not notice the science of it on a leisurely walk .. he wonders the same as I, why one’s mind cannot quite exult and float, elated on fresh air and sunshine alone 😄 Well, I try …

.. not to think of some innovative blueprint for a new drone, designed perhaps like a dragonfly or a damselfly, or scientific research pondering the inefficiency of those horizontally or vertically held wings, that somehow refuse to be consistent in their shape and size [5] There I am, in a marsh, dragonflies in a flight arena of sky, exhibiting the same tendencies as the rest of the sentient species and I realise, there isn’t enough grass nor sky for everyone. There are entire societies at play here not to feel crowded out, and I, a bystander, looking from the outside at their arduous frolicking and wondering of the aggressive sexual behaviour of dragonflies that suddenly taints every romantic vision of earth and sky that I would like to weave into my marshy poetry. Somehow, writing lyrically of how happy I am to see dragonflies engaged in territorial displays over grass, is akin to admitting I enjoy bullfights or so I think and I laugh, for I do or maybe I don’t. In all seriousness though, it prods me to think of the limits of acceptance, a virtue we are smug to extol, or of the questions we are reluctant to frame …

Do you know how we map 

the flight of consciousness ?

I think that is what it is ..

the question I mean.


I wish I could veil my glance

in poetry, blissful membranous

euphemism, like lined coffins

for the dead but I would be

unfeeling not to notice

the corrugations in

those angelic wings.


Is everywhere the place

where the glade is pleasant,

the woods cheerful,

the waters run deep ?


Sometimes, all those things, yes 

and the female of the species

dropped dead. It startled me

from my airbrushed soliloquy, 

for blade strokes -

aerodynamic, iridescent

in a viridescent marsh,

had squelched irony

from the maw of design.


Nymphs in the shallows,

are a Neverland

of eternal childhood.

In the wake

of an artful airlift

for angelic pursuit,

are embattled skies

of conflictual ardour,

and comically painful

those cerci on neck ..


The kama sutra of aerodynamic love

yields outlines of hearts,

lyrical hymns to creatures

great, cherubic, winged,

but the females fake death

to squadrons of a militant

genetic drive.



Will we need dragonflies on Mars

with no oxygen nor water to monitor?

And what use a desultory

Martian anthropomorphisation

as it bites the barren of dust?


Each wingspan a solitary delight,

those 180 degree flips

three dimensional trajectories

of love, for survival of the species

through nicks and bruises ..

Mating in dragonflies is a unique affair in that it involves serious terms like tandem linkage and wheel formation and a great deal of aggression [7] It is highly acrobatic sport and eventually a mating pair forms this heart shape as in the picture above. The male first grabs a female by the back of her neck with claspers at the end of his abdomen that are called cerci which are structural appendages that actually fit into species-specific grooves in the female. Once this tandem linkage is established, the actual consummation takes place which is quite interesting but involves sexual gymnastics involving abdominal segments and appendages for scooping out of rival sperm, some vicious territoriality, pursuit of multiple suitors and a very tired female at the end [8] The high male-biased ratio in adult dragonflies at breeding habitats, has in part, contributed to females using different habitats to avoid male harassment.

Females of some species of dragonflies (Female moorland hawkers or Aeshna juncea for example) are vulnerable to being harassed when laying eggs since they aren’t protected by their male mates. This isn’t the case with all dragonflies but many of the species exhibit sexual conflict. In Moorland hawkers for instance, eggs are usually fertilised in a single sexual encounter with a male, and copulating again could damage their reproductive tract so after the act, females crash dive to the ground at very high speeds and fake death [9]

As I marvel at the dragonfly, I appreciate what humans can learn and possibly unlearn from our compatriots on this sometimes green and golden earth, while I question if there is more to the poetry of the species than simply one upmanship, mean spiritedness, lusty escapades, romantic illusions and other attributes of our inherent genetic propensity, that mainly drive every conflict, every conquest, every war and all tribalism.

How much of dragonfly do we wish to be, plainly rhetorical musing …

There were mushrooms too ..
I thought this looked like living sculpture ..

References:

[1]~https://www.mainetrailfinder.com/trails/trail/lobster-cove-meadow-and-appalachee-preserves

[2]~https://maineanencyclopedia.com/dragonflies/

[3](Gives a list of species found in Maine and their distribution) ~https://www.jstor.org/stable/3858343

[4]~https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/geb.12758

[5]~https://www.google.com/amp/s/phys.org/news/2014-11-secret-dragonflies-flight.amp

[6]~https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rstb.2015.0389

[7]~https://www.thoughtco.com/how-dragonflies-mate-1968255

[8]~https://www.livescience.com/43206-animal-sex-dragonflies.html

[9]~https://www.newscientist.com/article/2129185-female-dragonflies-fake-sudden-death-to-avoid-male-advances/

The Mystique Of Mushrooms

Yesterday was pelted in thunderstorms and drenched in flash floods but we braved the lightening, the evening rush and hauled in a variety of mushrooms from an East Asian Market a long distance away. Supper therefore, was a bit exotic, saucy, even green, all quite literally so. Mushrooms deserve a special place in poetry so I wrote a poem for them. They were all chopped before it occurred to me to take a photo of each individual species, so I borrowed some from Wikipedia instead.

Happy Meal

The king oyster mushrooms turned meaty in the cooking; they were also meant to develop an umami flavour but the soy sauce beat them to it. Pleurotus eryngii is the largest species of oyster mushroom and the specific name is simply because it grows in association with the roots of Eryngium campestre or the Watling Street thistle which feels like the oddest association of organisms; the thistle being a thorny and spiny plant as opposed to this soft, smooth sponginess [1].

King Oyster mushrooms from Wikipedia
Watling Street Thistle from Wikipedia

The delicate Enoki or Flammulina velutipes, grows on the stumps of the Chinese hackberry tree (Celtis sinensis) which is a species of flowering plant in the hemp family, Cannabaceae. A most unique aspect of the cultivated enoki are the long thin stems that arise because of the carbon dioxide rich environment they are cultivated in and the lack of exposure to light which produces their distinctive white colour. Wild mushrooms apparently display a dark brown colour and have short thick stems [2].

Wild Enoki from Wikipedia
Cultivated Enoki from Wikipedia
Chinese Hackberry tree from Wikipedia

The shiitake (Lentinula edodes) is an edible mushroom and its Japanese name shiitake is composed of ‘shii’ (Castanopsis), for it is the tree Castanopsis cuspidata, that provides the dead logs on which it is typically cultivated, and ‘take’ (mushroom). The specific epithet edodes is the Latin word for ‘edible’. The Castanopis cuspidata is an evergreen, that is related to the Beech and the Oak and the dead logs are a great substrate for shiitake [3].

Shiitake from Wikipedia

I have a background in Mycology hence the sweet overwhelm of scientific names, but the emphasis on fungal nomenclature is more to showcase the association of the three types of  mushrooms with varied species of plants.
It’s a privilege to know where food comes from and why it is, the way it is. Supper was a delicious team effort.

We glazed it further with an infusion of sesame oil, ginger – garlic – serrano pepper slivers in half a cup of water and corn flour, oyster sauce, soy sauce, some sugar to taste; it was then sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. The spices added towards the end heighten the flavour.
The Mystique of Mushrooms in a Stir Fry

There's no wild to picking mushrooms anymore. It's quite safe to troop them off the shelves, along a sedate aisle.

Those days of dead logs, spiny leaves and fissured bark seem like from a Grimms' Fairy Tale, where arose fairy rings, in grey grim woods alongside the thistle.

When the Enoki were sliced to slumber on a bed of green, it struck me as ironic, that they were deathly pale since breathing in what I breathed out. I asked myself, has this mushroom suffered to grow so in darkness?

The Shiitake, we wiped with a kitchen towel, not that they were weeping, but wallowing in tears would have weighted them like a wet sponge of sorrow.

Shii is simply the Castanopis tree in Japanese and they are called other things umami and we like the flavour of sultry summer supper. And so do they, as they spirit out the decay of woody crust in a fungal exorcism where life eats death; where the faded memories of gnarled bark are spent like currency in circular thought.

The king oyster 'shrooms seek thistle companions in a morbid coevolution. They are the most mushroom of them all; thin stipe and large cap, a perfect parasol for a sorceress who believes little in mirrors.

But their sunshades have gills, now stressed for low light and barely breathing*, white as a sheet on meaty stipes, making way to a seasoned wok. The human palate is rarely aware that it finds edible the grotesquely transmogrified.

I set out to write a tribute and ended up with an elegy instead. This one felt more like an autopsy. It’s simply how the words flow and I have attempted another one that is palate worthy, I think. I have added notes below about the saprotrophic nutrition of Shiitake and Enoki mushrooms, both are wood decay saprotrophs. The king oyster mushrooms on the other hand establish a mycorrhizal connection with the Thistle. Mushrooms are fruiting bodies of the fungal mycelium that runs through the substrate.

The Mystique of Mushrooms

Dainty parasols peeped through
the undergrowth, like fairies
preparing for summer rain.

Hands reached forth
to sever stipe from
subterranean soul
for death begets life
in a world like ours.

And those fissures in bark -
a desultory carapace,
for sturdy trunks,
are rife with
fertile imaginings
that will seed
sustenance in a broth
meant for supper.

Spongy sunshades, outpost
the underground meanderings
of mycelial whispers
anchoring forests,
to a filigree of life.

Bounty of soft pickings,
unfurl in awareness
of what lies beneath,
in an undercurrent
of tenderness.

Philosophy lurks
in leafy detritus,
tangled roots,
but meaning emerges
in spongy clusters
that rise
from death**

Notes: ** Shiitake and King Oyster mushrooms are Saprotrophic. Saprotrophs are decomposers that live off decomposing dead organisms. Saprotrophic mushrooms grow on dead and decaying wood. They are able to break down plant matter and convert it into nutrients, and they accelerate the decomposition of their host in doing so. These fungi have a key role in breaking down plant matter, where most of the carbon in terrestrial ecosystems is to be found. The action of the fungi helps return much of this carbon to the atmosphere as CO2. There are two sub-categories of saprotrophic mushrooms: litter decomposers, and wood decay fungi. Litter decomposers break down plant matter and are often found scattered across the ground in the woods. White button mushrooms are an example of the several saprotrophic species which are litter decomposers. As their name implies, wood decay fungi break down the wood on trees. Shiitake mushrooms are an example of wood decay fungi. There are other types of mushrooms that are mycorrhizal, parasitic and endophytic [5]

References:
[1]~https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pleurotus_eryngii

[2]~https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enokitake

[3]~https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shiitake

[4]*~http://sietalab.com/different-characteristic-of-king-oyster-mushroom-pleurotus-eryngii-cultivation-indoors-and-outdoors/

[5]**~https://www.mushroomknowhow.com/saprotrophic-mushrooms-and-other-types/

Requiem for a tree

Splitting trunk, splitting ranks

Leafless veins in the overstory/ fracturing a grey mirror of sky/ courted by the god of tempests/ An aeolian serenade he etches on hard slate of mossy rooftops/ but saves a harsh caress for the Cedar siding in the east/ loose wind chimes outside a kitchen, west/ Umbrellas on a porch, raised without ceremony/ forgotten doors, slammed// His searing rage, through needling rain/ amused at displays of renegade branches splitting trunk/ breaking ranks/ at his contemptuous affections the size of an angry gale//

Her tears are snowmelt, where she digs her heels into sodden earth/ Lay encrusted there large flakes/ coalesced into the solidity of a winter left too long/ retreating now in warm injury to encircle her, contemplate/ pain of wood and dead hurt from a distance// An observant arena, watching her bleed like only a tree can/ knowing little of the understory/ sisterly tales of root seeking root/ sparing commiserations to salve the wound/ whispering healing prayers through single cells of contact//

Enzymes that signal your human hurts are not hers/ synapses of your human grief are foreign too/ and unrelated, the mechanics of your psychosomatic afflictions/ but you can imagine it like thjs/ in the simple way your science defines it/ A symphony of molecules and atoms, laid like lamentations/ sheet music in papery tomes, made strangely from the carcasses of such like her/ singing of pain of heart wood, amid frosty gales//

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Notes:
We lost a tree in the wind gusts on Christmas Eve, which were at 65 mph. One of the heavy branches split the trunk in a strange fashion to reveal heart wood. It made me sad because I find it difficult to face the loss of trees as something that takes years in the making. This is my tribute to the fall of a beautiful giant.

I have used male gender for the wind or Aeolus, inspired that I am by the Greek pantheon these wintry days, where the war between the Titans and the Olympians makes for warm viewing. It is also noteworthy, the tree nymphs, (Dryads or Oak spirits) cited in the Greek mythologies, but I would like to consider the tree as the universal feminine in this poem.

If you have a penchant for the botanical, you may find this study on the communication of trees in the understory, quite interesting.

Elhakeem et al (2018); Above ground mechanical stimuli affect below ground plant-plant communication.

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0195646

For those familiar with the book, Overstory, by Richard Powers, he writes in one story of a fictional botanist, Dr. Patricia Westerford, based on perhaps the real life Ecologist Suzanne W. Simard, whose work involved studying how trees communicate with one another using the Mycorrhizal network. Trees are also known to reach out to each other and form a supportive network underground.

The Tao of the Wisteria

Like Waka itself,
you grow five syllables
then seven, then five,
then seven,
then again ……
twining liana after liana
around the Doric column
covered in stucco;
Is this commitment?
Perhaps,
an elegant
Ushin Renga riposte
is your twirling delicate tendril
seeking the steadfast
pillar of support,
that does not deny you
an embrace.

They call you
a wanton vine
prodding
every nook and cranny,
clasping,
firmly grasping;
Yet despite
your wistful Wisterin,
that can be poison brew or elixir,
the goldfinches make you their home
and nobles invite you into their gardens,
where you outlast their kith and kin
and even their Cherry blossoms.

So a timekeeper you are,
punctuating the days with seasons;
Fragrant racemes in spring,
leafy interludes in summer,
then barren winter waka vines,
which when laid end to end
yield miles of poetry.

Slowly, steadily,
sinuously, sensuously,
your dancing tendrils,

woody stems,
all the while bearing witness
to an expanding consciousness
of an elegant, immortal love

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The very first time I saw Wisteria (1), a woody twining leguminous vine (of the family Fabaceae), was at the chateau, Azay le Rideau in the Loire Valley. It was so beautiful, with the vines trailing against the stucco walls of an outbuilding. I have seen it many times since and last week, once again at one of my favourite gardens, Van Vleck mansion in Montclair; a Chinese Wisteria that is quite impressive in it muscular base and stem.

In Japan, Wisteria was a plant associated with the aristocracy; It now makes a lovely addition to any garden provided the woody deciduous vines are trained well with sturdy support. According to Peter Valder (author of Wisterias: A Comprehensive Guide, 1995), Japanese wisteria is the more decorative plant (2):

“With its many-flowered racemes, it remains in bloom longer, its growth habit is more graceful, the disposition of its blossoms and foliage more elegant, and its autumn colour more effective.”

I wished this botanical poem to be a tribute to this beautiful plant. Wisteria has long been a motif in art, literature and decor in Japan (a favourite with feng Shui practitioners), also especially in Waka poetry which includes Haiku, Ushin Renga and other forms; it has even been a mainstay in theatre, with the famous Fuji Musume (Wisteria Maiden) a classical dance out of the Kabuki theatre in Japan, first performed in 1826, originally as one in a series of five dances (6).

Renga (3) is a genre of Japanese linked-verse poetry in which two or more poets supplied alternating sections of a poem. This form of collaborative poetry (4) requires that the poets complete each other’s stanzas intelligibly. Ushin Renga is serious Renga, elegant and refined like Wisteria I should think.

Waka (5) is Japanese court poetry of the 6th – 14th century, including such forms as renga and haiku. The term waka also is used as a synonym for tanka or short poem, which is the basic form of Japanese poetry.

I think we have something to learn about growth, endurance, elegance and refinement from the way of the Wisteria. I hope you enjoy this botanical poem.

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References:

1-https://www.britannica.com/plant/Wisteria

2-https://www.seattlejapanesegarden.org/blog/2018/5/3/japanese-wisteria-brings-late-spring-beauty-to-the-seattle-japanese-garden

3-https://www.britannica.com/art/renga#ref722204

4-https://swarthyface.blogspot.com/2020/05/study-guidenotes-on-waka-japanese.html?m=1

5-https://www.britannica.com/art/waka-Japanese-poetry

6-http://www.karensantry.com/thefujimusume