Dragonfly wing

The Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens)

By Brian Turner

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They fly from one nation to another during the annual passage in autumn, the Indian Ocean a canvas of blue below, their biplanar wings attuned to thermal updrafts, the propulsion of the trade winds, the cycling of the monsoons.

In half a century I have never perceived the color blue as these tiny flyers must experience it in this moment. Even if I were to ride the Somali Jet beside them, my arms outstretched to mirror the translucent lift of their wings as we glide 1,000 meters over the peaks and troughs of the ocean, sunlight burnishing the horizon at dawn in peach and tangerine behind us—the layered depths of the color blue in the waters below would stun the language from my lips, and yet those waters would lack the thrumming electricity of it all, where striations of blue flare in wavelengths of light I am simply incapable of seeing. That blueness. It exists within this world, though I will never live to see it. The compound eyes of the dragonfly have 30,000 facets, and while I live with the wild combinations of three cones in the orbit of the eye, mixing reds and greens and blues, I cannot fully comprehend the pigments and hues possible through the combination of 11, or 12 separate cones—as the visual spectrum within the dragonfly represents a world that might blind me with its beauty. 

And these tiny flyers, alone or in great numbers, cross the ocean when the season calls them, from Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and from waterholes and lakes further north, the underwater naiads transforming into winged beings that emerge from the tenuous surface of the wetlands in Chennai, or from the channeled lowlands in the Kaveri River delta. Dragonflies. They rise and take flight. Cattle bellow with their god-like voices, urging them on toward the theater of clouds. Feathered hunters pluck some of them from the empty air to dismember them and eat them before landing in the leafy shade of giant banyans—trees that walk their slow way through the marshlands, century by century. And yet the wandering gliders fly on, from the Kingdom of Animalia, the Phylum Arthropoda, from the Insecta Class and the Order of Odonata in the Infraorder of Anisoptera, from the Family of Libellulidae and the Genus of Pantala, they fly by the millions over the green earth and over the blue ocean, Pantala flavescens—the wandering glider, the yellow dragonfly with delicate wings.

They are so driven that sometimes they fly against the wind, buffeted by it, persevering, on azimuth and true to an idea so deep within the body only the dead that came before them know of the water they might alight upon in a land they have never seen. They fly from India to the Maldives, and then on over the ocean to Nairobi, Kampala, Dar es Salaam. The sun rises to warm their slender forms. Day blurring into night. Dawn. Dusk. The blood orange of a moon rising into the pale blue of evening. A field of stars trembling in the waters below. And as they fly, the metallic bodies of flying fish glint in the brief moment they thread the midnight waters with silver needles of light. The dragonflies chart the salty wakes of massive container ships bound for the Red Sea, or the lateen sails of dhows plying the trade winds as they have for generations.

They eat micro-insects and airborne plankton en route, and they are eaten in turn by those that can catch them. They are sustained aloft by winds that resonate with a high, thin voice some might consider the voice of the Earth itself, calling out into the darkness of space as it spins among the planets churning through the dust of stars. And when the winds die down and the air is stilled and the dragonflies find themselves far out to sea, the vast blue waters rise and fall in a tandem conversation with the inscrutable blue sky. This is when they must fly on their own; and their wings, so light and fine, veined into a mosaic of glassy panes, must shape the invisible until it hums once more, each flyer singing themselves forward, and deeper, into a meditation on blue.



Brian TurnerBrian Turner is a writer and musician and the author of My Life as a Foreign Country, two poetry collections (Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise), and a debut album with The Interplanetary Acoustic Team. His most recent work is The Kiss: Intimacies from Writers (W.W. Norton & Company). He directs the MFA at Sierra Nevada University.

Header photo by HappyRichStudio, courtesy Shutterstock.

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