Dragonfly Vision

The dragonfly
his face is very nearly
only eye!’
Chisoku*

‘His face is very nearly only eye’. To look into the eyes of a dragonfly, to imagine seeing through them takes us beyond the limits of human eyesight and perception back to a more primordial way of seeing.

Unlike humans, whose eyes have only one lens, dragonflies have compound eyes. Their eyes are composed of 30,000 facets called ommatidia (from Greek ommat ‘eye’) and each has its own lens. This results in a single mosaic image, formed from many pixels of light.

Each ommatidium contains a series of light-sensitive cells called opsids. Whilst humans have only three types of opsins, allowing them to see green, red, and blue light, dragonflies have between 11 and 30. This means they see in ultra-multicolour and can perceive ultraviolet and polarised light.

Their swift judgement of the speed and direction of prey arises from them having three additional smaller eyes called ocelli, which transmit vision to the motor centres in just a fraction of a second. This is the basis of their skills as acrobatic hunters who are able to pick out a single insect from a swarm.

Their perception of time is also very different to that of humans. Whereas we see 60 images per second they see 300 images per second. This means they experience the world five times slower than us.

The earliest eyes began developing from simple eyespots – patches of photoreceptor cells – during the Cambrian explosion 500 million years ago. The first creatures to possess them were arthropods such as Fuxianhuia protensa and Anomolocaris (which, akin to dragonflies, had over 16, 700 lenses in each eye). The development of eyesight played a major role in the ‘arms race’ of the Cambrian explosion.

Dragonflies were amongst the first winged insects to evolve 300 million years ago during the Carboniferous period. That their eyes have remained unchanged suggests they have achieved a degree of perfection.

It is near-impossible to imagine seeing like a dragonfly – 30,000 pixels of light forming an ultra-multicoloured image 300 times per second. We can only guess at the brightness and intensity of their world. Apparently because the upward facing eye has receptors for only blue and UV the sky looks exceptionally bright. The longer light waves are picked up by the downward facing eye. Perhaps seeing not only more intensely but more slowly makes up for what seems like a short life to us.

Dragonflies not only look beautiful but what they see could be of a beauty far beyond human perception. In their ability to bring together what is fragmented and to be open to far more waves of light we glimpse an older and deeper way of perceiving. This might appear inaccessible until we remember that we have evolved from creatures like Fuxianhuia protensa, Anomolocaris, and Odanata (dragonflies).

The Brythonic bard, Taliesin, lists all the animals he has been – a blue salmon, a dog, a stag, a roebuck. This provides evidence for ancient British beliefs in reincarnation and may be suggestive of a shapeshifting tradition in which bards learnt to become and see through the eyes of different creatures.

For us, in the modern world, this would mean setting aside the presuppositions of our rational and scientific worldview and learning to listen to, become, and see through the eyes of the non-human world again. Perhaps, if we could relearn to see like a dragonfly, we might be able to bring together the fragments of our world in a new mosaic – a dragonfly vision- that could provide guidance for the future?

*I first saw this quote in the visitor centre at Risley Moss where I was doing a tree identification course with the Carbon Landscapes Partnership a couple of days ago.

SOURCES

Catherine Brahic, ‘Dragonfly Eyes See the World in Ultra-Multicolour’, New Scientist, https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn27015-dragonfly-eyes-see-the-world-in-ultra-multicolour/ (accessed 16/11/2019)
Grrlscientist, ‘30,000 Facets Give Dragonflies a Different Perspective: The Big Compound Eye in the Sky’, Science Blogs, https://scienceblogs.com/grrlscientist/2009/07/08/30000-facets-give-dragonflies (accessed 16/11/2019)
Kate Hazelhurst and Lisa Hendry, ‘Eyes on the prize: the evolution of vision’, Natural History Museum, https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/eyes-on-the-prize-evolution-of-vision.html (accessed 17/11/2019)
Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Mashpi Lodge, ‘Dragonfly Vision’, National Geographic, https://www.mashpilodge.com/blog/dragonfly-vision/ (accessed 16/11/2019)
Roaring Earth Staff, ‘Dragonfly Experiences Time in Slow-Motion’, Roaring Earth, https://roaring.earth/dragonflies-see-time-slower/ (accessed 16/11/2019)

Review: The Result Is What You See Today

The Result Is What You See Today: Poems About Running was given to me by fellow poet Terry Quinn. I often see Terry out walking when I’m running and only found out he used to run when he gave me this book. From Terry’s poem ‘to my red tracksuit’ and his bio I discovered he ‘could run for hours down the Grand Union’ and ‘over the dunes at Great Yarmouth’ and completed the 50 mile Highland Cross before being forced to give up by prolapsed discs.

I’ll admit I wasn’t overly surprised to see an anthology of poems about running. I’ve always found poetry and running (along with walking and cycling) to go hand in hand – being firmly in one’s body and immersed in one’s surroundings acts as a counterpoint to hours spent exercising only the parts of the brain that link thought to thought in our imaginal worlds and word to word on the screen.

In their introductions the three editors (all poets and runners) Kim Moore, Paul Deaton, and Ben Wilkinson address the question of ‘why we run’. Answers include that it’s a ‘cure’ for stress, ‘illness, bereavements, break-ups’, a source of meaning, and an act of transformation. Wilkinson concludes: ‘runners run as writers write: because they want to, and because they can.’

When I opened this book and saw it contained 128 poems about running from the ancient days of Pindar through to today I found myself wondering whether I would enjoy reading all the poems because they’re about a topic I’m interested in or whether it would feel like a marathon task.

Due to the skilful ordering of the editors (the book is split into four section based around themes drawn from lines in the poems: ‘what I was born for’, ‘against the rising light’, ‘our bodies gone to our heads’, and ‘I won’t stop until I’ve travelled from one life to another’) and the quality and diversity of the work I found myself sprinting through it with great admiration for the scenes evoked by each poet. At the end feeling fulfilled and looking back on particular poems with wonder.

Within its pages you will find much of what you might expect: ‘chatting, stretching, tightening of laces’, ‘soles slap the pavement, fat wobbles’, ‘breath, push, breath, push, breath, push’, ‘breath, / the kilometre kiss-kiss-kiss of rubber / on asphalt’. References to ‘purple lycra’, ‘the fluorescent top’, ‘calf-socks’, i-pods, ‘vests and gels and spiky massage balls’. The dread of shin splints and a prayer to the knees: ‘Knees, / oh my forty-year old knees, don’t take this away from me’.

‘Someone else’s bum’ by Katie Greenbrown stands out as a humorous prose poem about a predicament all female runners will relate to. ‘I watch and I’m afraid of what they’ll say if I try to run past them dressed this way.’ ‘But going back is twice as far… And I need to get past and go home for a shower.’ ‘It’s awful.’ ‘There were forty-five of them, and one of me. No-one seemed to realise that running clothes are tight for functionality. Not for titillation. Pardon the pun. Or so you get a really decent look at someone else’s bum.’

There’s much of the unexpected and the astonishingly original too. My out-and-out favourite is ‘Running – a bucket list’ by Jon McLeod. In a dazzling display of imagination he lists the runs he would like to do in his lifetime beginning with ‘a gentle jog’ in the ‘Early Cretaceous’ . These include ‘Hill run with Moses, stone tablets providing full body workout’, ‘The battle of Prestopans, 21 September 1745, joining the Higland Charge, downhill sprint session, avoiding musket fire’ and, most memorably for me, ‘The ninth circle of hell, club led by Dante and fellow sinners, difficult footing on icy lake.’

Other poems that stand out are ‘Blake on his morning run sees angels in a tree’, ‘Run, Boorana, Run…’ and the touching ‘Running Together in Greenwich Park’. The latter is addressed to a fellow runner who uses a three-wheeled racing wheelchair and contains the lines:

If you ask me
Is it still running
if our legs don’t move?
I will say yes…

I enjoyed this collection immensely and am very grateful to the publisher, Smith/Doorstop, for giving Terry this free second copy and to Terry for passing it on to me. It is a grand tribute to both running and poetry.

The Result Is What You See Today: Poems About Running can be purchased HERE.

The Forge of Gofannon

Do you sense your maker, world?
Friedrich Nietzsche

My surname is Smithers. On and off I’ve been aware of the presence of a smith-god. The sound of hammer blows in the back of my mind. A vision of a forge at the fiery core of the world. The chisel-strokes of Nietzsche’s world-artist working in the Blakean moment between Thisworld and Annwn, beyond good and evil, where there is no past or future, but only the eternal of now creation. Making artefacts of great beauty, world-shattering technologies, weapons that are unconscionable, a dire world.

Over the past few years, as I have been working with the Brythonic mythos, Gofannon has been appearing in my stories forging important treasures – Caledfwlch (the sword of King Arthur), the Shield of Urien Rheged, the golden ring of Gwyn ap Nudd and the horse shoes for his horse.

The art of smithing is seen in most cultures as a magical process which literally transforms the world. It brought into being the Bronze Age and Iron Age and played a major role in the Industrial Revolution and Information Age. The smith is a central figure in many world myths. Yet, surprisingly little is known about Gofannon, our Brythonic smith god. This article summarises our knowledge from the Welsh myths and uses Irish parallels and modern gnosis to illuminate this ancient figure at his forge.

***

We know Gofannon is a smith-god as his name derives from the Middle Welsh gof ‘smith’. In Culhwch and Olwen his aid is required to set the plough used by his brother, Amaethon, the god of agriculture. This shows that, like the other children of Don, he was seen as skilled and as a culture god.

This is supported by lines in ‘The First Address of Taliesin’ where the legendary bard says:

I’ve been with skilful men,
with Math Hen, with Gofannon,
with Eufydd, with Elestron,
I’ve been party to privileges.
For a year I’ve been in Caer Gofannon.

In the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogion, Gofannon inexplicably kills his nephew, Dylan, the daughter of Arianrhod, who can swim ‘as well as the best fish in the sea’. This is named as one of ‘Three Unfortunate Blows’. Why he does so is never explained. However, we can go some distance to finding an explanation through a comparison with the story of Gofannon’s Irish cognate, Goibnu.

In the Lebor Gabála Érenn, Goibniu is the metalsmith of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Children of Dana. Like the children of Don possessing skills is intrinsic to their identity as culture gods. With Credne the silversmith and Luchta the carpenter Goibnu is one of Trí Dée Dána ‘three gods of art’. Goibniu is the half-brother of Brighid. Their mother is Dana and their fathers are Tuirbe Trágma and the Dagda.

Brighid has a son with the Formorian, Bres, called Ruadan. During the Second Battle of Moytura, which takes place between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the monstrous Formorians, Ruadan is sent by the Formorians to find out the secret of how the craftsmen of the Tuatha Dé Danann make their weapons.

Ruadan finds Goibniua at his forge crafting lance-heads with three blows of his hammer, Luchta cutting shafts with three blows of his axe, and Credne fixing the two parts together. After he reports back, Ruadan is sent by the Formorians to kill Goibniu.

Ruadan goes to the forge and asks Goibniu for a spear. Goibniu, unsuspecting, gives a spear to him. Ruadan thrusts it through Goibniu and, to his surprise, the smith-god plucks it out and hurls it at Ruadan, who is mortally wounded, and returns home to die. Brighid mourns Ruadan and this is the origin of keening.

One wonders whether a similar story lies behind Gofannon’s slaying of Dylan with Arianrhod replacing Brighid/Brigantia as his mother. It certainly seems to be no coincidence that Arianrhod’s second son, Lleu, is mortally wounded by Gronw, his rival for his wife, Blodeuedd, with a poisoned spear.

This spear is crafted by a smith (it does not say by who) when ‘people are at Mass on a Sunday’. This is suggestive of a pre-Christian forger working at a liminal time. Lleu then, in turn, strikes a mortal blow to Gronw with his spear. This exchange is not unlike that between Ruadan and Goibniu. That Gofannon is a forger of spears is backed up by lines from ‘The Dialogue of Myrddin and Taliesin’. The ‘seven spears of Gofannon’ are used at the devastating and futile Battle of Arfderydd.

***

In support of the existence of an earlier variant of the story of Gofannon killing Brighid/Brigantia’s son I would like to mention the personal gnosis of Potia Pitchford – a modern devotee of both these deities.

Potia and I were (virtually) together in a guided meditation led by Gemma McGowan at a conference on Brighid earlier in the year. This involved meeting the goddess at a forge deep within the land. Potia had a powerful experience which involved not only Brighid but Gofannon. In her blog post ‘Marked by Gofannon’ Potia writes of Gofannon holding her whilst Brighid pulled from her ‘what was needed to be reworked’ and placed it back inside her in three parts – ‘one band for each of three cauldrons’. Finally Gofannon placed an inch-wide copper band on her upper arm. This led to her to her getting the armband created as an item of devotional jewellery by Runecast Copper.

Potia’s vision of Gofannon and Brighid/Brigantia working together at this forge in the core of the earth spoke deeply to me. I’m tempted to see Brighid/Brigantia (who is both a smith and a poet) and Gofannon as the forces of creativity and smithing that shape our world and its technologies for good and for ill. As I work I am aware of their presence in the words I type and the laptop I type them on.

If Gofannon and Brigid/Brigantia are co-forgers, then Gofannon’s slaying of her son, perhaps as the result of an attack, would certainly add a layer of tragedy and poignancy to their relationship.

*With thanks to Hannah Gibbs for the image ‘Blacksmith‘ on Unsplash.

The Hunt is Late

I fear
the hunt
is late
this year

because
of the green
canopies

because
of the unfallen
leaves

because
your presence
is just

a whisper
of an antlered
figure in

boughs
not yet shaken
by wind.

You are here.

You are here

I know it
by the black cat
who leaps

into my
arms trembling.
The quick-

ening beat
of my heart and
the shiver

of winter
rain falling by
lamplight.

You are here.

You are here.

I know it
when I recite
my poem –

the rain
falls harder your
night-drum

beating
within me and
the wood.

Shadows
stretch and prowl
yet your

hunters
remain dark to
the seer.

I fear
the hunt
is late
this year.

*This poem is addressed to Gwyn ap Nudd, a Brythonic god whose hunt traditionally rides to gather the souls of the dead on Nos Galan Gaeaf. It is based on my marking of the occasion by reciting my poem ‘When You Hunt for Souls in the Winter Rain‘ (in the winter rain!) for Gwyn in Greencroft Valley. I find it disturbing that some of the leaves are still green and many have not yet fallen at this time of year, which in the Celtic calendars marks the beginning of winter. (The Welsh Nos Galan Gaeaf means ‘The night before the first day of winter’ and the Irish Samhain means ‘Summer’s End’).

You Read of a Smith

who made a pact with the devil
know little of how the story began
or what it implies when he sees the huntsman
galloping out of the fog on a cold dark October night.

You see the sweat dripping from his forehead sizzling
in the flames and are unable to tell what passes
between those dark brows when he sees
the horse he always shoes is lame,
its rider tired, shrouded by desperation,
yet still quiet-spoken when he makes his request
for shoes for running further faster between the worlds
to hunt down something that isn’t dead yet but isn’t living either.

You see the smith shiver as if ice has been dropped down his back
but not waver as he pumps the bellows, heats the furnace,
fires the steel, raises his hammer tries to imagine
what he is shoeing is only a hoof with wall,
toe, sole, tough and sensitive parts,
that this creature might be able to feel,
tries not to count the hooves that keep his forge ablaze all night
as the arched neck towers over him and the eyes flicker and glow.

Instead of counting his heartbeat he counts the beat of his hammer
which steeled his will during his ordeal in the fires that burn
like ice beyond good and evil, where he is working now,
face reddened, straining every muscle, engulfed
in the pain and ecstasy of creation for…
he will only ponder when there is nought but ashes
and hoof prints leading to where he, lame, cannot wander.
To where the stories you have read have come to an end and beyond.

*This poem is a Brythonic retelling of the traditional folkloric tale of a smith shoeing a horse for the devil. It features the smith-god, Gofannon, shoeing Du y Moroedd ‘The Black of the Seas’ for Gwyn ap Nudd. Gwyn is a ruler of Annwn, the Otherworld, and was equated with the devil. He rides out with his hunt to gather the souls of the dead on Nos Galan Gaeaf.

**Image ‘Man Shoeing a Horse’ by Jonathon Bean on Unsplash

Penwortham Lake Dwelling

Stand on the mound on Castle Hill, look northwest, and you will see a very different scene to 150 years ago. The flats and retail outlets visible through the gaps in the trees were built after the closure of Riversway Dockland in 1981. The dock closed after only 100 years of use, having been constructed during the 1880s. During its construction the Ribble was moved several hundred yards south.

Today – courtesy of Mario Maps

OS First Edition 1:10,000 1840s courtesy of Mario Maps

Beforehand you would have been looking out across the fields of Marsh Farm and Marsh Grange toward Penwortham Marsh, the distant Ribble, and across it Preston Marsh and the settlement at Marsh End. This landscape, in turn, would have been different to 400 years ago before the marsh was drained.

Since the melting of the glaciers after the Ice Age the tidal stretches beside the Ribble would always have been marsh. Archaeological evidence suggests people have inhabited this area since, at least, 3800BC.

The excavations for Riversway Dockland uncovered evidence of a wooden lake dwelling. A ‘platform some 17m by 7m in extent… formed of brushwood set amidst piles’, a bronze spear head, two dug-out canoes, 23 human skulls, 21 aurochs skulls with horns, 25 red deer skulls with antlers, and bones of wild horse which showed evidence of ‘chop marks’ and gnawing ‘by a large, dog-sized predator’.

John Lamb lists the Preston Docks Findspot as SD12296, meaning it would have been in the northwest of the present dock area, adjacent to the roundabout. Turner et al note that ‘remains were found at various points in the total area excavated’ including ‘two human crania found close to Castle Hill on the south side of the river’.

Riversway Dockfind Spot

For many years it was the consensus that the human skulls provided evidence of human sacrifice – perhaps a mass murder. In 2002 eight skulls were selected for radio-carbon dating. It turned out that five were Stone Age, one Bronze Age, one from the Romano-British period and one from Anglo-Saxon times.

The latest theory, put forward by Dr Michael Wysocki, is that these people were not sacrificed on Penwortham Marsh. Instead they entered the river system miles away. Their heads settled at a slow-flowing point in the Ribble, a tidal lake, and their bodies floated out to sea. Likewise with the animals. Yet the large number of Stone Age skulls suggests that Neolithic people used the river to dispose of their dead. Even accepting this theory I believe it possible some of the human and animal skulls may have belonged to the lake-dwellers and been deposited in the Ribble in ritual acts.

The carbon dated skulls provide a sample of people who dwelled by the Ribble from between 4000BC – 800AD. The oldest skull, of a ‘mature woman’, is dated to 3820 – 3640 BC. ‘Pitting in the orbit of her left eye’ suggests she ‘suffered from anaemia’. Another, dated to around 3,500 BC, belonged to a man of around 40.

Two of the Stone Age skulls show evidence of violent deaths. An ‘older man’ was killed with a stone axe. The skull of a young woman, dated 3710 – 3510 BC, shows ‘clear evidence of trauma to the right and back of her skull’. This surprised me as I’d thought of Stone Age hunter-gatherers as peaceful people.

Yet it would accord with Roman depictions of the people of Briton and Gaul as savage head-hunters and with poems recording the internecine warfare and raiding that took place in post-Roman Britain. (Notably the northern British bard, Taliesin, describes warriors playing football with the heads of their enemies!). Andrew Breeze has suggested that the root of Setantii set- derives from met- ‘reaping’. In medieval Welsh literature we find a tradition of warriors favouring lethal blows to the head*.

The Romano-British skull is small with ‘distinctive male eyebrow ridges’. It is unclear whether its owner was male or female, Roman or British. However, he or she was killed by ‘a pointed object such as a spear passing through the open mouth and into the skull.’ I wonder if she was killed in the Roman invasion. A Roman ballista ball was found on Castle Hill, suggesting there was a battle there.

The owner of the skull from the Anglo-Saxon period, a female aged between 16 and 25, also died violently. There is evidence of a cut across her face, damaging her right eye, and a lethal blow to the head. Again it seems possible this woman was killed during the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons.

The dock finds show our local lake-dwellers were fearsome warriors and hunters who travelled the Ribble in dug-out canoes and preyed on aurochs, red deer, and and wild horse. After eating them they probably skinned them and used their skins for clothing. Oddly ‘the carbon 13 readings show that their diet consisted of meat and vegetables – but no fish, despite being found near a river’. This fits with the 3rd century Roman writer Dion Cassius’ report: ‘They never cultivate the land, but live on prey, hunting, and the fruits of trees; for they never touch fish, of which they have such prodigious plenty’.

It seems very strange that these people did not eat fish when they were plentiful in the Ribble. I wonder whether this is because it was used to dispose of the dead and to eat from it was seen as taboo. We know from the Roman geographer Ptolemy’s writings in the 2nd century that the Ribble was known as Belisama ‘Most Mighty One’ or ‘Most Shining One’ and was seen as a powerful goddess. Maybe fish were held as sacred to her and ‘totemic’ to the lake-dwellers and were not to be eaten.

Setanta, an Irish hero who may have been of Setantii origins, was later renamed Cu Chulainn (meaning Chullain’s hound). The dog was sacred to him and he was banned from eating dog meat. Breaking this geis led to his death. Perhaps the the lake-dwellers saw fish in a similar manner.

Upriver, between the docks and Castle Hill, on the former site of the Ribble Generating Station stands a ring of wooden carvings – a common darter dragonfly, a brown trout, an otter, a smooth newt (which has been stolen!), and a tawny owl. These creatures have likely inhabited the area since the Stone Age and would have been held as special beings to the lake-dwellers too. I wonder if they recall their stories?

*‘he (Geraint)… raised his sword and struck the knight on the top of the head his head so that all the armour on his head shatters and all the flesh splits, and the skin, and it pierces the bone and the knight falls to his knees.’ (Geraint son of Erbin)

‘Peredur drew his sword and struck the witch on top of her helmet, so that the helmet and all the armour and the head were split in two.’ (Peredur son of Efrog)

SOURCES

Andrew Breeze, ‘Three Celtic Toponyms: Setantii, Blencathra and Pen-Y-Ghent’, Northern History: XLIII, 1 (2006)
Alan Turner, Silvia Gonzalez and James C. Ohman, Journal of Archaeological Science, ‘Prehistoric Human and Ungulate Remains from Preston Docks, Lancashire, UK: Problems of River Finds’ (2002)
John Lamb, ‘Lancashire’s Prehistoric Past’, Linda Sever (ed), Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, (2010, History Press)
Meirion Pennar, Taliesin Poems, (Llanerch Enterprises, 1988)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Discover Preston display in the Harris Museum, Preston (with thanks to the Harris for the information and permission to use the photographs of the Riversaway Dockfinds in this blog posts).

Marsh Roads

I.

Walking

down Marsh Way past Marsh Way Pond,

down Marsh Lane I think of other marshless Marsh Roads
in Preston, Thornton-Cleveleys, Bolton, but also

of Marsh Road near Banks and Marshside
where hundreds of widgeon and teal
jester the waters pintail arrow
and lapwings

peal

like spaceships
on computer games.

II.

There are no alders
on Alderfield

where I lived
without trees or water,

on Alder Close, Alder Grove, Alder Lane,
around the pond in Carr Wood where they cut them down.

On Carr Head Lane, Carr Moss Lane, Carr End Lane,

Carr Hill High School where I first sparred
at Taekwondo ignorant of Gwern
and Brân’s alder shield.

III.

There are no reeds
on Reeds Brow, Reedmace Road,
Reedfield Place, Reed Acre Place, Reeds Lane.
On Rushwood Close, Rushwood View, Rushy Hey
there are no rushes.

There are no willows
on Willow Crescent or Willow Coppice
to weave into a willow tunnel to grant safe passage,
but Willow Cottage Bed and Breakfast
was a haven for two friends –
one of them a heron.

V.

There is no sedge in Sedgefield

but the pendulous sedge is rioting here
on the banks of the brook in Greencroft Valley
and the green is soggy and my wellies are getting stuck
and slipping in and out of the land like a jelly.

It’s coming back it’s coming back –
the marshland of the Setantii.

We have been sinking by an inch each year.

There are things that are born to suck up the roads.