Our world is built on a shared trust in strangers who we hope are competent. From the earliest prehistoric trade routes to this very day, trust is implicit in the transport and exchange of goods and services. Without trust our anthropocentric world would unravel.
These days many politicians, media, social media, extremists, and angry individuals try to undermine our trust in each other. But universal trust prevails – in some measure for selfish or self-preservation reasons. We need and want stuff – SARS2 vaccines, Gucci bags, in my case, Cheetos. We trust strangers of all cultures, religions, races without thinking how important that trust is. We take it for granted. We benefit from it constantly. Recently, however, I abruptly put my trust in strangers to a test.
We are going on a birding trip to Ghana, West Africa, flying there from our home in Mexico. Ghana is one of many countries, mostly in Africa and Asia, that require tourists to apply for a visa in advance of their travel. Ghana’s application process is detailed, tedious, and expensive, but more vexing, it requires mailing one’s passport with the application.
You have to relinquish your passport to strangers.
In Mexico, my passport is the single most important proof I have of my existence and the only document that permits me to reenter the United States – without enormous hassle and expense. I do not have a U.S. passport card. David, my spouse, does. He will vouch that I was not happy about parting with my passport.
On February 1, after submitting our visa applications online, we shipped printed copies of the applications along with our passports via DHL in Navojoa, Sonora, Mexico to the Ghana Embassy in Washington, DC.
I stood in the DHL office on the main street of Navojoa having a thrum of apprehension about this process. It is a friendly and dingy place. These two factors go hand-in-hand where we live. Mexicans, as a general rule, are habitually friendly, and dust, especially during the dry season, is ever-present. An insidious, translucent film seems to coat all surfaces and windows. Why dust when it will be back tomorrow?
We turned over our documents to a young woman who was, yes, friendly, as well as calm and competent, able to accomplish the task at hand and engage in small talk at the same time. I watched her eyes and hands as she double-checked details she had entered into the computer.
She knew we were turning over valuable documents. I think she saw me twitching. But, really, that’s her job, day in and day out, to take charge of items that other people prize, or, at a minimum, want to be handled competently. What is routine for her was consequential to me. We had pre-paid the Ghana Embassy $100 each so they would expedite issuance of the visas. The expedited DHL cost (3-business-day delivery) to ship each application was $40US.
The young woman in the DHL office was the first in a line of innumerable strangers on whose competency we now relied. My trust was wavering. David’s was not. I also started to dwell on the whole stochastic process of two packages containing our passports, each weighing about 6 ounces, making a round trip of approximately 5,000 miles across an international border, moving by truck, aircraft, and conveyor belt. Random variability – what might go awry – over that space-time continuum rattled me. Not David.
At some point I reminded myself of the recent successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana, South America, now orbiting almost a million miles beyond the Earth’s orbit of the Sun. That made my concerns seem trivial.
I tracked the packages on the DHL app, rather obsessively. You may wish to skip the following information, even though I find it fascinating, even momentous. Each leg of the journey and each sorting facility involved how many strangers entrusted with my passport? Several? Dozens? Do they love or hate their jobs? Are they male, female, other, married, single, divorced, widowed? Do they have children? Grandchildren? Do they have a dog? A cat? What music do they listen to? What did they eat for breakfast? Did they eat breakfast?
Here is the path of our packages.
February 1-2: Ground transport from Navojoa to Ciudad Obregón to Hermosillo, all cities in Sonora, then by air from Mexico to DHL’s global hub in Cincinnati, during which time our packages had to clear U.S. Customs. At this point, there was a choke – caused perhaps by the weekend of reduced staffing?
Monday, February 6: our packages left Cincinnati at 2:48 am – my sympathy to the people who work the night shift. Things sped up.
5:58 am: packages arrived at Ronald Reagan National – a wince remembering him, the earlier kid-gloved version of Trump.
9:42 am: packages “out with courier for delivery” – please, driver, no T-bone at an intersection.
2:22 pm: packages delivered to the Ghana Embassy on Embassy Row – which is between the Israeli Embassy and the Embassy of Bangladesh and across the street from the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China. Do employees from these embassies meet each other for lunch?
The Ghana Embassy personnel now had 7 business days to process and return our visas. The intervening weekend added two days to the process.
Wednesday, February 15: I received an email that our packages had arrived at our UPS Store post office box in Tucson, Arizona.
Another wait. I felt like I was swimming in a vat of molasses. The young woman who has a courier business taking mail and running errands in Tucson for people living in Alamos was going to Tucson on February 20, returning February 24. No hang-ups, please, at U.S. and Mexico ports of entry, no T-bones at intersections.
Friday, February 24, 9:16 am: after walking our dog at a ranch on the edge of Alamos, we picked up the packets from the courier. She was sitting on a high curb under a cottonwood tree across the street from her apartment. Of all the competent people across Mexico and the United States who had handled our passports in the last 24 days, she was the only one we know. Her name is Ashley.
We arrived in Tucson just as the sun was setting and checked into the Best Western on the southwest corner of Stone and Speedway. We know the intersection well. When passing through Tucson or coming up from Mexico to run errands, we have stayed at hotels in the area. Over the years we’ve watched the intersection fall into despair.
Anza Park on the southeast corner of the intersection has served as an encampment for the unhoused or a place for them to hang out. It is a forlorn, edgy, trash-strewn, some would advise dangerous area. We’re not so convinced of the danger designation – that’s just how lucky people tend to think about the places inhabited by people down on their luck.
The motel is caddy-corner from the liquor store – we wanted beer – and Popeyes –connoisseur David wanted to try their new blackened chicken sandwich. We set out on foot. Why would we drive across the street? There was an assortment of people walking on the streets or across vacant lots or sitting at bus stops. A couple of them were tattered and babbling.
I am disillusioned by America. Disillusionment spawns an all-encompassing negativity that is hyper-judgmental and biased. It suffocates the least little breath of joy. It pulls the shades on the least glimmer of optimism. Objectively, I know this. I admit I have cultivated my disillusionment to a point that is almost detrimental to me and certainly unnuanced and unforgiving about the country of my birth. I know countless acts of kindness, beauty, genius, and goodwill occur every second of every day across the U.S. Yet here I am at the intersection of Stone and Speedway wanting to scream out to passersby, “Can’t you see? This place is heartbreaking. This is America unraveling before your eyes.”
Of course, people in their cars wouldn’t have heard me, and therein lies a big American problem. The automobile. Sixty years ago, a car to a white middle-class teenage girl – me – was the embodiment of freedom and adventure. But, really, even then and certainly now, the car has always been a cage of isolation. Cars, in every way, shut us off from others. They have prompted the design of impossibly wide streets that accommodate drivers but ruin the lives of pedestrians. People who never stand on a street corner in a big American city have no idea how loud the sound of traffic is. It is deafening. It is enough to drive you crazy. It is the hideous Muzak for people who chose to be pedestrians or have no other choice.
Much later, I realized that David and I were like players on a stage where an American tragedy was being performed – except the audience wasn’t paying attention.
Coming and going on our errands, we had to cross two wide streets. We waited for the WALK signs at each crossover, then I speed-walked across the street to get to the other side, moving faster than David. It was starting to get dark, which made everything sadder and slightly creepy for me. I am more easily weirded out than David.
We are white people. I have shockingly white hair, ergo I am an old lady. I was wearing a dress. Who wears a dress anymore? We had no prominent signs of disability, poverty, or mental illness. Neither of us was pushing a grocery shopping cart or carrying a black garbage bag. We were pedestrians. We did not fit the perception of this intersection.
We knew where we were going. We had been in the neighborhood frequently.
The liquor store has a drive-up window and a regular entrance. When we bought beer here during COVID all purchases were via the drive-up window. Tonight – it was dark now – we walked up to the front door where a sign on the plate glass said “After 5:30 pm use the drive-up window.” We started to head to the window but heard a man inside saying it’s OK to come in as he unlocked the dead bolts. He was profiling us – not as a potential threat or a menace (i.e., a black male, a schizophrenic of any race) but because we looked harmless (i.e., old, white). What were we doing here, at this intersection at this time of day, on foot?
He was a big white bearded swaggering guy. I can’t remember all his banter, but I recall insinuating remarks – did we know where we were, didn’t we know better than to be walking around this neighborhood? He was making it clear that he thought we were stupid. I do remember his telling us with great bluster that he keeps a gun under the counter, his father was a Marine, and that he’d have no problem blowing someone’s head off. Well, OK, then. Welcome to America. We bought our beer and headed to Popeyes.
Telling us his daddy was a Marine seemed a little weak-kneed to me.
At Popeyes, we fell into Alice’s surreal, slow-motion twenty-first-century rabbit hole. The absurdity of the place – the catatonic wait staff, the zombie manager, the paltry number of customers milling about evermore impatient – was amusing at first and then it wasn’t. I wondered if we would ever get out of there. The young woman who took our order, which I specified to go, could not get the order straight. She kept asking me to repeat, as her eyes darted back to the kitchen where her colleagues seemed to be in gloomy chaos. I came to think she was furious with her circumstance. After ten, fifteen, twenty minutes of watching her, asking her a couple times about the status of our order, saying could we just cancel our order, while other customers fumed, she threw back her shoulders and said to me, “Your order will be up soon” and walked out the door. She was still wearing her work headphones. Perhaps she was taking a break. I like to think she quit.
At one point I noticed that a large piece of plywood was covering a panel of the plate glass entrance door. An enraged customer? An after-hours break-in?
The other few customers were resigned, semi-cordial. They wanted their orders. They knew the drive-up window customers outside were getting priority as was a wiry woman inside with us, also wearing headphones, who was picking up multiple orders to deliver to other customers. I certainly did not begrudge her. She was working hard to make some sort of money.
I became less sympathetic towards a tall, skinny pale white fellow who walked in to place an order. He reminded me of the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. He wore big black boots and had various chains hanging from pockets to which a wallet and other items were attached. He had a crooked, unfriendly smile and was missing several front teeth. None of these descriptors in of themselves is negative, and I have friends and acquaintances who fit them, and I believe he was compromised in terms of one or several pathologies. He challenged my tolerance, which tells me a lot about myself. He was known by the wait staff, who dealt with him with extraordinary patience. He immediately began to complain because some item he wanted on the menu was not available. He sat in the plastic booth behind us. He chattered about rightwing political stuff, hoping I think to bait us.
Then he learned they had run out of hot sauce. You don’t have any HOT SAUCE?” For him at that moment it seemed to represent the collapse of civilization. I wondered if in his mind-world he had been warped by Trump or decades of the whiners who preceded Trump.
Somehow, against all odds, our bag of Popeyes chicken sandwiches arrived. Now we had to cross the same big intersections to get back to our motel.
As we were crossing, a white woman driving a car paused and rolled down her window. She said, “Are you OK, do you need a ride?” We said no but thank you so much. It was a kind gesture and telling. We had been profiled a second time. She perceived we did not belong there. Welcome to America.
Leonora Katherine Doll Gloyd August 29, 1902 – June 2, 1993
“When someone asks me to criticize a manuscript – especially if it deals with the Odonata – I should warn him beforehand that I usually do so to the best of my ability, and not to be offended because of suggested changes; neither should he feel obligated to accept them. After all, it is his baby and he is responsible for it. Also, I have no position of wealth, no magic power of Ph.D., and no prestige of a major professor or of the proverbial wearer of long pants.”
This is from a reply entomologist Leonora Katherine Doll Gloyd made to entomologist Rosser W. Garrison, responding to a letter he wrote to her in 1969 requesting she review his first scientific paper. It dealt with the female of Libellula gaigei, a rare and poorly known dragonfly from Mexico that is occasionally reported just across the US-Mexico border in Texas. Gloyd described the species in 1938 from two specimens collected in Yucatán prior to 1932. She was apt to have some opinions on the subject.
“Thus,” wrote Garrison, “my very first manuscript was severely marked up in the small elite typewriter script I was to become so familiar with.” He was not offended. It was the beginning of a two-decades-long professional correspondence around a deeply shared interest in Odonata. Like many of her friends, he called her Dolly. This account is one of several in Garrison’s wonderful and fact-filled tribute to her after she died in 1993, published in Argia (volume 5, number 4, 15 March 1994), a journal of the Dragonfly Society of the Americas.
When Garrison, in his early 20s, reached out to her for criticism, Gloyd was in her late 60s, a widely respected odonatologist, gifted taxonomist, museum curator, and a rare female in a world of long pants. She is perhaps most famous and best remembered as the leading expert of her era on Argia, a genus of New World damselflies called dancers for their agile, balletic flight habits.
Argia is the most speciose (rich in species) genus of Odonata in the Americas, and numerous odonatologists believe it to be the most speciose genus in the world. This will be borne out as more genomic studies are done to sort out the molecular relationships of Odonata. The number of Argia currently hovers around 137 species with several more undescribed. This number is anticipated to increase for at least a couple of reasons. First, there are underexplored areas in Latin America where odonate-chasers will discover new species. Second, taxonomists are reevaluating museum specimens of existing species as well as revisiting observations of prior skeptical Argia experts (foremost including Gloyd) and finding, for instance, several undescribed species that had received manuscript names but were never formally described.
In 1977, J. M. Van Brink and Bastiaan Kiauta, two of Gloyd’s colleagues, put together a tribute to her on the occasion of her 75th birthday (Odonatologica (1977) 6 (3):143-149). They wanted her to know “how much she is appreciated and loved by her fellow odonatologists around the world.” The article contains biographical information about her that makes me long for more. Leonora Katherine Doll was born on a farm near Larned, Kansas, on August 29, 1902 – one hundred and twenty years ago today. Her father was a wheat farmer and part-time school teacher. The family seems to have moved around a bit during Leonora’s early years but settled on a farm near Kirkville, Missouri, in 1909.
In 1924 she received a Bachelor of Science degree at what is now Kansas State University, and in the summer of that year took a field course in entomology at the Biological Station of the University of Michigan taught by Professor H. B. Hungerford, a specialist on aquatic insects. She collected some odonates during the course for her personal collection. In 1925 there were two milestones in Leonora’s life. She earned a Master of Science degree with a major in vertebrate embryology and minor in chemistry and she married a young herpetologist Howard K. Gloyd, also a Kansan. He would become a leading authority on snakes, especially poisonous ones. Leonora assisted him in his field work and research on copperheads, rattlesnakes, and the embryology of lizards.
When a woman of Leonora’s generation pursues a career in the natural sciences – especially in a field as esoteric and demanding as odonatology that requires the desire and stamina to tromp around outdoors, often in rugged or mucky places, and then to sit still for hours at time in a laboratory preparing and studying tiny specimens, the question arises: what sparked Leonora’s interest? As a child, she had ample opportunity to roam around outdoors, but then so did lots of other girls her age. In the tribute to her, the authors write that as a child she was charmed by “beautiful blue dragonflies (probably Enallagma) on the tall sunflowers.” That observation strikes me as odd – members of this genus, known as bluets, are shy denizens of thick vegetation around ponds, streams, and lakes. I can’t picture them on tall sunflowers. Maybe she was seeing one of the big, bold, blue-colored darners in the family Aeshnidae, like the Common Green Darner, Anax junius. It is an eye-popping dragonfly, the male with a brilliant turquoise blue abdomen. It is common, conspicuous, and highly migratory. I can picture one alighting on a tall sunflower on the plains of Kansas.
If indeed the anecdote is true and regardless of what blue dragonfly caught her eye, it fits a pattern. From my observations of peers who possess an intense interest in and deep knowledge of some aspect of the natural sciences there is a common theme. Something beckoned to them when they were young – a bird, an insect, a flower, a cloud, a snake – and they followed in pursuit. If, as a child, Leonora was blossoming as the curious and exacting odonatologist she became as an adult, I will hazard to guess she must have noticed and been captivated by the myriad jewel-like dragonflies and damselflies darting, gliding, zigzagging, hovering, and weaving through grasses, sedges, and scrubs or zooming over land and water in the rural Midwest. She responded to their call.
For decades Gloyd worked on a revision of the taxonomy of Argia, while raising two children and pursuing many other odonate responsibilities and research. Leonora inherited her obsession for – and commitment to – the dancers from early-20th-century odonatologist E. B. Williamson who hired her in 1929 to be his assistant to help catalogue and integrate his library and odonate collection he was giving to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. He was instrumental in guiding her to publish her own odonate work, a sign that the mentor recognized her superior talents. Williamson had set himself the goal of producing a monograph on Argia, but he died of a stroke in 1933 at the age of 55 before finishing this task. Gloyd carried on. Although she far outlived Williamson, a stroke when she was 86 was a knockback for her life’s work. She died, a few weeks shy of her 91st birthday, before she completed her opus on Argia.
In his tribute, Garrison noted that she had amassed the largest collection of Argia species ever assembled by one person, gathering specimens from nearly every museum and region in the New World. Even as a young scientist, Garrison already shared her interest in the genus and the puzzles it presents to taxonomists. Over the years he corresponded with her about Argia, often asking her to help track down obscure articles (she was a passionate bibliophile as well as odonate curator and researcher), and he made several trips to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor to work with her on knotty aspects of the genus. On one of those trips, Dolly told him she estimated she had examined something like 250,000 specimens of Argia up to that time. This would help explain why the eye pieces of her binocular microscope were permanently scratched up by her glasses. While a species of Libellula was Garrison’s first introduction to Gloyd, it is Argia that sealed their comradeship.
It should come as no surprise that Garrison and his wife, Natalia von Ellenrieder, have taken on the mission left unfinished by Gloyd and her mentor E. B. Williamson – a task that’s been ongoing for well over a century. Garrison and von Ellenrieder, acknowledged by their peers as the leading living authorities on Argia, are in the years-long process of sorting out the genus. In a world that at times seems disproportionately fraught with sadness, inequities, unkindness, inanities, and peril, I find it course-correcting and joyful to know that scientists like Williamson, Gloyd, Garrison, and von Ellenrieder have been working quietly, carefully, and collaboratively to figure out what’s up with Argia, the beautiful dancers.
In a 1994 paper, the first of several articles covering the systematics of Argia, Garrison provided a synopsis and keys for the 29 species that occur in the United States and named three species of Argia that had been known among odonatologists for several years but not officially described. One of these he named Leonora’s Dancer, Argia leonorae. The species occurs in parts of Oklahoma, south-central and western Texas, and northern Mexico. Its biology and habits are poorly known. No surprise – these landscapes are sparsely populated by humans, let alone odonatologists.
Gloyd, however, did tromp around in the rugged wilds of Big Bend in the 1930s searching for and collecting odonates. Her husband, I assume searching also for snakes and lizards, collected a number of odonates on these trips. In 1958, she published an article, “The Dragonfly Fauna of the Big Bend Region of Trans-Pecos Texas,” that incorporates data about odonates collected by her, her husband, and others from 1916 into the 1950s. In it she meticulously describes key features (especially the reproductive apparatus) of several then-new species of Argia. In his article, Garrison cites her gift for careful analysis and use of terminology. I read his admiration for her between the lines. As a person who has great respect for the discipline of science but is not always bound by the necessity of objectivity that is required in scientific writing – and as a woman who has also tromped around in the vast and beautiful Big Bend region – I can picture her there and will think of Leonora’s Dancer as Dolly’s metaphoric reincarnation.
Sitting still looking at the little bodies of dragonflies and damselflies for hours on end and keeping those bodies carefully arranged in museum storage cabinets – that’s harder for me to picture. But scattered in various documents there is sufficient proof of her propensity for these tasks. Garrison writes that she staunchly refused to adopt the more modern and space-saving method of storing specimens in cellophane envelopes. Instead, continuing the technique she learned from E. B. Williamson, she prepared triangular envelopes for specimens that she called “booties.” Over her career, she fashioned thousands of these – and color-coded them according to certain attributes of groups of specimens, as Garrison wrote, “blue might mean penis extruded, for example.”
In her regular crisply written and witty letters and notes to Selysia, a newsletter of the World Dragonfly Association published from 1963 to 1997, one finds further proof of her meticulous work habits. For instance in “A Note on Mending Specimens of Odonata” she wrote in 1975, “Now that there is a tendency to file specimens in envelopes like so many library cards, the percentage of breakage, according to my observations, is greater than ever before, and so is the possibility of a total loss of some important parts by crushing if the envelope is reinforced by a card, and the specimens not mended when broken. If you value your specimens it is important to keep them mended.”
Gloyd tried several adhesives in her efforts to glue broken parts back onto specimens. Household cement left a white residue. Elmer’s Glue was too slow to set up. Then she discovered a product called Gane’s No. 1, Casing-in-Paste that was just the ticket. In the note, she goes on to describe techniques using this paste to reattach an antenna, a broken part of an eye, a claw, a leg, abdominal appendages, and a head, or putting back together an entire abdomen. These are incredibly tiny anatomical pieces. Even reading this note, I cannot imagine the surgical skill necessary to reassemble a broken dragonfly or damselfly.
As a person who has been birdwatching for years, it is embarrassing to acknowledge my late-in-life arrival to an appreciation of odonates. My birdwatching husband, David, started observing and photographing odonates several years ago. I followed suit. Our already rich experiences shared together over the years out-of-doors are all the richer because of dragonflies and damselflies. Once attuned to them, and better late than never, I now see them – in proper season and requisite habitat – everywhere. They are stunningly beautiful. Their biology, especially the intricacies of their reproductive lives and their adaptations for flight, is wonderful to read and learn about. I can easily understand why people devote their professions to studying them. I also appreciate the special lure of Argia. In northwestern Mexico, where we spend half the year, there are about two dozen species of Argia. On our travels to other parts of Mexico and Latin America, we see other Argia, and more await us as we continue to roam in the Neotropics. Argia take us to remote and lovely places where we seldom see other humans. Many are brilliant blue with black markings. They look like bolts of blue electricity flashing over rippling streams and through bankside sedges, grasses, and shrubs. They are flighty creatures, but alight frequently to bask out in the open on rocks. I now like to think that every Argia I see is Dolly’s.
I thank Rosser Garrison and Natalia von Ellenrieder for reviewing and editing this essay and for providing additional information and anecdotes about Dolly. I add one note: August 29th coincidentally is Rosser Garrison’s birthday.
Regarding the photo of Dolly on horseback: Rosser Garrison provided this copy of the photograph to me. It is also archived at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia. It is part of a collection of photos of scientists who have affiliations with the academy. Dolly wrote about the photo: “The faithful hat which served me on all collecting trips up to the year 1934 much to the displeasure of H.K.G!!”
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There is nothing I can add to the commentary condemning the U.S. Supreme Court’s 6-to-3 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. So instead I am sharing this female River Jewelwing perched on a balsam branch that I photographed today in a nearby boreal forest. Never mind, just for a moment, that women in America have been summarily hurled backward in time by five men and one woman who live in some mind fortress bereft of fairness, compassion, and desire to share in the enterprise of moving forward the arc of our moral universe. Never mind, just for a moment, that they have taken women hostage to their thwarted, unwavering idea of the “originalism” of the U.S. Constitution. Just look at the Jewelwing. It is a chitinous creature barely two inches in length that may look fragile but is resilient and agile. It is the winged definition of evolution, of change, of adaptation. The Jewelwing and its damselfly and dragonfly cohorts have been gliding around the planet for 250 million years. And, of course, you noticed. It is stunningly beautiful.
When I asked him how he was riding out the great recession,
he said it all unraveled after the black horse.
I was riding in his taxi in Tucson, heading west.
Let me make this clear: the points of the compass should always guide us,
and of course the sun. We were talking at dawn.
It was dark, and he was heading west,
west of Pecos in the vast and starry night of Texas.
He put his rig in the hammer lane to pass another trucker.
The intimation of a black horse appeared in his headlights,
the vaguest shape of haunch, the apparition of an equine nightmare.
The horse was facing west. No eye shine. No option.
The slam of rig and black horse orbiting into pieces
in the majestic black night of west Texas.
This changed his life, he told me.
The black horse was his credit default swap.
Now he drives a taxi.
He dropped me at the bus station.
I was heading south to Sonora in the wakening light of day.
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