Sunday, December 5

A dragonfly: weigher of souls | Helen sullivan

DRagonflies have a near-perfect hunting record, successfully grabbing their prey in the air 95% of the time – they do so while flying skyward, down to earth, side-to-side, backward, and upside down. In an experiment, a dragonfly with numbers drawn on its pale wings perches back from a reed, with its legs raised above its head like a person making an offering to God, and picks up the insect that flies behind it. The dragonfly seems to catch its prey with benevolence and wickedness: snatching it up and saving it, like a ball or a falling baby.

Dragonflies transform from their larval stage with equally precise acrobatics: the skin splits, the insect twists its head and chest with the clumsiness of someone trying to catch in a sleeping bag while standing, and then hangs upside down for a while, tail still caught in the skin. The almost dragonfly regains its strength, then does a prone sit-up as it pulls and flicks its tail outwards – a perfectly controlled takedown, a precisely calibrated toy monkey acrobat.

After this, he will fly his way for a few months, at Derek Walcott’s words: “In the warm green silence the buzzing of a dragonfly / crossing the burned hill in the shade of the cedars.” In Swedish folklore, dragonflies are “weighers of souls”: The other way around, they look like scales. Its entire flight around your head is an assessment, made in the devil’s name, of how badly you’ve lived your life.

The third horseman of the apocalypse, the famine, carries a scale in his hands to weigh the barley, the wheat and the souls of those who have died of hunger. In Revelation: “I looked, and behold a black horse; and the one who sat on it had a balance in his hand. And I heard something like a voice in the center of the four living beings that said: ‘A liter of wheat for a denarius and three-quarters of barley for a denarius; but do not harm the oil and the wine. ‘

“Something like a voice.” The horror!

Danish writer Inger Christensen, whose translator compared her to a dragonfly and a goldsmith – the word for both in Danish is jeweler – wrote: “We as human beings can not only imagine a condition of continuous desire, but we can also maintain this condition of desire and furthermore call it life.”

How long does a dragonfly live? A few months. But prior to this, it may have spent up to five years in the larval stage, hunting underwater with rapturing jaws. Then one day, the nymph gets tired of swimming and decides to do the best thing she can do: fly. He finds a reed that grows above the water and begins to climb. Your head rises above the water and stops to catch your breath – your respiratory system needs to adjust to inhaling air. Then it continues, climbing a ladder that was always there, through a door that has long resisted opening.

“The Nature of …” is a column by Helen Sullivan devoted to interesting animals, insects, plants, and natural phenomena. Is there an intriguing creature or particularly lively plant that you think would delight our readers? Let us know on Twitter @helenrsullivan or by email: [email protected]

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