here be dragonflies

when i moved to the oregon coast i was completely unaware of the fact that it is a migratory corridor for dragonflies. i hadn’t even known dragonflies were migratory. apparently, there are both resident and migratory forms of dragonflies among the many dragonfly species, and seasonal north/south migrations happen all across north america. this phenomenon happens on every continent sans antarctica. incredible.

get this. the ones that are born in the north and migrate to the south, are thought to be a different generation than the ones who are born in the south (offspring of the ones who originated in the north) and migrate northward. neato! this is similar to what happens in some butterfly species, but it is mind blowing, to say the least. i dare you to wrap your mind around how this can possibly work!

major directional flights reportedly follow the passage of cold fronts, and trace topographic leading lines… like our coastline, for example. some people apparently attach radio transmitter devices to individual dragonflies, to find out this sort of thing. with a combination of eyelash adhesive and super glue. you have to read the primary literature to learn those tricks of the trade…. according to these authors, attaching such equipment to a tiny creature is rationalized by the fact that they mate on the wing, and that they routinely carry prey larger than themselves. (however, are they going to successfully mate, and capture prey larger than themselves while hauling a radio transmitter?! hmmmm, something tells me that’s not the question being asked… it always bugs me when research critters are deemed “expendable,” as long as the research is “sound” and that goes for the research going on in my own lab!)

loosely related to this topic,  i have just finished reading wendell berry’s life is a miracle, and have been challenging myself to really try to exercise all the different ways of knowing, and allow those ways to have conversations across disciplines in my head. what i mean by that is, you can take a subject (say, dragonflies) and look at it through the lens of science, or spirituality, or art… there are many different ways of knowing that complement each other, and yet the way i was trained in public school and university was very much to keep each discipline in its own separate little box. that includes the “multidisciplinary” department i belonged to in graduate school- i have to say that my education there was almost entirely accomplished within the scientific mode, and did not really do much to stretch me to cross disciplines. berry has a lot to say on this, and is far more eloquent than me, so i’ll leave it at that and continue with my own attempt at seeing all sides of the dragonfly…


at an earlier stage in my life, dragonflies were somewhat of a totem animal or spirit helper for me. only now looking back is it obvious how their movement, speed, and dynamic lifestyle were so fitting for that transient time of my life. attributes of dragonflies as spirit helpers (and ways they help)  include:

finding true vision; visualizing and manifesting positive outcomes

tuning into deeply felt, but  ignored, emotions

maneuverability and movement, propulsion into new ways of being and doing

transformations (they spend up to a couple of years in the mud as nymphs before they emerge and fly away! boy can i relate! and boy am i glad there are spirit helpers for this! transformation is intense!)

seeing around things from different angles; seeing color and light

“coming to understand who you truly are” really? that seems a tall order for such diminutive creatures to help with… still, they are miniature dragons, who better to help us slay (or befriend?) our inner ones…

hey, is it me? or do dragonflies sound  highly qualified for the role of law-of-attraction mascot?

for a few years i saw not many of them… they’re baaaaack.

here’s my account of witnessing a recent mass dragonfly migration.

one of the things i do for myself is to occasionally spend my lunch hour on the beach. it’s part of the whole point of living here, after all. on september 24, 2010, i went to south beach state park and as i walked along the beach towards my “spot”, i noticed one or two dragonflies whiz by me, looking rather purposeful in their flight. after a few more, i realized i was smack in the middle of the southward annual migration (thankfully i had heard of it and knew what i was looking at!) when i got to my spot, i sat as hundreds of them flew past me in ones, twos, threes, and fours… not 30 seconds would pass in between a sighting. it was incredible! yet so subtle, that i am pretty sure the 20 or so other people out enjoying the sunshine on the beach did not even notice more than one or two of them, nor detect their unidirectional flight pattern. a truly awe inspiring half hour.

i took 25 pictures with my phone and magically happened to catch a few. i like these shots not because they are particularly picturesque, but because they show these little determined beasts in motion. (you can click on each thumbnail to enlarge and play “where’s waldo?” for fun.)

hello old friend, i am excited to learn so much more about you now.

when i first tried to draw one years ago, it turned out like a pressed dead flower (berry talks about “photographing the corpse” and how it doesn’t capture the essence of a thing, to know it scientifically in that way- the sum of all knowledge about a thing, does not equal the thing itself.) a few times in the past few months i have finally sat down to draw them again; but how to capture their movement on paper?

you can’t get a good look and really observe them until they stand still… or show up dead on the sidewalk on the bayfront. (yes i collect dead bugs…)

i’ve recently been exploring the idea of having a sense of place in the world, and how to craft a narrative of the life forged in that place. among the things i ponder are why i moved across the country, why some people never leave the town they were born in, and how a transplanted person such as myself could come to feel so at home in a new home, that they’d passionately want to save it from destruction. i feel this place has begun to take possession of me in that way, and me of it. the central oregon coast blows me away on a daily basis, and i fall farther and deeper in love with it. wendell berry has much to say (in not only this one book) about the importance of place and the importance of having a passion for a particular place, in our lives .

berry says of conversations with a scientist friend of his, “our conversation is always striving to be local and particular. it is full of proper nouns, names of places and people.” reading the dragonfly observations of the yaquina birders and naturalists, our local naturalists’ group, i read lots of that kind of language, and even recognized several familiar names of local folks. the narrative of place has been a topic on my mind quite a bit recently, and how we come to craft it- it seems to me berry has hit on something crucial here, with the local language thing. and aside from one’s personal narrative, people finding their way to loving a place wholeheartedly in this particular way is what saves a place, an environment, a habitat. science can study it all day long and can even tell us we “should” conserve, but at the end of the day, a place will be preserved only if someone loves it fiercely. i am with wendell on that one.

with regard to my dragonfly migration experience, one major thing stood for me from the ybn field notes: in 1994 it was noted that “previous Major Directed Flights have occurred only during the narrow 8/30-9/14 window.” i presume they meant that they have only been recorded then, rather than they had only occurred then. still, i felt kind of cool adding a new datum to the dataset, since my observation took place later, on 9/24. (i haven’t contacted ybn yet but plan to!) ybn only had field notes on the internet through 2003, so perhaps someone has already made a similar observation; also, from the notes, it is clear i am not the only local keeping an eye out for the wee dragons! for those who are interested, our local migratory dragons seem to be mostly of the species Sympetrum corruptum. the variegated meadowhawk, in the common tongue.

i find them to be very pretty, deep red and brown. i feel kind of defiant as a scientist, saying that. i guess i’m not “supposed” to think about whether they are pretty. but i do… and i want them to keep coming back here to visit me every year! it causes me to lay awake at night worrying about pesticides…

on 10/29/10 i had the chance to photograph a dragonfly up close, at seal rock state park. it wasn’t engaged in major directional flight, and was not S. corruptum, but i do not yet feel confident in its identification. but i do know there are people around here i can ask! people with names and faces and knowledge of obscure facts about insects.

as life is a miracle draws to a close, berry shifts from verbally bludgeoning e.o. wilson (yeah, you have to kind of look past that to find the good stuff), to a very personal glimpse of himself and his own family, particularly the lineage of fathers before him, and his son and grandson, all of whom have participated in farming for generations in the same place in kentucky. as one who has left the place of my birth, also a farm, and settled far away on a distant shore, i want to believe that i can nurture the same level of love for this land that i now inhabit, that i could have had if i had stayed put in rural central new york. i am not sure how that will go, but i am going for it, and i can already say that i love this place more than i could have imagined. at any rate, i am heartened by the little dragons of the air, who are born far away from where their parents were, and yet somehow know exactly where they are going and what to do. i am thinking that my inner dragons needed to grow some wings and take to the air… and i think somehow, i am going to know what i am supposed to do.

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4 comments to here be dragonflies

  • liz

    my most favorite creature besides sea lions and bunnies! this is one of my favorite posts! perhaps you want to kick a sketch to little old LB here in denver?? you are awesome boo da doo!

  • Kristin

    LOve dragonflies. Matt and I have had many talks about the wiseness of the dragonfly and have come to the determination that many of them are our ancestors.. True or false we'll never know but there is just something about them… The way they glide so freely and with such purpose at the same time..they always have such a presence about them. I never knew that they were migratory..very interesting! YOU are wise, my friend!

    Great post!

  • Kristin

    Do you mind sharing what kind of camera you are using? Or what kind of editing software?? The pictures rock!

  • marybethrew

    thanks, guys! 🙂 lil bit, i'll be happy to send you one, i've had about 20 minutes worth of sketching time so far, since having quinn, lol, so it may be a few minutes…. hehehe.

    kristin- i'm using a canon eos rebel G camera, it is still old style with film… it's just the standard lens probably zoomed to 80, and i imagine i had it on auto everything at that moment… for the close up pics. i use adobe photoshop software (relaly old version maybe 6?) to edit, and i am pretty minimalist with the editing. i try to just only take pictures when the natural lighting is good. 🙂

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