April 3, 2013. Windy, temperature in the mid to lower 40s, increasing cloud cover throughout the afternoon. When the forecast predicted a high of 50, I had hoped for the kind of spring day that might call forth the first butterflies, but it didn’t happen—too windy, too much snow on the ground, not enough sun to tip the scales from winter to spring. I went for a short walk anyway, almost out of spite.
I chose to look around the trails and woods on the south-facing slopes below St Olaf. The prairie planting outside the parking lot, beaten flat by winter snow and ice, made for easy walking. Instinctively, I rounded the margins of several small catchment ponds, drawn to the open water. From the ponds I climbed across a few expanses of snow to reach the woods. There was no hope of finding anything flying—too cold, too cloudy—so I made for a tree, upright but dead, to look for beetles, its disassembling branches scattered on the ground like so much wreckage.
Examining a fallen branch, prying off a loose layer of bark, I found a dragonfly wing tucked into a narrow cavity, then, a few inches away, a second wing, in a separate chamber. I face this discovery in silence. The sun mumbled in my face. The wind jabbed its fingers into my ears. How did these get here? I wondered. Images, the mysterious museum pieces of memory and imagination, flashed into existence, sequentially. A suitcase. A room full of books. An empty rocking-chair. A broken porch swing. Forgotten storm windows. Glass containers on display in an out-of-business antique store. A still life of dusty objects in the attic of an abandoned house. Then words, the worker ants of the mind, began to arrive; as if from habit, they rose from the deep recesses and unknown tunnels of language. Sawdust. Though there was no saw, only the rasping jaws of beetle larvae, horntail grubs, and carpenter ants. The soft rot following fungal expeditions through the solid wood. Dizziness. Disorientation. Not sadness.
The first wing, more exposed to the elements, was tattered, the transparent cells clouded and opaque, and beginning to crumble like an ancient codex into the wood chips. The second wing, better protected beneath the bark, sparkled in a sheath of dew. I’ve seen a derelict factory that looked like this, dull sheet-metal siding, long tiers of multi-paned windows with much of the glass broken out, providing passage for pigeons. “Factory windows are alway broken,” wrote Vachel Lindsay. The cells of the wings—the rows, the columns, the groupings—have become a periodic chart of the elements of oblivion.
Most likely ants had carried and pulled the wings in as far as they could. Their tunnels became too narrow to admit them further, so the wings became decorations, septums dividing the antechambers at the entrances to their nests. The veins of the wings became ladders and bridges that allowed passage into previously unreachable rooms of reality, a cubist artwork on the order of Robert Delaunay’s painting ‘Simultaneous Windows on the City.” Here was the insect equivalent of Marcel Duchamp, artfully presenting the detris of the world. Here was a scavenging Joseph Cornell placing the found objects of the world into a box. Each wing became a relic, of blue skies, of fleeting life. And surely both wings qualify as one of Francis Ponge’s Mute Objects of Expression.
Then, from the parking lot above me, out of my line of sight, voices of students or professors skittered over the snow drifts and into consciousness, sounding almost like bird song, before the slam of car doors, before the spark of engines, started me toward home.