Amphibious Trilogies

Dragonflies, dreams and transformations

A pond is a stage for transformations, fertility, spawning of fish, numerous different species of wildlife as well as for the display of beauty and courtship of numerous species. Using the pond as a stage and inspiration for choreography is acknowledging our strong attachment and connection to water and transformation.

In an ecological field guide to the Odonata of the Lowland Mixed Dipterocarp Forest of the South- eastern Kalimantan in Borneo, it is a description of 83 species of dragonflies (Bárta & Dolný 2013). Most likely, there are a number of not yet found species of dragonflies in the same area. Some dragonflies are rather rare and some dragonflies occur only seasonally in restricted ecological niches.  Dragonflies are peaceful beautiful creatures flying, but rather carnivorous beings in the nymph stage living underwater. The completely change both their appearance and way of living transforming from nymph to what we see as dragonflies flying both above ponds and at a distance from waterbodies. However, they depend on ponds and stagnant water to live the nymph stage.

The most beautiful for the human eye was the most spectacular coloured species. One of them the sparkling ruby red Tholymes tillarga or the coral-tailed cloudwing also called old world twister, evening skimmer, crepuscular darter, foggy-winged twister or simply twister. The names descriptive of movement and their dance above the foggy surface of water in morning sand evenings.  It is particularly active at dusk and dawn as well as during cloudy days. The family Libellulidae, to which it belong, found in tropical West- Africa, Asia, Australia and the Pacific (Silsby, 2001). The first to categorize for science was the Danish zoologist Johan Christian Fabricius (1745 – 1808). He made a system of nature for the Odonata, the study of damselflies and dragonflies (Krogh and Nielsen, 2008) His studies still acknowledged as part of the foundation of modern scientific studies.

All of the dragonfly species entwined with the habitat in which they live. Naturally, the tropics have a far greater diversity than the north. However, all connected to freshwater and they are admired beauties in their flying stage. Humans benefit from dragonflies, because they catch mosquitoes in their nymph like stage. In the flying stage, we just copy them and admire them. Recently dragonflies have served as models for modern drones as well as their eyes for photographic lenses.

The Dutch professor and nature scientist Dr Maurits Anne Lieftnick, (1904 – 1985) (Geljiskes, 1984) made scientific description of Amphicnemis mariae from Borneo in 1940 (Bárta and Dolný 2013:80). The local population co-existing with nature in the dense jungles of Borneo the beautiful dragonfly in yellow, red and green was a dragonfly of peat swamp forests.  It is a significant difference between traditional local indigenous knowledge and the knowledge of the scientist. The latter descriptive, analytical, classification and the former always connected to co-existence and the context.[6]

Lieftnick studied dragonflies in the Netherlands, the Dutch East Indies that later was named Indonesia and in the Pacific. He was one of the foremost scientific experts on dragonflies in his century.[7]  During the colonial period, he worked and studied under the Dutch administration, during the Japanese occupation he stayed in imprisonment and internment camps and later he worked for the independent Indonesian government. Dragonflies was a neutral subject – there were no political tensions connected to the study of the beauty of nature.

In 1945, “The natural History of Britain” published in 10 volumes. Among the volumes, there were one volume of insects and one of the nature life in London.[8] The books written during the years of war. In London, there were terrible destructions from bombing and later rocket attacks. In the ruins, there were stagnant water bomb craters and destruction.  Natural life, long absent from the town returned. Dragonflies flew above the stagnant water and the vegetation in the ruins.

As a metaphor the dragonfly symbolized that the ugly and destructive could transform into beauty and harmonious. In the nymph-stage, the dragonfly is ugly armoured covered in black and grey. They appear from muddy ponds and stagnant mosquito larvae infested waters transforming to the most beautiful flying creatures dancing in the air.

Dragonflies copied into enamelled and gem studded jewellery is fashion and decorate many females. It is costly jewellery afforded by the few. Dragonflies in the wild is free for all to see and remind us that human made copies can never capture the beauty of the wild. Liftnick lived through horrible treatment during his imprisonment, but his mind and reflection survived through the study of what was not in prison.  Even in the internment camps, the dragonflies flew as they wished. The dream of the wild, the dance of the dragonflies is continuous and cyclical. Still, as all nature challenged and poisoned by human materialism and hunt for wealth.

Dance and movements is perhaps part of the essence of the bonds of all living life. Possibly. We imagine ourselves in the damselflies and dragonflies performing. Very likely, they inspire our dreams and choreography. We can never copy them successfully, but we can classify and seek inspiration. Which is what England’s perhaps most articulate village voice the labouring class poet John Clare (1793 – 1864) did in his poetry[9] and which is what debutant Claire-Louise Bennet did in her book Pond in 2015.[10]  Water and water-life is a metaphor for human life and challenges as well as to acknowledge our connection to nature. Like in indigenous classifications and description of nature poetry is a connection attached to the totality and not the potentially destructive dissection of nature.

Claire-Louise Bennet wrote a genre-bending debut of the magic of solitude.[11] That is another dimension of the life of a dragonfly.  The lone flier of the waterbodies, dancing above the surface to encounter the other for a final performance. A master of choreography.

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Photo credits: Liquid Colour, enactment by Eye of Tree, Kyuja Bae and Katarina Skår Lisa, Maihaugen Open Air Museum, Lillehammer, Norway, 2018

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[1] Bárta and Dolný (2013)
[2] Silsby (2001)
[3] Krogh and Nielsen (2008)
[4] Geljiskes (1984)
[5] Bárta and Dolný (2013:80)
[6] Weihe and Syvertsen (2009)
[7] Geljiskes and Kiauta (1984)
[8] Fitter (1945); Imms (1945)
[9] Haughton, Phillips and Summerfield (1994); White (2017)
[10] Bennet (2016 and 2015)
[11] O’Grady (2016)

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Bárta, Dan and Dolný, Aleš (2013). Dragonflies of Sungai Wain. Hradec Kralove: Taita Publishers

Bennet, Claire-Louise (2016). Pond. New York: Riverhead Books

Bennet, Claire-Louise (2015). Pond. Dublin: Stinging Fly

Fitter, R. S. R. (1945). London’s Natural History. London: Collins

Geljiskes, D. C. (1984) Dr. Maurits Anne Lieftnick: A Brief Biographical Sketch, Odonatologica, 13 (1), 5 – 20. http://natuurtijdschriften.nl/download?type=document&docid=591635

Geljiskes, D. C. and Kiauta, B. (1984). Annotated catalogue of taxa introduced in Odontata by M. A. Lieftnick, with his complete bibliography, Odonatologica, 13 (1), 21- 50.

Haughton, Hugh, Phillips, Adam and ummerfield, Geoffrey (1994). John Clare in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Imms, A, D. (1945). Insect Natural History. London: Collins

Krogh, Helge and Nielsen, Henry (2008).Science in Dnmark: A Thousand Year History. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.

O’Grady, Megan (2016, 6/7). Genre-Bending Debut, Pond and the Magic of Solitude. Vogue https://www.vogue.com/article/pond-claire-louise-bennett-interview

Silsby, Jill (2001). Dragonflies of the World. Asutralia: CISERO Publishing

Weihe, Hans-Jørgen Wallin og Syvertsen, Carsten (2009). Identity, Understanding, Memory Landscape. Stavanger: Hertervig Akademisk

White, Adam (2017). John Clare’s Romanticism. London: Palgrave Macmillan

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