Monday, May 10, 2010

The flight of the dragons

Butterflies are such beautiful creatures, bits of dancing color against the green of foliage. From childhood to old age, we are attracted to them, snapping pictures of their brightly colored wings and gasping with delight if one lands on a hand, arm, or head. Entire concessions have opened – “butterfly gardens” or “butterfly encounters” – that rely in the draw of these tiny insects with their brilliant wings.

I always loved butterflies too – heck, a butterfly was one of the primary things to blame for that back flip off the swingset that broke my wrist when I was about four. But recently, in my decade here in Florida, I have found myself less in love with the butterfly than with its insect neighbor the dragonfly.

When I first arrived here in Florida, I failed to grasp one of the cardinal facts of the state. Things are bigger here. With the primal heritage of the young state and the lack of harsh winters to push things back to what Northerners would consider their normal size, things are bigger here. The first time I spotted one of those fake rubber flies dispensed from K-mart vending machines on the sidewalk…and it flew away, I began to get some idea of the difference in Florida fauna, but it wasn’t until my first real summer here that I fully understood.

The air of a Florida summer is like nothing else I’ve encountered. It is a tangible force, a part of the landscape. It lies thick, hot, a weight pressing the heat of the sun against your skin, resisting your efforts to draw it in to steal its oxygen. It blankets the landscape, magnifying the brightness, a shimmering blanket beneath the pale blue of a sky already faded by the merciless sun. I remember standing out under the awning of my workplace in that heat, unsure which was more desirable to escape – the air-conditioned drudgery of the workplace behind me or the suffocating heat of the outdoors – when I saw them.

Back in Pennsylvania, we had had dragonflies – snakefeeders my dad always called them. They were delicate bodied little creatures, wisps of metallic color and iridescent wings that lit on fishing rods and blades of grass. Here, in Florida, I discovered that those weren’t dragonflies. They may have been damselflies or something else, but dragonflies…no. I can still remember the stillness of that hot afternoon, standing outside my job when I heard a deep thrumming. Looking down over the second story balcony, I saw them, dark bodies hanging in the air, round barreled extensions on both sides of their bodies, assumedly to support the muscles controlling the massive, flickering wings that moved faster than the eye could see. The dragonflies hovered in the air, dozens strong. They moved through the weight of the heat with strange, slow dignity, dancing a gravity-defying ritual with aeons old dignity. I forgot the heat as I watched them, fascinated as they spiraled through the heat, moving past each other only to turn and change places.

I never fell out of love with those dragonflies. I stop to watch them whenever I glimpse their slow dance or hear the impossible thrum of their wings. But I could never quite put my finger on what it was about them that drew me to them, more so even than to the bright splash of butterfly wings. And then, one day, watching the magical dance of dragonfly on the still Florida air, I realized why they fascinate me.

It’s the way they move.

Watch a butterfly. It flutters, flits, its path a wavering field of color and movement. Even in landing, the butterfly is not still; it fans its lovely wings; it is uncertain, delicate. It calls out the wonder within the human heart, reminding us to treasure beauty, for it Is a delicate commodity.

Watch a dragonfly. It hovers. It darts. It makes smooth, impossible arcs in the air, dancing in some mysterious pattern which, although I may not see it, seems to have purpose. It is smooth. It is sure, the impossible drums of its wing muscles buoying it up with seemingly effortless power in the still air. A dragonfly does not have the beauty of a butterfly – it is awkward, narrow with massive barrels of muscle, impossibly insectoid. Yet it moves so beautifully. Dragonflies do not flutter; they do not reveal their delicacy. They are impossible, gravity defying messengers of a lost world, reminders of nature’s mystery and the inadequacy of our understanding.

I know butterflies are beautiful. Their color and variety is breathtaking, but I would rather skip the butterfly garden to watch the humble dragonflies circle free against the pale shimmer of the Florida air. The butterfly charms me, thrills me when it lights on me as though I have been granted a privilege. The dragonfly blesses me with the wonderful impossibility of its movement and the certainty of its flight.

It is not its appearance, its physical beauty that calls me – it is its freedom to move with impossible grace through the unseen. It speaks to something primal within me, something that wants to leave gravity behind and move with ancient confidence on the unseen air, dancing beauty that transcends my awkwardness.

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