When summer drifts towards autumn the swifts leave, the young birds fledge and the grown birds mostly stop singing, only appearing now and then at the side of the path, glancing up with bright eyes. Their place is taken by insects. Butterflies provide the colour and the beauty, while bees sing in their low tones, a fuzzy affectionate feel to their brushes with the flowers.
But dragonflies provide both beauty and sound. In August, even suburban streets and gardens are visited by these glittering creatures. It’s easy to forget that they’re predators as I watch them catching the light on their wings and swooping around my head. As the change of seasons transforms everything in the natural world, so dragonflies transform from underwater nymphs into astonishing fliers, able to go anywhere of their choosing.
A walk north along the Oxford Canal was filled with the hum and flash of their wings. It was a hot day, and the towpath beside the narrowboats was busy with insects – bright beetles, heavy flies, ants and more. Suddenly beside me appeared the strong frame of a migrant hawker. It went parallel to me above the water, at about my eye level. The light showered from its wings as I might imagine someone pouring doubloons into a treasure chest. The curve of its long abdomen gleamed an intense green-blue – the colour seeming as unfixed as my companion’s position in the air. As I walked, it kept parallel to me, as though we were falling into step.
After a little while I stopped to try to see it better. Immediately it began a breathtaking aerobatic display, zipping above my head, hovering, darting back, looping, diving, scorching up into the blue sky and escaping my gaze, before reappearing right in front of me as if asking me to follow.
I followed as best I could with heavy human feet, with my mind taken up with the dazzle and the draw of the dragonfly. It felt like a dance.
Later, at Wolvercote Lakes another hawker dragonfly held me captivated while other swirled and fizzed around it. These others were shorter bodied and vivid red, with the unglamorous name of ruddy darter. Unlike the hawker, the darters sometimes landed, settling on the water mint that grew in fragrant stands around me, or on the brambles that had caught at my clothes as I pushed though to reach the edge of the water. These I could photograph, capturing their colour, the dappling effect of their enormous eyes, the way their wings, at rest, were formed of intricacies of veins. After a moment or two they would return to the wider dance.
The lakes are wedged between the road, the railway and houses, and at the further end are tangled and shadowy. But on the southern side, which faces the wide skies of Wolvercote Common and Port Meadow, the water is open, dabbled by ducks and handsome geese. Here the hawker was engaged in its performance, into which I was drawn again, enchanted by its skill and grace.
Many times I tried to photograph it as it skimmed before me, but I never succeeded. In the end, it seemed right that I couldn’t impose stillness on it – everything was in the flight, in the fulfilment of every turn and swoop, every instant it hung, full of strength and brilliance, in front of me. I was completely absorbed in the dance. My memory is still full of that enchantment, even though the walk and the summer have ended