The Red Dragonfly Chinese Candy Dish Caper

by Ted Denmark


I had been having a number of interesting and somewhat unusual encounters with animals, I’m tempted to say, “as usual” lately because living fulltime next to the Stanislaus National forest in the Central Sierra affords many opportunities to see the lifestyles of various critters and an occasional creepy-crawler, some often enough and others only more rarely. But these creature stories do seem to line up around what we often call synchronicities such as my recent sighting of a wild turkey at the foot of my driveway—where I had never seen one before—that had coincided with my interest in a story that involved antiquities being discovered in the country of Turkey (in addition to a second story I had just read in the news that the country Turkey had just begun a process to rename itself so as not to always be confused “with the bird,” but that is a whole ’nuther story …).

In addition to that I had just noticed a baby diamondback rattler curled up in a tight ball on the path next to my house, something I had never seen before and had narrowly missed stepping on, with its tiny rattles shaking as I bent down to see what it was … and then pulled back instinctively when it suddenly came into focus. I should have gotten my cell phone and taken a picture but was a little spooked because I had seen the momma snake only a few days before coming down this same path and wondered how many more of them there might now be, going forward … The synchronicity part was that I had been trying to decide what manner of ‘typography art” to use (such as the three corner-bracket “diamonds” following my byline in this story article) for a particular part of a book I was working on that day. But I digress …

The particular situation that happened on this day (August 7, 2022) began several days ago when I first noticed a certain dragonfly that had come to rest only a few feet away from where I was sitting submerged during my late afternoon dip in the new Jacuzzi spa that I was using as a cool tub now in early August after having gone to a huge amount of trouble to set it up on a platform and make it usable (and which would soon be a solar-heated hot tub when I repaired the solar water panels that will be used to heat it). This dragonfly was a somewhat ordinary-looking specimen of a faded grey-brown strain, likely thus camouflaged to better hide from birds combing the thickets in the area, looking much like a narrow stick on a branch. It came and just sat motionless for some time there next to me. I noticed that it was there and had seen this kind of behavior in dragonflies before: they seem fearless and even quite curious and don’t offer any threat or cause any kind of commotion like, say wasps or mosquitos. So, I just watched and noted exactly how it looked with its curious big bug eyes as I relaxed in the tub in the corner watching for the last mosquitos of the season out of the corner of my eye.

After a while I probably began to get a little chilly and got up to get out of the tub after the dragonfly had suddenly flown off into the now rapidly-cooling early evening. I did pretty much the same thing at the same time towards the end of the next day after getting my carpentry chores of building walls for the new kitchenette done and could once again cool down at a leisurely pace … but once again what looked like the same drab-colored dragonfly landed in almost exactly the same spot, facing in the same direction and just stared … as I sat in the same spot and watched back. I was a little more upbeat now with this new visitor who had returned: of course I wondered why and what it must be “thinking” in so bold an approach to a large human only a couple of feet away. It just sat motionless again and made me think of the time more than fifty years ago when I lived in Copenhagen (my name being Denmark, “like the country” as I say) and had a very large red dragonfly come and sit at the other end of a picnic table for a very long time one afternoon during which time it felt like we had a kind of mind-meld before it finally flew off.

One of the things I had been experimenting with, for some time really, was trying to appear less threatening to my local animal neighbors who showed up in one way or another, particularly some of the very cute birds that come to sit in the cherry tree next to my spa … by talking baby talk to them to see what effect it might have. I had begun doing this with the family of quail that often hide in the bushes near the house, but who often get spooked and run or fly away before I can notice them and try to walk more slowly or cautiously so as not to alarm them. I’m really quite fond of them, particularly with their baby chicks who walk up and down the hill most days this time of year with the bobwhite daddy in the lead and the momma hen bringing up the rear to be sure no one gets lost along the way, particularly before they’re old enough to fly away from the many dangers on the ground (like foxes and bobcats patrolling the area). So I tried talking baby talk to them to see if they might get more used to seeing me in a less threatening way, thinking maybe they would get a little tamer and come to sit together under the cherry tree more often, which is so charming to see from inside the nearby solarium.

So I decided to start up a baby-talk conversation with the dragonfly for a slightly more ironic kind of amusement since I thought it would be very unlikely that a generic stick-bug like this would register any kind of reaction at all that I could detect since it was so seemingly unreactive anyway. I humorously asked it if it liked my new spa (?) and waited a polite moment before continuing on in a similar vein to ask if it lived nearby—I hadn’t seen a dragonfly for several years; actually the last time I could remember seeing one was when a somewhat larger red dragonfly had appeared flying overhead as I was walking across my driveway—a really lovely specimen—but this had been quite rare in all the more than thirty years I had lived at my country house location. I then asked this dragonfly where his red-tinted cousins were and why it had missed out on all the excitement in the colorful world of the others like the bigger red ones. It remained motionless on its spot.

Then, I did what always feels like the most amusing part of these baby talk conversations with cute animals and birds: I asked if it would like to come back again and be my pet (?). I had the impression that this bug was somewhat intrigued with me, although it stayed stock still. And then the same thing happened: it finally flew away, and I got up out of the tub and dried off to get ready for dinner. I don’t think I noticed the exact moment when it flew away but suddenly it was not there.

The next day virtually the same thing happened in the tub with the dragonfly: suddenly there it was sitting in the exact same spot, waiting, I surmised, for me to pick up where we left off last time. I mentioned that I was really flattered that it found our little time together so engaging that it now had come back again, and so maybe it had accepted the offer to become my pet after all (?) and did it have any friends (?), like the cute little finch birds with their chartreuse breasts who had come back several days running when I talked baby talk to them … and then brought all their flock mates back to sit on the fence together to hear me talk to them the day before they all disappeared.

Actually, this baby talking to birds had been encouraged some time earlier, in addition to the quail babies, by a pair of birds that I called my “talking birds” that came and sat hidden in the bushes in the afternoon near where I had been working on a new temporary road for some time … and talked to each other back and forth in a most charming way. I was sure they were talking about me and how hard I had to work … for no reason they could see or make out. So, I finally began talking to them, and though at first they were quiet for extended periods of time, evidently listening to try to know what to make of it, but after a while they began talking back after I stopped talking baby talk to them, and if I’m not mistaken, they had probably never had anything like this happen to them before in all the time they had been watching people around these parts and tweeting about it to each other. This seemed quite amusing to me, of course, and so I kept it up as I was getting tired and ready to quit work for the day. Finally I asked them to come out and show themselves because I had no idea what kind of birds they were … and they did, just about two seconds later … they were a pair of fairly ordinary-looking brown birds, but they were so excited they came out and did all their bird acrobatics while still tweeting back to me. I was amazed, but it happened exactly this way (!).

They showed up to talk for many more days in a row, even appearing outside my windows in various rooms when I was back inside the house (!), and then they also disappeared after a while, as birds usually do, who can choose the kind of weather they want by just flying up or down the hill to get warmer or cooler or find choice bugs coming into season. I had begun to miss them and listened carefully several afternoons but all I could hear was the large California Acorn woodpeckers fussing at each other in the distance. But again, I digress …

So, on this particular day, the big weekend of the Independence Hall blockbuster fundraising sale in town, I had gone and found several quite nice and useful items too numerous to mention here, but the last one was an antique French bone-china sandwich plate decorated with roses that cost me my last fifty cents, literally down to my last nickel. It had been marked for a dollar but now at the last minute was reduced to half-price, so I bought it. It so happened that right next to it on the sale table was a bright red antique Chinese candy dish that I also noticed and wondered if I should get it, but finally thought I didn’t really need it and besides I couldn’t make out what the image on it was supposed to be—it was such a bright red and densely chromatic design. But then, on my way driving home I realized my regret and that I really did want it but had suppressed the impulse because I was slightly humiliated to have only a small cache of pennies remaining in my leather fanny-pack. The associations in situations like this are often dream-like in abstract intensity, but I coached myself to feel satisfied that I had gotten so many nice things at such good prices, even if I had spent all the money I had somewhat absent-mindedly brought along.

When I got back home and talked with my dear lady Julie by phone and told her about a couple of the little treasures I had been lucky enough to find, we had a nice time going back and forth on this and various other subjects of the day as we often do. And just afterwards, as I was walking into the bathroom, I happened to look out the window, and as I did so, my attention was immediately drawn to a …large red dragonfly … that had just perched on a branch of the cherry tree that was at about the same height as my second-story window (!). I did a double-take and felt a surge of amazement as I stared at its bright red four-winged, almost metallic or drone-like appearance, looking so much larger than it could possibly be, sitting there motionless at the end of the dead branch it had taken to perch on. My next thought was whether I should go downstairs to get my high-resolution camera and get a shot that could be zoomed-in and blown-up for a better inspection of this creature later in finer detail. I hesitated but gave in to do so and quickly came back to get one shot through the window and at a little closer range, three more from just outside the solarium. I haven’t downloaded them yet on a late evening, but will probably do so around tea time tomorrow … which I did and here they are:

They aren’t very good pictures since the camera’s usually amazing lens and auto-focus was unable to resolve the small subject so far away in a bit of wind, but it had been too long in battery time since I had last used my other camera with its telephoto lens already in place, so I had to be satisfied with having some evidence at all of this very unlikely encounter, given the circumstances with my first dragonfly guest that happened on the days before in the area just below.

And I hadn’t even thought of the analogy between the red dragonfly and the red Chinese candy dish until Julie asked me if the polar-fleece pullover sweater I had also gotten at the big sale was red (I had previously said it was a “buff color”). What was red was indeed the candy dish, which I then realized in full measure … so I told her the whole story of how I had wanted to get it but was ambivalent and also didn’t have any more money with me to buy it. I could tell she wanted to see it almost as badly as I regretted not having bought it, but we both soon became effusive over the synchronicity of my conversation with the dragonfly, asking if it had any red cousins and then having the red dragonfly actually show up just after our first conversation about what I had gotten at the big sale—and not gotten as the reveal progressed. But I realized that the appearance of the red dragonfly was adequate consolation for the lost red candy dish, and we both thought the story was good enough for recalling to mind O. Henry stories we had remembered reading in school …

* * *

Addendum: When Julie called a couple of days later, having read my story up to this point, which I sent the day before, she was very enthusiastic and appreciative about what had been captured in this curious set of circumstances, and we talked about it for a short time. Then she asked me if anything more had happened since. I found myself immediately responding that not much, except two baby dragonflies had appeared next to where I was working in the afternoon—as if it wasn’t particularly important or even related (!). I had almost forgotten and would probably not have mentioned it if she hadn’t made the inquiry. The odd thing was that I had even been in denial that this new little twist had happened at all—it was so odd and these little creatures were so small and fragile-looking, I could barely tell what they were at first glance—or that it was related to the now still ongoing dragonfly saga (!). She asked me if I was going to add this to the story, and I immediately said no, thinking the story was finished, and I had already gotten it written out. But afterwards it occurred to me that, no, this was also a rather amazing little development, and duh, the baby talk to the original dragonfly had now eventuated into another little vignette: had it (and maybe it was a girl after all) sent its (or a relative’s) babies to hear the baby talk?! Oh goodness, I thought, I should have spent a little time talking to those cute dragonfly babies … and not have tried to be so busy getting my work done before the Sun went behind the ridge. I would have to be on the lookout for them if they didn’t already give up on me in spite of what the dragonfly must have told them about my eccentric behavior and unusual hospitality.

Addendum 2: The amazing thing that happened today (8-12-22) was almost an exact repeat of what happened with the red dragonfly the first time: as I was walking into the bathroom to brush my teeth, I looked the other way out the window—for some unknown reason to begin with—and saw the red dragonfly, likely the same one as the first time but I don’t know yet for sure, landing on the tip end of the long-dead extended cherry tree branch about twenty feet away, just as I was moving into the bathroom, and I had a curious feeling of parallel symmetry between us in the motion. I was shocked to see the red dragonfly again in exactly the same way as far as I could recall, but I had wished for its return—if only to see if I could get some better pictures … and I did (!). I went and got my camera and went out on the deck to get a few snaps of this four-winged charmer who shows to be a brilliant poseur … and who now has the pictures to prove it, which I promised it (could still be a girl) in baby talk as I was waiting for it to come closer, which I was also asking it to do. Here are the much better pictures when I got a little closer and the autofocus solved the figure-ground take right this time:

I had put a cherry tree twig out on my deck rail, attached loosely to the steel strut holding up the outside porch roof, so that the red dragonfly could more naturally be coaxed to land and feel comfortable coming closer. He tried quite a few times and got about halfway but turned back to the same place on the cherry-tree twig shown in the pix—it must have overloaded his circuits. The funny thing that happened later is that I saw that a damselfly had landed on the cherry tree twig I had put out on the handrail for the dragonfly … so, I naturally went out and told it everything would be fine; it could feel safe and come back to the twig it had been sitting on when I walked up. It tried to come back, but it, too, was unable to execute the motion and flew back to the spot on the handrail twenty feet away … It was more of a shy creature, especially compared to the red dragonfly which is an extraordinary work of nature’s aerodynamics lab and paint shop and is ready to go out for the prime-time part …


February 1, 2023

Dowd’s Hill at Avery, CA