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: Creatures by Greg Hill

Creatures by Greg HillGreg Hill lives in Wales. He was editor of The Anglo-Welsh Review and contributes regularly to Welsh literary magazines. I’ve followed his blog for a while and was delighted when I heard about the release of his first full length collection of poetry in print; Creatures.

The title alone creates intrigue. What kind of creatures? The epigraph replies; ‘All creaturely things… Plants growing, / Roads running, / Rivers flowing, / Places that sing.’ It is clear from the outset this collection is about an animate landscape where every being is a creature, alive and sentient.

The first ekphrastic poem is based on the picture on the cover; Fidelma Massey’s sculpture, ‘Water Mother,’ who dreams thoughts of water into being. Here, the ‘cosmic ebb and flow’ of thought and water is contained in the poem. Analogies between living water and perception recur throughout the book. In ‘Cwm Eleri’ the poem’s tight structure fails to contain the river, which slips from grasp like time. In ‘Myddleton’s River’ water-ways link London, Wales and the underworld, forming a conduit for complicated alchemical processes of mental and physical transformation.

The contrast between our immediate perception of creatures and those aspects of their being impossible to grasp is central. A jackdaw sitting happily in the hearth becomes ‘an image… a token of wildness… like a jigsaw piece from another puzzle;’ a homely and familiar event made strange. Greg writes that as a heron dips out of sight ‘a part of me fell out of the sky with it,’ lost ‘except that something / settles in the flow of these words.’ We can never completely grasp our perceptions. Only through words can they find permanent representation.

Several poems present roads, paths and boundaries as living entities and how our understanding of them shifts once they are crossed and they slip into memory. If we try to return, the roads are ‘dull,’ ‘dusty,’ ‘empty.’ Our former selves are shadows, unfamiliar reflections. ‘Strange border guards’ usher us ‘from what / we neither know nor recognise.’ These haunting and complex poems demonstrate how choices shape our relationship with the landscape and hence our memories.

The mysteries of the Bardic Tradition and its creatures are explored in novel ways. ‘Awen’ depicts a shepherd lad inspired to speak poetry by a spirit ‘like a forest god’ who is elusive as the words he inspires. Four episodes from the Mabinogion are covered. I was fascinated by ‘A Scaffold for a Mouse,’ which depicts ‘Manawydan living in a dream / landscape with the life / conjured out of it like a flat plane.’ Through his ‘firm grip’ on the mouse, ‘a small thing / for a great purpose,’ he breaks the ‘powerful magic’ of Llwyd, awakening ‘form to its true nature’ thus freeing Rhiannon, Pryderi and Cigfa.

This collection depicts a relationship with the creaturely world that is on the surface simple and direct yet beneath mysterious and disconcerting. Each time I return to these poems I discover new meanings and thematic relationships within the whole. I’d recommend this book to anybody who likes poetry with lots of depth and has a love for nature, myth and creatures.

Creatures can be purchased through Lulu here: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/greghillpoetry

Greg Hill’s poetry site is here: http://greghill.weebly.com/
Greg’s blog, Hill’s Chroicle can be found here: http://hills-chronicle.blogspot.co.uk/

The Wild Ivy

The Wild Thyme is Los’s messenger to Eden, a mighty Demon
Terrible deadly and poisonous.
– William Blake Milton

 

 

 

 

A traveler,
Twisting outward from eternity.
Hedera helix spiral climbing,
Subtle fibres root the earth, pierce the tree.
Vines entwine an embracing strangle,
Mighty deadlock pulsing path of evergreen.

A traveler
On a long journey,
Cordate faces look out to see.
Draping decoration wraps the valley
Pervading everything with ivy’s mystery

Hanging tendrils sing deafening resonations:
“Joy-lament the world you fail to see!”
I can see you’ve travelled far to reach me
And ask “what message do you bring to me?”

Litter in the Valley

If the doors of perception were cleansed
Everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.
For man has closed himself up.’
–          William Blake ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Litter in the valley-
when people pass by
I see their minds are littered with debris;
carrier bags squashed, squeamishly sodden,
crisp packets tattle in the trees.
Chocolate wrappers with dirt in their pockets
chase like dogs without leads.
Discarded, a full can with a wasp in it,
dead, fermented in the void.
Shattered bottles glass the earth,
cider vessels huge and vacuous,
squeezed shut as if by the jaws of some great mutt.
A sip of vinegar slides along the bottom,
seeps out leaving a stench-
stains on the valley,
a land of garbage.

Cleanse the doors of perception and you will see
roots from the earth’s depth towering upward to infinity,
peppered bark- tan, brown, silver, grey,
tough, rough, notched, spot a gnarlen face.
Feel the clog of loam on your feet,
smells like umber, hidden paths and treats.
The swish of the leaves, damp and orange curls
twitching brown, yellow curve citrine,
amber shells, red night dancers and newly fallen green.
Halt! Hear the intangible snap, see them float,
swaying like boats, turning like sun dials
as bright beams break through the boughs,
raising mist from cold clarity of the stream.

So why crust over this sacred vision with debris,
facies hippocratica, waste site insult to all that is living?
Everything sings, everything feels and dreams.
Open your mind and clear the litter from the valley.