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 ..

.

.

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/

Wandering Thistle

Cirsium horridulum
Common names ~ Bristle Thistle, Yellow Thistle, Horrid Thistle, Purple Thistle, Spiny Thistle, Bull Thistle
Family ~ Asteraceae (Aster Family)
Photos taken at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

The thistle is the official floral emblem of Scotland. The logo for the Encyclopaedia Britannica incorporates the thistle as well and the thistle  flower was used to symbolize the Virgin Mary during the middle ages. It also stands for resilience, bravery, courage, evil, protection and pride among other things. An edible plant, the thistle is native to North America and grows in marshy areas. I was struck by the fact that this flower made itself visible every place on the Refuge, stark like the sun.

I used this to explore the poem ‘Thistles’,  written by Ted Hughes besides writing my own. He was quite famously, the husband of Sylvia Plath and was appointed Poet Laureate of England in 1984, a post he held until his death. I have included below a link [1] to a good analysis of his poem by Andrew Spacey, that helped me appreciate it better. (Poem and notes further down).

My poem ‘wandering thistle‘ is based on the peculiarities of flora and fauna at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge [2] which I visited in the latter part of May. Some species of Thistle are considered to be aggressive weeds in gardens, but the thistle is a hardy plant, it produces more spines when the landscape gets drier as an ecological adaptation. An important source of nectar for pollinating insects, it is also a source of enzymes for the manufacturing of vegetarian rennet, the leaves are edible too. The family Asteraceae or Compositae consist of many economically useful plants. The flower heads are actually an inflorescence of around hundred disc flowers, hence their inclusion in the family Compositae, like sunflowers. The fruiting body is known as an achene. The ponies of Assateague Island mentioned in the poem are a tourist attraction and do affect the refuge with their grazing habits. They are therefore kept at a limited number of animals on the land by the Local Fire Company. [3][4][5}.

Wandering Thistle ~ Davina E. Solomon

In the threshing turbulence of a wetland,
her spiny wanderer traces through
that colonial mishap in ponies.

Fire fighters breed ungulate hearts
in Virginia, amidst the arson of an intrepid.
A composite of helping hands harvesting

light, but you only thought of sunflowers,
those distant cousins. She wears an armour
of spines, winnowing the day

into a bright blitz of flares, becoming
thistles on thistle. They milk her for
rennet, unlike those grazing ponies that simply

frolic on sand. but you only thought of ponies,
those distant lives. She wears frills in her leaves
that blend into sustenance for the foraging free.

She poisons your land you say? Those bumblebees
spirit out her soul, tiger swallowtails
punctuate her poetry in jousting colour

or secrete love into their life cycle
of the sweetness of nectar. Is this a
billowing battle even as her achenes

fly those self same stories of ancient ardour
on a surreptitious silky wind that
wars with no one but her singular soul.
Thistles by Ted Hughes

Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men
Thistles spike the summer air
And crackle open under a blue-black pressure.

Every one a revengeful burst
Of resurrection, a grasped fistful
Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up

From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.
They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.
Every one manages a plume of blood.

Then they grow grey like men.
Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear
Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.

Source~https://allpoetry.com/Thistles

In my own attempt at analysing this poem: This poem appears masculine. Even as benign ruminants and industrious tillers of soil are portrayed to create social pressure for thistles, the aggravated flower is Martian in it’s resolute attempt to resurrect itself, like a warrior, fighting for land, for presence, amidst a cacophony of a myriad voices, others just like them. Set against this botanical and pastoral imagery, seed dehiscence is used as a metaphor for destruction, seed dispersal and germination as a way to recreate the ancestral, to perpetuate in the way of plants through the perennial feud as in the ways of men that live alongside them carry forth the social order for survival. Nature is a battleground in this poem. It also illustrates how language shapes our worldview. Through a botanical perspective it appears to be the life cycle of thistle, through personification, it’s the genesis of war and battles, through social darwinism simply the survival of organisms constantly fighting for space on a harsh landscape, poetry though, seems to exhibit all perspectives. Language becomes the vehicle for creating fictions by consciously channelling the inner voice, whether through our happy optimism, scientific realism or poetry on metaphorical combat.

Some aspects elucidated in Andrew Spacey’s analysis are that, ‘Thistles is a free verse poem in 4 stanzas, a total of 12 lines of varying length. There is no rhyme scheme, no consistent metrical beat.’

Hughes’s allusion to Vikings, Spacey notes that, ‘ Vikings invaded Hughes’ land centuries earlier (7th-10th century AD) and were a strong force in and around Hughes’s birthplace in the Calder Valley in what is now Yorkshire”. The gutturals of dialects he compares to the raspy Yorkshire dialect that is still spoken by people some of whose ancestors count among pale haired Scandinavians.’

His analysis helped identify all the literary devices [5] employed therein:

Alliteration in ‘hoeing hands, spike the summer, blue-black, then they grow grey,’ the assonance in ‘crackle – blue-black, every – revengeful, stain – decayed,’ Caesura in ‘Of resurrection’, a bit of enjambed lines in lines 1,2, 4,5,6, Personification of thistles as revengeful and fighting back, Similes in ‘they are like pale hair, the gutturals of dialects and then they grow grey, like men.’

I have tried to define the literary devices used:

Alliteration ~ a repetition of initial consonant sounds at the beginning of words that are close to each other or follow each other
Assonance ~ a repetition of vowel sounds in words that are close within a sentence or phrase of prose or poem
Caesura ~ a rhythmic pause at the beginning (initial), middle (medial) or end (terminal) line in a poem, that is with or without punctuation, indicated by parallel lines ||, and can be after an unstressed syllable as in a feminine caesura or after a long stressed syllable in a masculine caesura
Personification is a bit like anthropomorphising, providing human characteristics to non human objects or organisms
Simili ~ a comparison of the dissimilar with one another through the use of words like or as
Enjambment ~ a line of the poem works it’s way to the next line without a grammatical pause or punctuation, to carry forth an idea or the flow of thought

References:

[1] Analysis of the ‘Thistles ( Ted Hughes)’ by Andrew Spacey ~https://owlcation.com/humanities/Analysis-of-Poem-Thistles-by-Ted-Hughes

[2]~https://lemonbayconservancy.org/a-floridian-visits-assateague-island/

[3]Species list on Chincoteague Refuge ~https://www.fws.gov/uploadedFiles/Appendix%20L_CHN%20Draft%20CCPEIS.pdf

[4]~https://www.fws.gov/uploadedFiles/CCP_Volume3.pdf

[5]~https://www.cronodon.com/NatureTech/thistles.html

[6]Literary Devices (an encyclopediac resource, very helpful) ~https://literarydevices.net/