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BROTHER TO A DRAGONFLY

July 5, 2016

Some of the stories in this column will appear in the forthcoming book by Kirk H. Neely, Splinters: Tales from the Lumberyard.

Last Tuesday morning, I hurried through a sudden downpour to my truck. Dark gray clouds filled the sky as the drops slanted from above. I jumped into the driver’s side door of the pickup and slammed the door. To my amazement, a dragonfly hovered before my eyes just on the other side of the windshield. I stared at the curious insect as the fluttering wings held the dragonfly in place as if he or she was staring back at me with large compound eyes. I waited a moment, turning the key in the ignition after the interesting visitor had flown away. Having a close encounter with a dragonfly early in the morning brought back memories of other times when I was taken captive by this fascinating creature.

The dragonfly is an aviation marvel. The Boeing Corporation in Seattle, Washington, has filmed dragonflies in flight. After taking a close look at this small insect, engineers were astounded at their aerodynamics.  They concluded that the dragonfly is a highly-perfected flying machine.

Each one of the 6000 varieties of dragonflies is unique. Some fly at speeds up to sixty miles an hour while the average cruising rate is about ten miles an hour.  They fly backwards, dart from side to side, stop in mid-flight, and hover.

The secret to their agility is the two pairs of wings that work independently of each other.  The front two wings simply churn the air, creating disturbance, while the back two wings provide stability.

Researchers say that the dragonfly creates turbulence, whereas an aircraft tries to avoid it. Engineers acknowledge that it is impossible to approximate this dynamic mechanically. Their conclusion is that the flying ability of the dragonfly is superior to anything the Boeing Corporation can manufacture.

Dragonflies have been called horse stingers.  Originally thought to be guilty of stinging these beasts, they were, in fact, pursuing the real pests, horseflies.  Sometimes dragonflies have been called mosquito hawks, a name that actually fits because of their preference for the little bloodsuckers.  It is the combination of their aerobatic maneuvers in flight, combined with their voracious appetite, that lead to widespread acclaim.

Sometimes dragonflies are called snake doctors and darners.  People in Old England believed that falling asleep during the daytime was dangerous. They thought this insect, with a body like a darning needle, would sew a person’s eyes shut as the penalty for laziness.

It’s enough to scare you out of an afternoon nap!

As a boy, I often went fishing with my grandfather. On one occasion, I had not had even a nibble on my fishing line.  Dragonflies were darting all around, and one hovered close to me. I was afraid of the thing that looked as if it had a killer stinger on its tail.

The insect disappeared from my view, but my grandfather could still see it. “He’s on the brim of your hat.  Hold really still.”

I did just as Pappy instructed. In a few minutes, it flew away.

“Don’t worry. They don’t sting,” Pappy said. “Now, you’ll catch fish.”

Within just a short time, I had landed a bass on the bank and caught several bream.

Appalachian folklore says that if a dragonfly lights nearby while you are fishing, you will have good luck.  If it does not, you might as well pack up and head home.  You will not catch any fish. That day it was the truth.

Last week I saw a pair of blue dragonflies stalking prey above the pond in my garden. The predatory insects are always welcome guests in our yard. They are reputed to have a voracious appetite.  In half an hour’s time, they can consume their own weight in mosquitoes.

According to Japanese legend, a gadfly bit an emperor.  No sooner had the ruler been bitten than he witnessed a dragonfly eating that gadfly.  The emperor considered the dragonfly a friend since the insect had attacked the one who accosted him.  He decreed that from that day forward, the entire island of Japan be called the Island of the Dragonfly.

Samurai warriors considered the dragonfly such a ferocious fighter that they wore the design of the insect etched on the front of their leather helmets.

The Lakota Indians of the northern Great Plains regarded the insect as a fierce hunter.  They incorporated the dragonfly motif into their Native American beadwork. The Navaho people of the Southwest regarded the presence of a dragonfly as an indication of pure water, vital to people who live in arid conditions.  They often incorporated the insect’s image into their sand paintings.

Like the butterfly, the dragonfly is a symbol of immortality.

The life cycle of the dragonfly leads to this assumption.  Dragonflies mate in mid-air – quite the feat! They then deposit their eggs in water.  Eventually the larvae crawl out of the water and attach to a reed.  Its skin becomes hardened, creating a cocoon.

Then a transformation takes place.  Before long, the chrysalis splits.  A brand new body emerges from the dead shell.  The gauze-like wings unfold, and a colorful and sleek dragonfly takes to the air.  No wonder the dragonfly has become a sign of new life!

Will Campbell, who grew up in rural Mississippi with his brother, Joe, died in early June 2013. Will was a fine author and a   Baptist minister who did not fit the mold. As a white supporter of the civil rights movement in the South, he received numerous death threats.

Campbell’s autobiographical work, Brother to a Dragonfly, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1978. In that book, he tells about an experiment his brother conducted. Joe buried a dragonfly in an aspirin box. Three days later the two boys followed a muddy path leading across a field, through the woods, and down to the river. When Joe opened the box he had buried in the soft mud, a dragonfly flew out.

Joe turned to Will and explained that though the dragonfly had been buried in the ground for three days, he was still alive. For Joe, the dragonfly was a symbol of the resurrection of Jesus.

In 1941, at Joe’s funeral, Will related the story, referring to Joe as brother to a dragonfly.

A few years ago, I conducted a graveside funeral service. The widow of the deceased wore on her black dress a silver pin crafted in the likeness of a dragonfly.

“My husband gave this to me,” she explained.  “For me it’s a symbol of hope.”

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