Throughout the opening years of this century the United Nation’s Population Division predicted that total human population would rise to 9 billion and then stabilise or fall. In the 2015 Revision of World Population Prospects they now predict that the number of humans will rise to 9.7 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100.*
In the end it was a fox. A young vixen, downfall of many a man at a certain age, pretty as you like. In the way that so many stories would have it. We stumbled across one another, each unawares, right early with a risen sun before rain, late spring. She had weaned her first litter the year before and was recovering her fullness and her sheen. Her confidence. So we stood, the fool and the fox, and locked eyes. She so still she might have been a statue, were any artist ever born who was capable of mixing such colours, possessed of the hands of a god and a lover to shape the ears and the forehead and the nose.
Her question came at me like the crack of a whip, immediate and urgent, knowing no preamble or trickery of words. Her boldness driven by the tiny glimmers of fox growing even then within her.
“Will you leave me any place? Will your hordes and your heavy feet not leave me one place where the cubs can play? Not one?”
With the lie machine below my nose I would have answered her so cleverly. I could have made words. I could have said ‘conservation’ and ‘restraint’ and ‘sustainable’. I could have told her that we would stop soon. That we would learn to hold ourselves in check, to share. That we had conquered enough already and were satisfied.
But the fox and I had come upon each other quite unawares and mammals do not speak to each other first through their mouths but through their eyes. So I had told her the truth even before I had formed that truth in my own mind in order to conceal it. She did not blink. The sun rose a little higher and struck her. In a grace of fox-flame she turned and was away.
I wanted no more of a fox’s eyes.
It has been a dreich, bleak, fall-back summer of the mind and after my meeting with the fox I have kept to the company of dragonflies: the blind men of the bogs with their thousand eyes but none of them like ours. In standard Irish the dragonfly is called snáthaid mhór, a big needle. But in this part of Donegal some say snáthaid cogaidh, needle of war. Perhaps in this variation they recognise the old way of the soldier, the defender of the home place.
The big hawkers, echoes of a time when dragonflies ruled the air, still patrol. They hold their ground. On a quiet day with the sun glinting off his wings I could watch from a steep bank above his stream the whole fifty-metre territory of a big Brown Hawker. He flew steadily back and forth, making neat, point turns at the ends of his responsibility. He stopped abruptly now and then to inspect something unfathomable to my eyes, continued when he was satisfied. Everything was in order.
Sometimes you have to wait your turn to see the secrets of the natural world. Sometimes you can wait and wait and it is never your turn. The natural world is not there for you, after all. It may tolerate you or it may not notice you. That is the best you can hope for, however much you wish to be with it, to connect to it. Wait, watch. Hours passed but I had nowhere left to go. And so it was that the moment came. There was a steady passage of insect life in the otherwise empty volume of air in front of me – below my feet down to the stream and above my head up to the end of relevance. Insects on the wing flashed about their business, sedges and Ephemeroptera, gnats and midges – and the rich black bibios. The hawker had passed through this intimate volume many times. Nothing to report. Ops normal.
But on one such overflight of hundreds, without notice and without punctuation, he halted, yawed through sixty degrees and translated vertically up, a foot or so. The front part of the thorax articulated upward and brought to bear the legs which appear so disproportionately small in the resting animal but which became so terrifying in that hideous rearing up. The legs were placed around a specimen of bibio, of a species unknown to me. Placed. In mid-flight. The dragonfly did not snatch or pounce or grab. It did not pursue its prey. It had conspired to coincide with it. The hunter and its prey came together at some blank, unnameable coordinate in the Cartesian box I had scaffolded with my eyes: up, down; left, right; near, deep. The bibio had been moving in such and such a direction at such and such a speed, at this moment in time of all the moments there ever were and will be. The dragonfly solved all the universe equations and took it.
Once in a long while dragonflies approached me in earnest as I sat watching them, wings rasping like the scissors of a barber who senses the end of the working day. From a myriad shards they compounded my image and compared it to a tree, a rock, a piece of the sky freshly fallen onto the familiar chaos of the bog. Once a Four-spot Chaser came so close to my face that I heard the click-clack of the projector slides it referred to, one by one. The old box of slides that has served, give or take, since the Carboniferous. There was no match. They did not recognise me, latecomer innovation that I am. Their records are only updated every few million years. No need to clutter the library with temporary phenomena. Dinosaurs had been a waste of effort, extinguished before they were even fully catalogued. The large mammals, clearly, will be even more short-lived. Uninterested, the Chaser turned in the length of its own body, lowered itself back into the thoroughfare of the stream’s cut and was away.
It has been a long, slow reach-back summer and I have kept the company of dragonflies.