The Dragonfly Eye

It came in a small green box. Upon lifting the lid, I held a wooden bell-shaped eyepiece in the palm of my hand. Mom whispered, “Look through it! What do you see?” I aimed it at the extra slices of my Bundt birthday cake. I was captivated by the sudden transformation. On the dining room table, through my lens, there were about fifteen images of segments of the carrot cake, topped with powdered sugar and some melted candle. “Wow,” I murmured hypnotically, now pointing the lens in the direction of my brother, who was pouring himself a glass of milk. “Take it easy on all those glasses of milk, brother.” So many glasses of milk gripped by so many of my brother’s brown hands, like a tiled collage of identical images, came into my view. I liked how it felt against my eye. Its sturdiness provided much more control than the longer and lighter kaleidoscope abandoned somewhere on my bookshelf. “The Dragonfly Eye!” said Mom, smiling, as she sipped her coffee. “So many of me,” I laughed, examining the effect while looking in the mirror. Someone lovingly replied, “Please. One is enough.”

The Dragonfly, made by Van Cort Instruments, Inc., is a gift that I treasure not only because of its sublime design and spellbinding mechanics. This was something that Mom thoughtfully chose to give to me, a 20-year-old self-critical undergraduate at the time, that turned out to be very meaningful. With this eyepiece, the possibilities for observation and inspiration were endless.

While studying for finals, I could just roll my chair over to my desk drawer where I kept the Dragonfly to relish the few minutes of witnessing the instant multiplicity of trees outside my window. I carried it in my pocket on a balmy spring day and lay on a patch of grass to see marshmallow clouds become dozens of miniature bits of fluff. And I shared it with friends. My grandmother might have called it “a conversation piece.”

I held it to my eye for one of our weekly self-portrait assignments for a drawing class. When I look at this artwork today I wonder why I chose to focus on my exterior semblance instead of depicting the many related segments of my face that I saw through the Dragonfly. These numerous tiled images could be a symbolic representation of how our sense of identity is multifaceted, even if we’re perceived by many others to be one certain way again and again and again.

Self-portrait. Yes, I had a dreadful time drawing hands and still do!

The Dragonfly included a note in its gift box that describes it as a “dioptric scope with a multi-prism lens that gives the observer 24 upright images of anything viewed.” The marbled and striped exterior is made of layers of dyed birch.

But do dragonflies see the world this way? Dragonflies are known to have compound eyes that consist of up to 30,000 ommatidia, or visual units. The ommatidia provide an expansive mosaic-like field of view. Additionally, the dragonfly possesses keen vision for detecting movement. I noticed this last weekend during a visit to a freshwater marsh. Dragonflies sped by me whenever I tried to slowly approach them with my camera, and they danced in a dizzying splendor while agilely capturing gnats and mosquitoes before falling prey to green frogs poised like statues upon the algae.

Using the Dragonfly dioptric scope to survey the green leaves and branches on a maple tree or to zoom-in on a detail of a painting is an alluring way to explore pattern and contrast in a mosaic of images. Yet, I’m grateful to know that I can return to my human lens to look more closely or expansively, to try to learn more thoroughly, and to empathize more deeply. After all, we are not dragonflies.