illustration by Ping Zhu

Ode to Dragonflies

Hal White’s book sounds a persuasive alarm about our vanishing connections with the natural world.

In his small, quiet book about large, charismatic insects, Hal White sounds a persuasive alarm about our vanishing connections with the natural world.

“As people forget their sense of the outdoors, it’s being destroyed,” he says. “And nobody will even see it go.” His book is Natural History of Delmarva Dragonflies and Damselflies: Essays of a Lifelong Observer, published this spring by the University of Delaware Press with the Delaware Nature Society.

It’s a leisurely ramble through a rich patch of natural history, featuring almost 200 razor-sharp portraits of the spiketails, emeralds, darners, and other aquatic insects that have fascinated him since he was a teenager in the 1950s. He rounds out his reminiscences, field notes, and observations with sketches of dragonfly hunters he has known—and the occasional haiku.

White is a University of Delaware biochemist who spends weekends and holidays with net and camera prowling the wet places of the Delmarva Peninsula between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. “I’d rather be up to my knees in a swamp than cooped up in an office,” he says.

WEB EXTRA:
Dragonfly Snapshots

Peruse a stunning variety of dragonflies from White’s book.
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A self-described “enthusiastic amateur,” he’s published a swarm of articles on dragonflies and damselflies and was proud to coauthor descriptions of the rare ringed boghaunter and pygmy snaketail larvae, which he tracked down (and dredged up) in Massachusetts and Virginia.

White’s university duties include directing an HHMI-supported program that makes calculus more accessible to biology students by substituting biological examples for physics and engineering problems. “It’s surprising how often kids who love biology are taken aback by math requirements. If they can understand how math relates to their field—if math anxiety doesn’t stifle their attitude of inquiry—I call it a great success,” he says.

I’d rather be up to my knees in a swamp than cooped up in an office.

Hal White

He traces his own attitude of inquiry to a childhood lived with educators as parents and the Pennsylvania woods for a playground. “I got to roam unsupervised, catching animals, damming streams, harvesting berries, climbing mountains.” Later, in his formal education, “those experiences were real to me, not abstractions.”

“But today, students are no longer interested in a walk in the woods,” he says. “They’ve been conditioned to be afraid of poison ivy, mosquitoes, those sorts of things.”

White’s office is decked with dragonfly-themed artifacts, among them a door knocker, an oversize kite, and a Tiffany-style lamp. Here he opens up about the concerns that sparked his book: “Science comes from field observation; field biologists like Darwin make observations that lead to experiments that otherwise would never happen.”

Everyday people lack boots-in-the mud experience, too, he says, and the consequences are dire: The jewel-like creatures lyrically depicted in his book stand for all of “our fellow earthlings whose survival we threaten—not through deliberate actions . . . but through our relentless destruction and disruption of fragile and unique habitats.”

He writes, “Our seemingly innocent routine activities of building houses, fertilizing lawns and crops, salting roads in the winter, cutting down stream-side vegetation, tapping ground water...contribute far more to the demise of certain species than most people realize.”

“This book is a plea to humankind,” White says, to return to the wonder of the woods, the mountains, and the marshes—to experience biodiversity directly, and to appreciate just how vulnerable and precious it is.