Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Flight


I was outside the other evening watching dragonflies in the back yard. There seemed to be about a half a dozen of them, though it was hard to tell since they all looked pretty much alike at the speed they were moving. They were big ones, real bruisers; they hung around for fifteen minutes or so until it got dark, darting around the yard in roughly circular patterns, stopping on a dime and starting again, rising and falling. All to no purpose I could detect, though since they didn't seem to be mating I suppose they were hunting gnats, of which there were a few in the air — their vision must be pretty sharp. There's no water nearby, which means they must have flown at least a couple of hundred yards to get here, and they almost appeared to be making a point of keeping close and not straying into the neighbors' yards. They seemed to have arrived together and when they disappeared they did so at the same time, though as far as I could tell they ignored each other while they were here. They paid me no attention at all. I kept expecting one to land and rest so I could get a better look, but none ever did.

A few nights after, at a later hour, I was walking home and saw a couple of bats hunting insects. They flew low enough, as they flitted across the sidewalk, that they could have collided with me or another pedestrian, but of course they didn't. Our paths and intentions never intersected; we crossed through the same coordinates in space, separated by a few seconds time and millions of years of divergent evolution, our senses sharpened in different ways, mutually indifferent and unreachable. We are a nuisance to them, sometimes, but also a benefit: these spend their daylight hours in the hidden spaces beneath the eaves of a church across the street. Likewise, they pose problems for us — they can carry disease — but cut down on the bugs as well.

It took our own species a couple of million years to master flight, and even then it was not with our bodies, but with our tools. We look on that as one of our greatest achievements, which from an engineering standpoint it certainly was. But considering what came next — the ability to destroy each other long-distance, en masse, the fact that now nobody, really, has anyplace to hide — it's hard to avoid the suspicion that there are some responsibilities we're just too young to understand.

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