Ken Burnett, writer, publisher and occasional fundraising consultant.
These articles are reproduced from
The Field by the River by Ken Burnett, published in hardback and paperback by Anova Books Limited, London.
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‘Watching insects have
sex is a strange pastime. The thing about Peeping Toms
is they should aspire not to be seen, but I can hardly avoid it.’
’So, no gentle foreplay here. Of course it occurs to me that despite the apparent brutality the female demoiselle, while not actually enjoying it, might at least be OK. Given her contortions I conclude that this is unlikely.’
For more about the field by the river read The deaf dumb and blind kid, Animal intelligence, The onset of Alzheimer’s and The adventure of five white bulls.
For more on the bookThe Field by the River, click here.
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From chapter 12, July. The rape of the banded demoiselle
Early in July I saw this extraordinary encounter and I wrote it down on the spot. Afterwards, as I read about these delicate insects and their habits, I found all other accounts without exception were sterile and restrained by comparison. Perhaps in describing this as rape I’m over-anthropomorphising the actions of the male demoiselles. Such encounters may indeed just be normal. But I merely report what I saw and how it struck me at the time.
Sex in the world of insects is often rough, frequently not consensual. The damselfly is a favourite insect for me, and particularly among that grouping, I like the banded demoiselle.
The female of the species is slight, delicate, almost transparent; she has none of the bright, gaudy displays of her larger mate, being coloured a dull green with translucent wings, making her hard to spot. But the male of the species knows what he’s looking for and can spot her easily.
He is larger, stronger and much more brightly coloured. The one I observed was a brilliant shimmering blue with darker blue markings across his four splendid wings. His body is thicker than hers and longer too, powerful, pliable and very strong.
Watching insects have sex is a strange pastime. The thing about Peeping Toms is they should aspire not to be seen, but I can hardly avoid it. And Peeping Tom seems a strange name to give a chap when his leering visage must seem to the two sweaty beasts shagging about four inches away to loom like Jupiter seen from its moons, occupying at least a third of their available sky.
There are numerous damselflies and other winged travellers around at the water’s edge now. The female I’ve spotted has also attracted the attentions of a group of idly hovering males. Though all seem interested, one is more attentive and persistent than the rest.
Congress can only commence when the male has trapped the female, often after a tiring chase. The chase begins at a dizzying pace with twists, turns and pirouettes up, down and sideways around the plant strewn riverbank above and across the rocks at the water’s edge. But there’s only one possible end as the male traps the female on the ground, asserting his mastery by fixing his abdomen firmly around the back of her neck. No female can resist the power of that grip. This is about control, domination and subjugation. The male then grasps and mounts his paramour and there’s nothing gentle or discreet about what he does, from here on it’s rough full-on sex, no pretence at otherwise.
After flying in tandem for a while the pair adopt what’s called the wheel position, where he holds her firmly by the neck, forcing her onto his secondary genitals. Dragonflies and damselflies are unique in that males have two sets of genitals. To fertilise his mate the male must first pass a sperm packet from his primary genitals, located at the end of his abdomen, to the secondary genitals at the top of his abdomen, just above the chest. These have hook-like grippers attached, designed for holding her firmly. Here he has to attach her genitals – just one set she has, at the end of her abdomen, which is now curled up and held against his chest, ready for the deed.
Penetration is rough and determined. In some damselfly males the tip of the whiplike penis is equipped with spines for scouring out the genital tract of the female, to remove the sperm of any other males.
So, no gentle foreplay here. Of course it occurs to me that despite the apparent brutality the female demoiselle, while not actually enjoying it, might at least be OK. Given her contortions I conclude that this is unlikely. The female is bent over backwards and upside down, pinned down and forced to offer herself to her assailant.
From time to time throughout their vigorous coupling the male appears to pause to mop his brow, brushing his antennae with a loose forearm. The female stays trapped beneath, inverted and held in a vicelike grip while the male thrusts deeply, vigorously, rhythmically, urgently and with scant regard for his subservient partner.
At last the satiated male releases his grip and his victim is set free. It seems to take her some time to recover, while he saunters off to a nearby leaf where he sits, nay reclines, basking in the sunlight, seemingly more than a little pleased with himself – the boy done good.
Having painfully straightened her bruised and sore abdomen, she is having trouble getting her wings to work. The right wings have been bent sideways. For a while it looks like she might be unable to fly. Having forgotten the encounter already the male now moves off, in the insect equivalent of a post-coital fag, to lounge on a nearby leaf. But two more likely lads hove in view and quickly spot the weakened and disabled female, dishevelled but obviously still at least a bit alluring and fair game to her opposite sex. Eagerly they swoop and a second desperate chase begins among the ferns, with again only one possible outcome. A second rape appears inevitable and it’s unlikely to be more considerate of the female than was the first.
Of course there’s nothing to suggest that the apparent abuse I witnessed was her first or even second coupling that morning. The male who inseminates her just before she lays her eggs will be the one who gets to spread his genes. She, poor creature, has no option other than to submit to him and all others before him.
Such is the lot of the female banded demoiselle. Tempting though it is to intervene, I’ll resist and leave the banded demoiselles to their own devices, which inevitably means to the less than tender care of their males.
From pages 392 to 395 of The Field by the River, © Ken Burnett 2009. All illustrations are by Juliet Percival.
Ken Burnett’s other books mainly focus on fundraising, communication and the wider universe. They include the classic Relationship Fundraising: a donor-based approach to the business of raising money and The Zen of Fundraising. For information on all Ken’s books, click here. To order your copy of The Field by the River, £12.99 (US$21.00) plus P&P hard cover, £7.99 (US$13.00) paperback, click here.
The fragile damselfly, vulnerable Tinkerbelle of the river bank.Rape scene. All sorts of surprising things go on at the riverside. Not all of them fit in fairy stories.
In the still of the day (an extra excerpt)
We have a few apple trees in Kerkelven too, about forty or so,and several pear trees. Apples here are used widely for home-made cider and for the two other staple drinks of the Breton peasant, pommeau and eau de vie. Pommeau is brewed to about the strength of sherry whereas, despite its optimistic name, eau de vie can be lethal, so far above proof spirit that after even a couple of sips you’re past caring.
At certain preordained times local growers here still routinely take their fermented apples along in big vats to the village square, where the itinerant local still – a clunky multi-funnelled contraption on big old cartwheels – will have been parked for the purpose. This mobile antique liquor still will be serviced by an equally clunky ancient Breton who will crouch down behind it and, after much puffing and wheezing, will deliver from one or other of the many tubes around a stream of almost pure spirit of a high alcoholic content.
Then, feeling better at having thus relieved himself, at your request he’ll draw off your by-now properly distilled liquor from the tap inside his still and in return for a few euros will give it to you, ready for bottling and drinking. This legal still is only for those above a certain age (must be past sixty now), who by law are entitled to make the eau de vie, the water of life.
Eau de vie is highly prized in these parts. At the peak of
every celebration, fête or any good excuse for a booze-up it is inevitably brought out. And these are many. It is ferocious stuff, a clear, syrupy, innocuous-looking liquid that is really anything but. It’s invariably kept in murky bottles of great vintage whose tattered fading labels indicate they once held mystic libations such as Noilly Prat or Isolabella. Much of the eau de vie given me by the kind and generous Bertrand was made by him in his back room back in the 1950s, so has waited half a century or more before inflicting its revenge on this innocent immigrant and his kin. Even a small sip of eau de vie will make your eyes water and your teeth feel funny. After a few glasses you are truly beyond redemption, not least because among its many attributes this infernal liquid has powerful laxative properties, so careless imbibers risk achieving an unspeakable state. The grandparent of all hangovers follows surely and remorselessly on the heels of a night with the eau de vie.
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