One autumn in the seventeenth century, the haiku master Basho was walking near a pond with a student. Observing dragonflies in the tall grass, the young man was seized by the surge of perception, composed a poem, and eagerly recited it to his master:
Red dragonflies! Take off their wings, and they are pepper pods!
Basho was not pleased. He shook his head. (Some accounts even have the man who made “Deep autumn— / my neighbor, / how does he live, I wonder?” flare with indignation.)
There is nothing of haiku in that, he said. To make haiku, you must say instead,
Red pepper pods! Add wings to them, and they are dragonflies!
Descent and ascension; destruction and the elevation of life. The samurai wear the dragonfly on their swords and arrows in hopes their weapons’ flight will be as swift as the insects that rose to the mind of the land’s first divine emperor, Jimmu Tenno, when he reached a mountain’s summit: “The shape of my country is like two dragonflies mating,” he said in one version of the story that gave Japan its ancient name, Akitsu-shimu—Dragonfly Island. Twice in the thirteenth century, it is said, dragonflies were heralds of divine victory, arriving just before the kamikazes that wrecked the Mongols’ fleets. On the evening of the summer feast for the dead, souls ride the dragonflies’ backs, returning to their beloveds. Each of its four gauzy wings has a life of its own: a mature dragonfly can hover for a full minute, dart in six directions, and then skim the tips of vegetation at a rate of one-hundred body lengths per second. Its vision is panoramic; its eyes comprise 30,000 lenses.
And for all this, they enter our sight when their lives are nearly spent. For years, they struggle beneath the water’s surface. One in ten survives to climb a shaft of grass at dawn and cling for half a day, waiting for wings.
Art is a measure of compassion. How often I have been that student—seduced by my own eyes, in love with perceptions because they’re mine, indifferent to life beyond the flush of pride that comes of my imagining. How often I’ve clipped the wings of the present moment.
“You must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself,” says Basho. “Learn about pines from the pine. Learn about bamboo from bamboo.”
Cruelty, I see now, is a failure of imagination.