With apologies to Abraham Lincoln, that is the harsh reality facing the Republican Party as it looks into an abyss called 2012.
Having learned none of the lessons from its loses in 2006 and 2008 elections and having misread the victories of 2010 as a mandate, the GOP is not only no closer to recapturing the Senate and White House than it was a year ago, it is considerably further way.
That is no mean feat, and the reasons are easy to decipher.
Party leaders, desperate for short-term votes as opposed to developing and executing a strategy for long-term growth, handed the keys to the party pickup truck first to Christianists who were determined to continue fighting culture wars that had little appeal to mainstream voters, and then to Tea Partiers determined to impose an ideological purity on Republican candidates that resulted in driving away many of the party's moderates.
When the smoke clears in the next few days from the high-stakes deficit reduction imbroglio, which will be less a victory for President Obama than a rout for Republicans, the wheels will have come completely off the pickup truck, leaving the passengers to have to hitchhike into town. That town, of course, is somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line since the party has worked assiduously to shed black and Hispanic support and for all intents and purposes has shrunken into a regional entity.* * * * *
For Republicans, 2010 was the year of big promises and 2011 was going to be a year when those promises would be fulfilled.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Promises Land: The party leadership recognized that smaller government is something that most voters could gladly support, but accomplishing that on the backs of have-nots, seniors and the infirm while cosseting the super rich and Wall Street fat cats was something that horrifies most of those voters.
And so you had the sight yesterday of House Speaker John Boehner warning the rank and file at a closed-door meeting to "get your ass in line" in trying to beat back an open revolt from the Tea Party wing of the party caucus, while born-again maverick John McCain took to the floor of the Senate to mock the Tea Party wing for thinking that Obama and Democrats will get the blame for a default if Republicans refuse the raise the debt ceiling.
By that flawed logic, "Democrats would have no choice but to pass a balanced budget amendment and reform entitlements and the Tea Party Hobbits could return to Middle Earth," he said, quoting a Wall Street Journal editorial.
"This is the kind of crack political thinking that turned Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell into G.O.P. nominees," he jeered.Indeed.
When, you might ask, are Republicans finally going to get it? "It" being that substituting governance with polarization is a sure loser and will remain so.
I for one am not holding my breath.
Thursday, July 28, 2011
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Much has been written in recent months about the alternate universe in which many Republicans live. It is a universe populated not by hard facts, empirical knowledge and an understanding of economics and history, but by a denial of reality. With the federal debt crisis on center stage, these realities in particular present themselves:
* The crisis is a direct result of the profligacy of the Bush era, notably the billions of dollars spent on the Iraq war hard on the heels of a tax cut for the wealthy.
* The very Republican leaders whose intransigence has fueled the crisis, notably Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, supported the war and voted for the tax cuts.
* The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office this week found that the House Republican debt plan fell short of its projected savings while the Democratic Senate plan met its projected savings.
The Republican response when confronted with these realities is not surprising, but nevertheless still astounding:
* President Obama is to blame for the deficit crisis.
* Who voted for or supported what in 2002 and 2003 has no bearing on 2011.
* The Congressional Budget Office is coming up with numbers "out of thin air."
You don't have to be a rocket scientist, yet alone a Wharton School graduate, to see what will happen next:
The Republicans will have to bow to reality and compromise or blow whatever slim chance they have of taking back the Senate and White House in 2012. A failure to do so will come down on them like a ton of bricks when elderly and infirm voters start going to mailboxes to get their government checks and find nothing there.
Politicians have been invoking the name of God since forever, but in an era when a substantial portion of the Republican base is hard-core Christianist -- true believers who openly disparage Islam and other faiths -- the practice has become particularly tiresome. And troublesome when you consider the shocking number of homegrown incidents in which Christianists have backed up their beliefs with deadly firearm attacks.
This is not to say that John Boehner or Michele Bachmann, to name two especially egregious name droppers when it comes to the Almighty, are about to lock and load. But there is a connection between faith-based violence and some of the religious flapdoodle that spills from the mouths of Republicans in torrents these days. And I'll be damned if I can think of a single incident in which an adherent of a more egalitarian faith shot up a church or an abortion clinic because God told him to do so.
Don't get me wrong. I've given up on the separation between church and state as a practical matter. Besides which, religion informs our view of human life for many of us and there is no reason why it shouldn't seep into politics.
I don't take issue with politicians falling back on their religion when it has context. But much if not most of such talk is as shallow as the politics are conservative, and invoking the Almighty's name when the subject is the federal debt ceiling is beyond tiresome.
Then there is the role of religion in subjugating the rights of women. Here again Republican politicians, or a goodly number of them anyway, justify workplace discrimination and deny women access to reproductive care because that's how they read their Bible.* * * * *
There is a widely held view that all that is great about America is grounded in God. It is not. Not by a long shot, nor is that what the Founding Fathers believed.
When Thomas Jefferson spoke of "inalienable rights," he was not affirming God but denying King George. Jefferson, in fact, was a deist who rejected the claim of the divinity of Jesus although he kept a Bible close at hand. It was not an oversight that the word "God" does not appear in the U.S. Constitution. And when Abraham Lincoln minted the words "In God We Trust," it was for the consumption of others; he himself was determinedly irreligious.
* * * * *
It has been 50 years since Americans elected the first Roman Catholic president, yet religion looms large for Mitt Romney's campaign.
There is an old saying that Americans are suspicious of any religion other than their own, and Romney has the handicap of being a Mormon, a widely misunderstood denomination outside of the American spiritual mainstream that some religions consider to be a cult despite, perhaps ironically, it's deep commitment to family values.
While nearly half of Republican voters have identified themselves as evangelicals in recent primary exit polls and they make up a highly influential part of the GOP base, a mere 20 percent have indicated support for Romney, who at this point would seem to be the only candidate with even a slim chance of beating President Obama.
It should be understood that evangelicals don't necessarily not support Romney because of his faith. He is a notorious flip-flopper and will have to do more than assemble a crack campaign team and raise buckets of money, both of which he has done, to survive the Republican primaries.
But it nevertheless is a shame -- and shaming -- that while the Constitution stipulates that there be no religious test for public office and it is my belief that a candidate's private beliefs should be off-limits, Romney will be dogged by his beliefs every day from here on out by Republicans -- officeholders and rank-and-file alike -- who believe there is only one God. Their own.
Monday, July 25, 2011
The last time that I visited the budget deficit debacle was in a post titled "The Great Republican Retreat of 2011." The headline pretty much said it all -- that the GOP House leadership was hell bent on grabbing defeat from the jaws of compromise -- and would rue the day it made promises that defied fiscal reality.
After weeks of moving deck chairs on their Titantic, the best that the House leadership has been able to come up with is a balanced budget Constitutional amendment that has about as much chance of becoming law as Rush Limbaugh has of flapping his beefy arms and flying. Oh, and raising walking out of budget meeting with the president and vice president to an art form.
In the end, the Senate Republican leadership probably will hold its collective nose and sign onto a Senate compromise bill endorsed by President Obama and supported by a goodly number of Republicans that makes substantial cuts in government spending, including areas that many of the president's supporters are going ballistic over because they had assumed were sacrosanct.
No, boys and girls of the liberal persuasion, nothing is sacrosanct when you're a deal maker like Obama.
The cuts are not nearly the size the House leadership originally pursued by using through-the-looking-glass mathematics, while the compromise bill includes a long overdue overhaul of the tax code (read tax hikes for the rich) that runs against the grain for Republicans determined to hold the line on taxes while devastating entitlement programs.
And making sure their pet projects back home are funded, most conspicuously a $700 million bridge that would link Minnesota and Wisconsin.
* * * * *The Republican Party, of course, is stumbling through an era where ideological purity and ultimatums have replaced governance, and while there is plenty of blame to go around, Grover Norquist has worked tirelessly to earn the biggest share.
Norquist, who as a strategist launched Newt Gingrich on a series of policy blunders and gaffes that have made him the darling of late-night TV comedians and later became cozy with super lobbyist and now ex-con Jack Abramoff, has been the party's primary no-tax-increase enforcer through his Americans For Tax Reform. By Norquist's crude calculus, if a budget default shuts down government, deprives seniors of the Social Security checks and roils Wall Street and global markets, what's not to like?
Republican officeholders have not dared to cross swords with him, which helps explain why Norquist's paws are on every GOP defeat of consequence since the party ceded the White House. Until the deficit disaster that most conspicuously was Paul Ryan's reverse Robin Hood plan to lower the deficit by screwing the middle class and poor while rewarding the rich.
You can be sure that Norquist has more rabbits in his hat. Democrats sure hope so.
Thursday, July 21, 2011
The physical and mental health of presidential candidates has become a paramount concern and Michele Bachmann, who is the frontrunner in some Republican polls, raises troubling questions in both areas.
The timing of the revelation that she suffers from weekly crippling stress-induced migraine headaches and mood swings just as her candidacy is surging is no accident.
Mainstream Republican bigs like Karl Rove, whose weapons of choice are long knives, know that if the Minnesota congresswoman gets the party’s presidential nomination she and the party will be toast in the 2012 election, but are too cowardly to confront Bachmann on policy issues for fear of alienating the junkyard dog wing of the party. And yes, some of the piling on is because Bachmann is a woman.
I presume but cannot say with authority that the 55-year-old Bachmann’s physical issues can be dealt with by medications unless she is, for example, profoundly bipolar and the mood swings are a result of chronic depression.
Besides which, she will be sure to release her medical records if she gets either the presidential or vice presidential nomination. All four candidates in 2008 did so, of course . . . Oh wait, Sarah Palin issued a muddled letter from her doctor on election eve and then refused to release any more information because the McCain-Palin ticket got creamed the next day.
What is troubling to me is Bachmann’s well-documented nutiness, which seems to be driven less by her physical problems than a world view fed by Christianist leanings, gay bashing, Tea Party dogma and outlandish conspiracy theories.
And do we want someone in the White House who rides the apocalypse bandwagon?
My blogging buddy Bob Stein said it best when he wrote that her admirers “may shrug off such revelations as prejudiced attacks on a highly spiritual candidate, but Bachmann has exceeded the speed limit for normal since she was elected to Congress in 2006.”
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
An allegation that reporters for Rupert Murdoch's now-defunct News of the World tried to steal personal information from the phones of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center is generating considerable smoke but no fire.
This is because the allegation rests entirely on a July 11 story in The Daily Mirror, a News of the World rival, based on an unnamed former New York City police office turned private investigator anonymous that the Murdoch tabloid tried to bribe an NYPD officer to help hack the phones of the victims, especially Brit0ns.
As flimsy as that thread may be, the FBI has launched a preliminary inquiry -- as opposed to a full-blown investigation -- of the allegation at the request of Representative Peter King, the New York Republican, and several other members of Congress, but absent that police officer coming forward if in fact a bribe attempt was made, it is difficult to see how investigators can get any footing.
Although Murdoch's News Corp. share price has plummeted, 10 of his former minions have been arrested in the U.K. for their alleged role in widespread phone hacking, he and his son have reluctantly agreed to appear before Parliament today and the head of Scotland Yard is among the government heads to roll, the scandal has had little impact in the U.S.
But all that would change -- and change dramatically -- if the 9/11 victim allegation is found to be credible.
If so, News Corp. is almost certainly vulnerable to illegal wiretapping and wire fraud charges, and while there are weighty jurisdictional and statute-of-limitations issues to iron out, it is unlikely that U.S. prosecutors would defer to authorities in the U.K.
As former federal prosecutor Jeffrey H. Cramer has noted, "9/11 victims are held dear. " Even if the allegation were true but prosecutors were unable to move forward because of the statute of limitations, it would be an extraordinary public relations disaster for Murdoch, even as shameless as he has proven to be over a long career built on media outlets that specialize in sleaze and misinformation.It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Murdoch is evil. Here is a man who keeps on a close associate who is the key player in the hacking scandal and is now under arrest, while firing dozens of reporters who are now unemployed.
In the past, Murdoch and News Corp. have made their myriad legal problems go away by paying multi-million dollar judgments and, in the process, silencing their critics. The New York Times reports that in the case of News America Marketing, its profitable in-store and newspaper insert marketing business, News Corp. has paid out a staggering $655 million over corporate espionage and anticompetitive behavior charges.
But this time no amount of lucre will do the job. And if the 9/11 victim allegation is true, Murdoch will be toast in his adopted country.
Monday, July 18, 2011
A good compromise, a good piece of legislation, is like a good sentence; or a good piece of music. Everybody can recognize it. They say, "Huh. It works. It makes sense."~ BARACK OBAMAThe Republican congressional leadership, unable to keep a single promise of consequence, is bloodied and in retreat, and the imbroglio over the budget deficit is its Waterloo.
The retreat is no surprise because Mitch McConnell and John Boehner find themselves between a very big rock and a very hard place.
The rock is the reality that Republicans will be blamed if there is a debt default, while the hard place is the right wingers who have hijacked the GOP, demanding lower taxes and smaller government.
Compromising for the greater good, as well helping to insure long-term policy successes, was once a Republican virtue, but it has no place in an era in which ideological purity is demanded of GOP officeholders.
Representative Eric Cantor, who has replaced an exhausted Boehner at the negotiating table, has succeeded in making the House speaker seem like a pillar of probity, and President Obama has taken pains to praise him for "acting in good faith."
Cantor, meanwhile is being childish.
"[He] has shown he shouldn’t be at the table and Republicans agree he shouldn’t be at the table,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid late last week. “He has walked out on the meetings with the vice president of the United States."
* * * * *
Having committed time and again to protecting the rich while trying to rob the poor, Cantor has nothing to bring to the table except empty rhetoric for the benefit of the GOP's base, which has become a demographic nightmare with dire long-term electoral consequences for a party whose loudest voices are inchoate Tea Party babbling.
The Republican march to failure was inevitable because of two linked-at-the-hip factors:
* The party leadership's feigned affection for the Tea Party. While few Republican bigs took the Tea Party seriously, they saw it as a source of votes. What these bigs did not take into account is that they would become beholden to the Tea Party and its insurgent freshman congressfolk in unanticipated and unpleasant ways.
* When the leadership, all aglow over its empty Pledge for America, promised to cut $100 billion from the federal budget this year without raising taxes and repeal health-care reform.
The budget slash-and-burn was unrealistic because of the party's innumerable sacred cows, while the health-care initiative was dead on arrival because the people who embrace reform are not, of course, the Republicans' favorite targets -- illegal immigrants and layabouts whom they claim would rather collect unemployment insurance than work -- but rather middle class voters whose lives have been ravaged by the Bush Recession.
Among the ironies here is that the deficit is a product of Bush era profligacy, something that many voters seem to understand, while congressional Republicans have further tied their own hands by overwhelmingly supporting the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a piece of flapdoodle that states its signers will oppose hikes in most income tax rates and any reduction or elimination of deductions and credits unless matched by reducing tax rates.
Another irony is that the GOP leadership has allowed itself to be played by Obama and has no answer to his contention that the party has a "gun against the heads of the American people to extract tax breaks for corporate jet owners."
This is because it is true.
Thursday, July 14, 2011
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
For students of schadenfreude and cheerleaders for the demise of the newspaper, what's not to like about the stream of revelations that Rupert Murdoch's Fleet Street empire is a criminal enterprise? That a man who got filthy rich and amassed enormous political power in Britain, the U.S. and Australia that would have made even Citizen Kane blush is revealed to be a godfather with printing presses rather than machine guns.
Unintentional as it was, the revelations come in the wake of "Gone With the Papers," by Chris Hedges at Truthout, an essay that by my lights is the most compelling take to date on the loss of a culture and ethic that as a reporter and editor put me at the center of some of the most import stories of the late 20th century while enabling me to travel the world and feed and educate my children.
"This loss is impoverishing our civil discourse and leaving us less and less connected to the city, the nation and the world around us. The death of newsprint represents the end of an era. And news gathering will not be replaced by the Internet. Journalism, at least on the large scale of old newsrooms, is no longer commercially viable. Reporting is time-consuming and labor-intensive. It requires going out and talking to people. It means doing this every day. It means looking constantly for sources, tips, leads, documents, informants, whistle-blowers, new facts and information, untold stories and news. Reporters often spend days finding little or nothing of significance. The work can be tedious and is expensive. And as the budgets of large metropolitan dailies shrink, the very trade of reporting declines. Most city papers at their zenith employed several hundred reporters and editors and had operating budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The steady decline of the news business means we are plunging larger and larger parts of our society into dark holes and opening up greater opportunities for unchecked corruption, disinformation and the abuse of power."
Like Hedges, my mourning for the good old days is qualified by the belief that the wounds of newspapers are substantially self inflicted. And although Hedges does not mention Murdoch by name, he probably also shares my belief that the rapacious Murdoch has led the charge away from civil discourse, and in doing so has stripped away "one more bulwark holding back the swamp of corporate malfeasance, abuse and lies," as the former New York Times reporter puts it.
The result of course, is that it is ever harder for us to separate illusion from reality and fact from opinion, which is precisely the winning formula of that Republican Party mouthpiece, Murdoch's Fox News, which has been key to leading the GOP down an ever deeper rabbit hole.Cartoon by Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate
Monday, July 11, 2011
I keep asking myself why congressional Republicans are so adamantly opposed to raising taxes and closing tax loopholes for the richest one percent of Americans, the folks who have a greater collective net worth than the entire bottom 90 percent.
The oft-cited reason that the John Boehners and Mitch McConnells offer is that raising taxes on the super rich would somehow hurt employment and therefore the economy, and I suppose it is possible that a few fewer Guatemalans would find jobs washing and waxing Ferraris and Bentleys in the Hamptons or Beverly Hills.
But if Republicans are so determined to pamper the super rich (they walked out of deficit-reduction negotiations the other day when it came time to discuss closing loopholes that could raise tens of billions of dollars), why do they want to cut off the elderly, poor and infirm at the knees?* * * * *Speaking of Republicans, it has been my view since the party got cuffed in the 2006 midterm elections that the GOP would have to go so far down that it couldn't see up before it began to loosen the hammerlock that right wingers have on it. That makes the possibility that Michelle Bachmann has a real chance of capturing the presidential nomination such terrific news.* * * * *After years of trying, I finally saw the Summer Triangle off the back deck of the mountain retreat the other night.
For the uninitiated, that is the imaginary triangle drawn on the northern hemisphere's celestial sphere. Its defining vertices are Altair, Deneb and Vega, which are the three brightest stars in the constellations of
Acquila, Cygnus and Lyra.* * * * *Wealthy shits like Rupert Murdoch who amass fortunes and political influence by not having scruples sooner or later crave respectability more than anything. But respectability can't be bought and the press baron will never have it.* * * * *Our chocolate Labradors have extraordinary noses. In fact, I call Nicky a schnoz being followed by a 65 pound dog, but that did not keep Jack from getting skunked during a romp in the woods.
The old home remedy of a tomato juice bath reduced the odor, but not by much. The solution, several wise heads told us, was repeated topical applications of Massengill Douche.
It worked.* * * * *We are teevee free at the mountain retreat, so I find myself loading up on sports when I spend a weekend at the pied-a-terre.
Like the Tour de France (I watch for the spectacular scenery, not the cycling) followed by the Women's World Cup (stoic USA outkicks whiny Brazil) followed by the Philadelphia Phillies decimating the Atlanta Braves vaunted bullpen (14-1). What's not to like?* * * * *Who would think it? My book about an unsolved murder has rekindled a long-ago romance. The book has a Facebook page, you see, and through it a guy and a gal who were in love 30 years ago have been reunited. Now if we can just solve the damned murder.* * * * *The Dear Friend & Conscience and I attended a Fourth of July cookout. There were 15 other people, 14 adults and a teenager in all.
The hostess is an old friend and meant no harm, but she pointed out that no fewer than seven of her guests, including the teenager, are taking seriously powerful medications for depression and anxiety.
Is this what our society has begotten?
Thursday, July 07, 2011
When I set out to write a book about a long unsolved murder in the Poconos region of Northeastern Pennsylvania, I knew it would be a hard slog. Years as an investigative reporter and editor had prepared me for the resistance I was likely to encounter since the resort area jealously guards its image as a four-season Eden and is controlled by politicians and a law enforcement establishment answerable to no one, least of all the citizens of a once special area that has been raped by developers and suffers a crime rate out of proportion to its population.
The Pennsylvania State Police refused to cooperate, and it is not hard to see why. They were responsible for the slipshod investigative work that allowed to go free the ax murderer who laid low the protagonist of my book, as well as the victims of other unsolved
murders discussed in it. But I eventually cultivated contacts with a variety of sources, some of them former law enforcement officials, who painted a picture far worse than I had imagined.
In their view, if you are a hippie who ran a bust-out joint in a one-stoplight town, which my protagonist was, or gay or a drug dealer or a gay drug dealer, which my other murder victims were, the state police and the political and law enforcement establishment didn't give a damn. In other words, if the victim was viewed as a nobody, the killer could literally get away with murder.
Published in May 2010, The Bottom of the Fox: A True Story of Love, Devotion & Cold-Blooded Murder, was greeted with deafening silence by this establishment.
Politicians, public and law enforcement officials from the governor on down were sent complimentary copies. No one commented publicly, although in the following months I repeatedly heard that the book was much fretted over behind closed doors, and when I happened to run into a state representative and he was asked if he had read it, he turned beet red and then turned heel, telling me over his shoulder as he walked away that "I'm not running for re-election."
Despite the book's bombshell allegations and my journalistic pedigree, the local newspaper and other news media also were silent. Only the owner of a single Poconos bookstore agreed to carry the book; the owners of other bookstores blanched and shook their heads when I explained what it was about.
The sole exception was Lisa Carroll at Carroll & Carroll on Main Street in Stroudsburg.
Carroll & Carroll exemplifies the best of a dying breed: A local bookstore not beholden to the whims of an Internet-driven publishing industry that has killed thousands of mom-and-pop bookstores across the country. It has survived by offering hands-on service and offering a mix of best sellers, classics, cut-rate used books, and in this case an extensive selection of books about the Poconos.
The Bottom of the Fox has sold steadily if not spectacularly at Amazon.com and other online booksellers. When a second edition was published in September 2010, Ms. Carroll was not only was eager to stock it, she displayed copies in her store window during the Christmas holiday season. The book sold out twice and Ms. Carroll twice asked for more copies.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the first anniversary of the book's publication. Despite the newspaper and magazine clippings on the walls of Carroll & Carroll extolling free speech, and despite the raves from reviewers and others who read The Bottom of the Fox, it suddenly disappeared from Ms. Carroll's inventory.
Ms. Carroll' explanation for why is unconvincing and the suspicion lingers that she has belatedly gotten the message that The Bottom of the Fox is a banned book in the eyes Poconos establishment and she knuckled under.
"I find that to be insulting," Ms. Carroll replied when I told her of my suspicion. Her explanation is that she had started getting used copies of the book and decided to no longer sell new copies.
But that is problematic because the three people I spoke to who tried to buy copies -- in the case of one woman some five copies -- said Ms. Carroll did not offer to sell them used copies.
Who in particular might have pressured Ms. Carroll to take the book off her shelves?
Perhaps they are associates of a woman who is running for a seat on the county Common Pleas Court bench who is married to a state policeman and is the daughter of a deceased district attorney and county president judge who is portrayed in an unflattering light in The Bottom of the Fox. This man wielded enormous power and had rejected petitions to convene an investigative grand jury and coroners inquest into my protagonist's death despite the fact that there was an ax murderer on the loose in the Poconos. Because, you know, the guy was a nobody.
Or it could be any number of other people who are afraid of the truth -- and one little book.
Tuesday, July 05, 2011
Dragonflies are among the world's most ancient creatures and have been performing the mid-summer mating dance that I have observed almost every year of my life for 300 million years. That’s more than 100 million years before dinosaurs appeared.
I can remember being fascinated by this dance as a youngster, although I didn't understand that it was all about making baby dragonflies.
My brother and I would trap lightning bugs in Mason jars to sell to the man at the agricultural research station. He paid us a dime a jar for his research into what made the bugs' tails glow, but I would never consider trapping dragonflies for any amount of money. Even then they occupied a special place in my world.
Perhaps it was because their dance reminded me of dog-fighting World War I flying machines, which captured my imagination at an early age, but I would like to think that the connection was more subtle.I lived in Japan for a few years. The dragonfly is revered there and depicted on everything from pottery to textiles. I recall one particularly glorious afternoon when I observed their mating dance in the backwater of a stream in the foothills below Mount Fuji.* * * * * *
After I returned to the States, I would take long walks up the dirt road next to a slow-flowing creek on hot mid-summer days, turn down a narrow footpath through high weeds and slip into the water. It was refreshingly cool four or five feet beneath the surface and I loved to feel the chill percolate up into my chest and then my head.
Dragonflies colonize around creeks and ponds, so it usually wasn't long before they were performing their dance around me. Sometimes they would alight on my forehead – even in mating tandems -- if I sat perfectly still and thought yoga thoughts and breathed yoga breathes.It was during this period that I first began reading about odonata, as this family of four winged, six legged insects is called.
I learned that the three species indigenous to my neck of the woods are members of the libellula genus. These include my companions over many a summer -- the bar-winged skimmer (Libellula axilena) like the mating pair in the photo, and the less common great blue skimmer (Libellula vibrans). There also is the apparently elusive Jane's meadowhawk (Sympetrum janeae), which is recognizable by its reddish body but has escaped my gaze.I also learned that these species of dragonflies are short lived (7 to 10 weeks, although some species can live up to four years). They also are territorial.
The mating dance is initiated by the male showing his genitals, of which he is endowed with two sets. This display allows male and female to make sure that they are of the same species and therefore suitable mates. The male then bends his abdomen so that one set of genitals touches the other, which is a sure-fire turn-on for the female, who curls her abdomen forward to make contact with the secondary genitalia and receives the sperm.
As I have often observed, the ritual can vary.
Sometimes the male grabs the female by the head or thorax for a "quickie" without going through the dance. Other times the dance is long and elaborate, involving much diving and spinning, including mad charges in reverse, but in either event copulation takes less than a second. Sometimes male and female remain in tandem for several minutes, as if to say, "Was it as good for you as it was for me?"
The females are acutely sensitive to pollution and will lay their eggs only if the water is clean. Other times they lay them on waterside plants. Sometimes the male acts as a lookout for the female as she lays the eggs he fertilized. In fact, scientists say that males are so committed to their mating partners that they can display signs of jealousy if other males try to nose in.
* * * * *A few years later, I lived in an old house a short walk from the creek and two particularly lovely spots -- Ring Rock and the Burned Out Bridge.
Ring Rock (also known as the Rock That David Sat On) is a massive limestone remnant of the furthest extent of the last Ice Age that protrudes from the water at a 25 degree angle. It is so named because an iron ring had been pounded into the rock perhaps 200 years ago so that the locals could tether their wagons to it and lower them into the creek to be cleaned -- an early version of the car wash. I never learned who David was, but I would slide into the creek below the rock -- six or seven feet deep even in the mid-summer heat -- and watch the dragonflies dance.Alas, the rock attracted hikers and the occasional swimmer, so I moved on to the Burned Out Bridge.
A pair of overgrown fieldstone foundations on either side of the creek are all that remain of this 19th century covered bridge, which is said to have been torched by a man in the early 1950s so that he and his son could fish undisturbed. This is at a point just below where the west and middle branches of the creek converge, an area that is heavily silted and quite shallow. It took all of one summer and part of the next, but I methodically moved sand and piled rocks until I had fashioned a pool about four feet deep where I could resume my dragonfly encounters. My kids were too young to be of much help, but our big goofus of a black labrador retriever became pretty good at picking up rocks and dropping them onto the sides of our pool.
It was here that I began seriously expanding my horizons to other fauna as I would sit quietly at periscope depth.
There were rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus kykiss), restocked each spring for sport fishermen by the state fish and wildlife agency, and the occasional sunnie (Lepomis machrochirus), as well as some wee fishies that I was never able to identify. There were water-walking spiders (Dolomedes triton), black snakes (Elaphe obsoleta), a water moccasin (Ancistrodon piscivorus), which was a very rare sighting that far north of its southern habitat, and all sorts of toads and frogs, including little frogs called spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer crucifer), so named because of the time of their arrival each year and their high-pitched trill. The black lab would slog into the marshy areas between the creek and woods and ingest mouthsful of them.
* * * * *It is summer again. It's been too hot to trek up to the creek, but I was sitting near a fountain in the quiet university town where I live.
I put down the book I was reading, took off my sunglasses and let the sun beat on my face. My mind drifted back to my childhood and the illustrations in a favorite picture book. The young hero is sick and has been put to bed by his mother where he imagines that the quilt spread out below him is a make-believe world with villages, roads and farm fields. Armies clash across this terrain and dog fighting aeroplanes bob, weave and loop overhead.
I grew drowsy and my mind drifted further when something drew me from my reverie and I opened my eyes.
It was dragonflies doing their dance over the fountain.