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Life, Death and Dragonflies
In poetry and in warfare, and flying near you, some of the most audacious animals on Earth
WHILE FIGHTING a half century ago in Vietnam, where the United States tried and failed to make him a warrior, the entomologist and author Ken Tennessen was ordered to take charge of a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on a tripod and pointed toward the enemy.
As he crawled toward the terrible weapon, Tennessen noticed perched on its barrel a damselfly flashing purple and black. Ever the scientist, he wanted to stand and catch the insect for a closer look.
“Without a net, and with enemy snipers nearby, I thought better of it and started firing the machine gun,” Ken told me last week. “The damselfly flew out toward a rice field.”
Unlike many insects, dragonflies and damselflies are indifferent to their perches. They’ll as willingly land on a flower as a rifle, provided it serves as a vantage from which to launch and hunt down other insects. Unlike humans, however, who murder for many reasons, dragonflies only kill to eat and survive.
Here is one of them (above), Shadow Darner (Aeshna umbrosa) on a Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium) in northern Vermont. I bring you this dragonfly because many others like it (in the genus Aeshna) are now on the wing near you. The image is also context for a few announcements and for recognition of amazing people, including mentors like Ken, who is also a poet and kind soul.
First, my homemade Snowy Owl logo is gone. Chasing Nature’s new logo comes to us from Kelly Finan, a scientist, illustrator and world-saver (and a former graduate student of mine in the Field Naturalist Program at the University of Vermont). Kelly’s dragonfly includes three substitute wings: a leaf, a feather and a human fingerprint — together embodying the diversity I like to express every week or so here at Chasing Nature. Thanks, Kelly! (Hire her.)
Next, if you have not yet discovered’s explorations of what it means to be alive, I suggest you subscribe to her Substack . There you will find honesty and beauty in Chloe’s ideas and elegance in her prose. (She’s also fond of dragonflies.) The same goes for , who writes , a spirted and visually stunning exploration of wild places, human nature and David’s eye for their many angles. I support these two writers with paid subscriptions.
By the way, I budget about $50 per month for Substack writers. I read three dozen or so here, 10 of whom I currently back with paid subscriptions. After all, to write is to walk through fire. Writing is personal and vulnerable and arduous. Most of us learn to do it well enough only after decades of failure, after which we settle for fear and struggle (and occasional failure). That’s why I pay Substack writers — the best fifty bucks I spend anywhere.
Your paid subscription helps me support other writers and keeps Chasing Nature online for all of us. Thanks!
Back to the killers. Looking through nearly a year of my posts, I’m surprised how rarely I’ve written about dragonflies, which are big in my life and among the most audacious animals on Earth. Basically, dragonflies fly around, kill things and have crazy sex. It’s worked well for them for about 300 million years. (And it beats writing for a living.)
Dragonflies evolved, got it right and haven’t changed much since. Survivors of three mass extinctions, they’ve scoffed at plate tectonics and danced on the graves of dinosaurs. To them our wars are mere inconveniences. And once we’re done making a mess of things, even killing off ourselves for good, dragonflies will fly among the rulers of a planet reborn. That alone is a good reason for me to write more on dragonflies, including about their sex lives, which would make authors of the Kama Sutra blush. So watch this space.
Before wrapping up, I bring you poetry from Ken, who survived Vietnam, got a PhD, and went on to publish mightily about the lives of dragonflies, including the masterpiece Dragonfly Nymphs of North America and countless journal articles. Ken has also published a novel and co-authored a book of haiku, which includes this:
The path winding
is the dragonfly’s
Although he did not try to catch the damselfly from off the machine gun, Ken could identify it as a member of the genus Rhinocypha, a smattering of which are pictured below (thanks to iNaturalist), and which explains why Ken considered risking his life.
Closer to most of you than these glowing creatures, however, are many more like the dragonfly in my photograph above. They are called “mosaic darners” in North America and “hawkers” in English-speaking areas across Europe and Asia. The world has 33 or so species of them in the genus Aeshna, virtually all of which can be identified by bold and distinctive markings on the side of the thorax (to which the wings and legs are attached). Have a look for yourself; then head to a wetland or pond with emergent plants to find one of your own.
And finally, in the self-promotion department: a profile of me in the University of Michigan’s online alumni magazine by the talented, who writes . A former senior editor at Time Inc., among other lofty accomplishments, George is particularly skilled at capturing the nuance and texture and passions of human nature for his readers (as you’ll see in his Courage 101). And for that I am humbled and ever grateful.