Monday, 28 August 2017
Starlight and Sapphire - The Poetry of Dragonflies
The landscape above Luddenden is defined by verticals: craggy hillsides sweeping steeply down to wobbly cobbled streets, thin columns of disused factory chimneys. Up on the tops, you could almost be in the Scottish Highlands, as gowns of purple heather are draped across the moors; rugged looking sheep chew the fields which peter out to the boggy borders of Wainstalls and Warley. You might be watched through grass by the bulging eyes of bulls and cows, reclining lazily among blackberry and boulders. In winter, the view is almost Scandinavian: I have walked there in January, the valley below steeped in frost; flurries of sleet slapping harshly through the wind, the rocks, clustered like large snowballs by the sides of moorland paths, plathered in an icy rain. The chimneyed citadel of Oats Royd Mill, once a power-base of textile magnate John Murgatroyd, now a complex of apartments, stands at the basin of the valley, its long, chunky boxes of Yorkshire stone lending an industrial hue to this rural view. To the south, the cemetery of St Mary's climbs up the incline towards Mount Tabor Road. In the east, piercing the clouds against a hilly horizon, stands the 120-ft 19th Century War monument which dominates the hill of Stoodley Pike, frozen in time, like some great primeval totem pole.
The jagged geography of this moorland environment, toughened by stone, blustered by scissoring winds, looking cold-coloured in a seemingly perpetual autumn, even on this hot August afternoon, is the last place I would have expected to have seen the hovering, shining presence which appears in my peripheral vision, skimming the summit of Stocks Lane, the winding road that extends out of Luddenden and into the moors.
Turning, I catch full sight - a swivelling swish of emerald and jet, propelled by four transparent wings, is bouncing on the breeze, swerving on the precipice of the hillside. A luminous black cylinder, banded by bright green abdominal spots, the dragonfly pauses, wavering in mid-air as if granting me the chance of observing it close up. Aeshna cyanea, Southern Hawker, whose exploratory life spans no more than three or four months of a short-lived English summer, often drifting far from its typical environment of ponds, even to such stony alttudes as this. This is a female hawker, and she is prowling for prey - insects to be caught on the wing, by this flexible, curving, bending predator which can fly backwards, and is among the fastest dragonflies in Britain.
Like a turquoise torpedo, twisting through the blue, the dragonfly dips and dives, slicing a shimmering green arc above the moor-grass as she zigzags over the tumbling descent, a crystalline quill doodling her nimble stories on the wind.
I seem to have seen more dragonflies than usual in this humid, wet summer, but this glittering insect, reflecting the sun as she threads her way through the tangle of grasses overhanging the hill's edge, is the first I have been confident to name. Most of the dragonflies I've seen in 2017 have certainly been hawkers, but mainly of the blue or red variety, or seeming to fizz past me so fast as to defy a detailed observation, like multi-coloured magic carpets weaving through Arabian skies, glossy blurs of onyx, malachite, sapphire, ruby on the canvas of the summer air. Amid the watery woodlands near Harcastle Crags, which the River Hebden chugs through like a fat blue vein, I've seen them frazzle by in splashes of fiery orange; along the canal towpath between Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd, they've flashed like lazers igniting the overcast gloom. Then there was the dragonfly I saw floating over my garden earlier this summer, a tentative ballerina dancing across tips of borage and Perovskia, fluttering above the feverfew like a diamond-spangled acrobat, lingering over the wall's edge as if balancing on a thin trapeze.
Like all wildlife, dragonflies are indeed engaged in a nerve-racking balancing act - the struggle to find food and to preserve the perpetuity of their genes, the flight from predators, the need for stable habitats. Unlike many British animals, the dragonflies, of Ancient stock and numbering over 3,000 international species, are not generally endangered, though in Britain this is due in no small part to the efforts of conservation agencies like the British Dragonfly Society, a charity which encourage educational projects to promote the study of dragonflies and damselflies, and works to monitor and enhance their habitats, in the wild, and at home. The charity's website explains how Half of Britain's ponds were lost in the 20th century but a recent revival led to a 12.5% increase in the number of ponds between 1998 to 2007. All but five of the regularly breeding species of dragonfly and damselfly in Britain are known to have bred in ponds, with 17 species considered to be widespread breeding species in garden ponds and a further 8 breeding in garden ponds more rarely. Even a small pond can harbour dragonflies, with species such as Southern Hawker managing to exist in surprisingly high numbers in small garden ponds.
The website goes on to list advice for gardeners aiming to create dragonfly-friendly environments, and this takes me back to a memory from more than thirty years ago, to the first time I remember seeing dragonflies, in the garden of a house on the street I grew up in. In my mind, the memory is kaleidoscopic: a multitude of dragonflies, sweeping slotting in and out of one another's mazy flightpaths, scarlet stripes slashing through the flowerbeds, velvet wands casting azure magic over rockeries and roses. My parents and I stood and watched them dazzling above the grass, and I was aware of experiencing something out of the ordinary, something special, for the first time. When my mother spoke of them as dragonflies, I realized that although these unusal creatures were like nothing I had ever seen, to the grown up world they were recognizable - part of the tapestry of a natural world I was thrilled to be discovering. The prefix Dragon seemed appropriate - so mythic did these phosphorescent streaks of magical mystery appear, that had they breathed fire from their minute mouths, I would hardly have felt surprised. Years later, I would recall this introductory encounter in my poem Dragonflies, remembering how
We watched them
dive and swivel
like blades of circus knife throwers,
skim the sun-licked lawn,
ignite the glittering tips
and globes of flowers
in crackling splashes
of cobalt, indigo,
and when, years later, at the Fairburn Ings wildlife reserve outside Leeds, I stood with my father and watched the crackling colours of dragonflies bobbing above the ponds, these childhood memories returned, as one by one the insects shot out of the ether, seemed to glide like slices of amethyst above the water, then disappeared among the reeds, dew-dappled dreams dissolving into sunshine.
Fairburn is one of the richest habitats for dragonflies, and when, on a blazing day last August, I watched a scarlet darter soaking up the sun on the wooden fence post beside one of the reserve's many ponds, I was transfixed by its long red body, glowing like a candle coaked in melted jasper. The darter, completely calm in human presence, bathing its glassy wings in a shower of sunshine, seemed half at rest, and half - knife-like tarsias clenching the wood in prehensile, flexed tension - poised for flight.
black veins woven
over wings of glass,
svelte vermillion glider,
you settle on fallen wood,
a stained-glass crucifix,
bleed your molten body
into fibres softened
by decades, centuries
In my 2013 collection Little Creatures, I pay tribute to the dainty damselfly, the gem-lie, willowy creatures I first became aware of when I watched them by the ponds at Roundhay, north Leeds, where I was living in the mid 2000's,
blue as threaded sapphire,
you haunt pond air
at July sunrise.
like a breeze-blown vein
you come, half-visible,
a slither of translucency,
and later in the same poem go on to describe the damelflies reedy habitats beyond the pond. But whatever I write about dragonflies, I doubt I can compare with the talents of a poet across a different pond, JD McClatchy, the contemporary American poet who celebrates the dragonfly as an Itinerant clarinet, and a mob of selves that others see - Devil and Goat, Eye-on-Broomstick, Goblin tableux, which performs a Bayadere, amuses crowds, flies like a baggy clown, before Collapsing at night in a tiny starpatched sky-loft, and gradually transfiguring into a dragonfly ghost. There is something of this starlit metamorphosis in Tennyson's 1842 poem The Dragonfly, in which the poet describes a dragonfly shedding its skin:
An inner impulse rent the veil / Of his old husk: from head to tail / Came out clear plates of sapphire mail
And when HE Bates published his memoir of childhood Down the River in 1937, he remembered watching a continuous play of blue gauze over the snowy flowers above the sun-glassy water. It was all confined, in true dragonfly fashion, to one small space. It was a continuous turning and returning, an endless darting, poising, striking and hovering, so swift that it was often lost in sunlight.
Dragonflies have painted their colours on our popular imagination, swooshed into our culture and imprinted their neon signatures upon the pages of our natural history. Belonging to an order that has existed since the Triassic, more than two hundred million years ago, these magnificent insects continue to enchant, and to surprise. Up among the knolly, craggy hills above the Yorkshire town of Luddenden, I feel this morning touched by the alchemy of Mother Nature, as this sequinned fluke sails unexpectedly by, and I'm struck by the fragility and transience of things, as the dragonfly's sharp, svelte body drifts into the distance, and the beauty of its lucent green jewels slowly disappear from sight.