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Four Wings, Six Legs, Fifty Thousand Eyes
Amazing and abundant, dragonflies add to outdoor summertime fun.

Photo: Striped meadowhawk dragonfly, one of forty-nine known Willamette Valley species
CARY KERST
Striped meadowhawk dragonfly, one of forty-nine known Willamette Valley species

Their names resonate like a roll call of brightly clad superheroes, or maybe professional wrestlers: shadow darner, blue dasher, American emerald, cherry-faced meadowhawk, spot-winged glider. Look out for the Pacific clubtail, the flame skimmer, the spiny baskettail! But instead of fighting crime or throwing chokeholds, they hover, gentle and fairy-like on iridescent cellophane wings, dipping and darting over ponds, streams, and lakes. The mellow, droning buzz of dragonflies has lulled many a human explorer to indulge in that most pleasant summer extravagance, an outdoor nap.

The dragonfly, its toothpick-thin body armored in a bright metallic flash of color, is the stuff of myths and admiration worldwide. One European tale warns that dragonflies may stitch shut the eyes and mouths of naughty children, cursing men, or scolding women, while in Japanese lore the dragonfly is often revered as the spirit of the rice plant and the provider of plentiful harvests. The insect—in both larval and adult form—is considered a delicacy in some Asian cuisines.

Artistically, the dragonfly motif enjoyed an ethereal presence during the art nouveau period, gracing the lamps and jewelry designs of Louis Comfort Tiffany and French artist René Lalique. Long before that, many Native American tribes also favored the insect’s image on pottery and woven goods: The dragonfly is often associated with water purity since its life cycle revolves around fresh water sources.

Who isn’t fascinated by dragonflies?

For Steve Gordon ’73, that fascination became an enthralling hobby that adds zest to his retirement, and also led him to coauthor a book, Dragonflies and Damselflies of the Willamette Valley, Oregon: A Beginner’s Guide [CraneDance Publications, 2005]. Throughout his career as a municipal planner, Gordon often enjoyed the colorful antics of dragonflies during field trips to the wetland areas around Eugene. Like countless other folks, he and his wife enjoyed the many species of dragonflies that zoomed through and hovered in their backyard vegetable and flower gardens. On one occasion, he even sketched the intricate wing patterns of a dragonfly perched on a bush, then tried—and failed—to find a field guide to help him identify the creature.

Then, in the late ’90s, Gordon spoke at a wetlands scientists’ conference in Tacoma where he watched a “dragonflies and wetlands” presentation by Dennis Paulson, a noted expert on the insect. “I was hooked,” Gordon says. “I really just wanted to know more about dragonflies, so I started searching the Internet for Oregon dragonfly contacts.” Gordon discovered another Eugene dragonfly enthusiast, Cary Kerst—the two had met previously while working on wetlands-related projects—and they decided to see how many local dragonfly species they could identify. An entomologist, Kerst had studied dragonflies (Latin order Odonata) in college, and was happy to share his considerable knowledge with Gordon.

Odonates have a three-stage life cycle: egg, nymph, and adult. The adult female lays eggs (by the hundreds or thousands) in vegetated water areas. Within a few days, eggs hatch into nymphs that begin to feed immediately. Depending on species, nymphs live in muddy sediment, in water, or on live vegetation; all are ravenous predators with hinged lower jaws that dart out quickly to grab prey such as mosquito larvae or small fish. They breathe through gills located in a rectal chamber and can also rapidly expel water from this chamber—a jet propulsion mechanism used for escape from other predators. Nymphs mature in one to three years, molting and shedding exoskeletons ten times or more before the final metamorphosis produces those large, gauzy wings.

Adult Odonates live only two to four weeks, says Gordon, and that brief time is focused on feeding and reproduction. Dragonflies are highly valued for their mosquito-munching appetites; their huge compound eyes have 30,000 to 50,000 facets each, providing a 350 degree view—the perfect tool for scoping in on tiny prey. “They’re capable of flying 35 miles per hour,” he says, “so there’s no limit, really, to the types of insects they might eat.”

During mating, the male grasps the female behind her head, and the female bends her abdomen up to the second section of the male’s abdomen to receive sperm. In some species, the male remains attached to the female while she deposits her eggs to prevent her mating with other males. A protective suitor, the dragonfly male might even remove the sperm of other donors from a female’s reproductive area to protect his own progeny.

The dragonfly—and the closely related damselfly—have been buzzing around for more than 300 million years. Some ancient specimens identified in fossil remains were as big as model airplanes: Meganeura mony, which lived about 325 million years ago, had a foot-long body and a twenty-seven-inch wingspan.

Present-day species of dragonflies and damselflies are estimated at 5,500 worldwide; of those, 350 dragonfly and 128 damselfly species are North American natives. Eighty-nine species are found in Oregon. Starting with the available field guides on California and Washington species, Gordon and Kerst began building their own information set based on species they found in the Willamette Valley. They attended “dragonflying” expeditions with Oregon dragonfly experts Jim Johnson and Steve Valley, building a specimen collection and gaining exposure to dragonfly habitats in other parts of the state. “There are forty-nine species known to live here in the Willamette Valley,” says Gordon, “and three more that we suspect are here, but haven’t found yet—though we probably will.”

Eventually, the Audubon Society and local nature organizations asked Gordon and Kerst to lead dragonfly trips and make presentations to gardening clubs and other groups around Eugene. “And one day we realized we had all this information . . . we just decided to put together a book for our area,” says Gordon.

The result of their effort is a colorful and light-hearted field guide that provides historic and scientific information, maps to Willamette Valley dragonfly habitats, and, most important, plenty of large photos of these most intriguing insects. “We’ve tried to include photos that illustrate the field marks you need to see for identification,” Gordon says. “This book focuses mostly on males since they are more colorful and easier to identify by sight.” Another book may be on the horizon with more photos of and detailed information about female specimens.

Gordon admits that dragonflying has become a considerable time investment in his retirement years. “My wife, Susie, has been very understanding, and helps me to strike a balance between the dragonflies and our family obligations.” The couple’s children, Kimberly [Ackerman] ’99 and Josef ’04 aren’t involved in his dragonflying, but Kimberly’s son Benjamin Ackerman, age seven, thoroughly enjoys expeditions with his grandpa, trudging through the muddy fields with dragonfly net in hand.

—Katherine Gries ’05

WEB EXTRA!
Click here to see a slideshow of dragonfly photos by photographer Cary Kerst, or click the web extra icon in the righthand column above.





Shaking Up Shakespeare
Director plays fast and loose—and has a lot of fun—with the Bard.

Photo: Scott Palmer’s Shakespeare—lots of latitude, no shortage of attitude.
BILL WAGNER
Scott Palmer’s Shakespeare—lots of latitude, no shortage of attitude

If you slipped last-minute into
a darkened Hillsboro theater last winter, anticipating a traditional staging of The Comedy of Errors, your expectations were about to be bonked on the noggin with an animated mallet.

As the Critic, a condescending character you’ve never heard of, commandeered the stage to blather about the amateurish quality of most contemporary William Shakespeare productions, you might have looked down at your program to see the Bard’s name blendered into “Shilliam Wakespeare.”

On stage, the Critic droned, “You probably think that Shakespeare is incredibly difficult to follow, that the language is archaic, the plots nearly undecipherable, and most of the stories no longer relevant to your lives. So, we are only doing this to sell tickets, and drinks at the bar, and perhaps kill a couple of hours in what is otherwise a town completely bereft of nightlife.”

Then it would hit you: This is not your father’s great-grandfather’s Shakespeare. (It would have hit you weeks earlier, had you attended a rehearsal critique in which director Scott Palmer ’91 instructed the cast: “The groping was all over the place today.”) For two hours, cartoonishly costumed actors take Shakespeare’s already-zany play and give it a goosing, with a Looney Tunes twist.

“I feel best about my work when people love it and hate it at the same time,” says Palmer, artistic director of Bag&Baggage Productions, a former traveling company that has settled into Hillsboro’s renovated Venetian Theatre and Bistro. “I would say that for the most part, the adaptations are successful. I want my audiences to always think and be reflective about Shakespeare.”

Palmer mines many genres and multiple sources for his adaptations. As founding director of the Glasgow Repertory Company, he staged an aggressively political Henry V outdoors that had Scottish audiences climbing fences to catch sold-out performances. He transformed King Lear into an intimate family drama set in the 1950s around issues of aging and dementia. He did A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a silent movie and Titus Andronicus as Japanese kabuki theater. He has reshaped Romeo and Juliet, reimagined Macbeth, tinkered with The Tempest, and did much to Much Ado about Nothing.

For his version of Comedy, Palmer reached back to Warner Brothers cartoon reruns, much as Shakespeare plundered plots and language from earlier playwrights such as Plautus.

“My sense of humor was absolutely born out of Fred and Barney and Gilligan’s Island and Daffy Duck. That’s the stuff my brother and I watched every Saturday morning. That’s the stuff that trained me to think stuff is funny,” Palmer says. Four hundred years earlier, Shakespeare whacked the same funny bone with a comically rendered beating in The Comedy of Errors. “Dropping an anvil on somebody’s head has not gone out of style.”

Some Shakespeare purists consider his works untouchable. “Then there are those of us who see them as living works of drama that change over time and respond to changes in audiences and changes in the world,” Palmer says.

John Schmor, M.A. ’89, Ph.D. ’91, head of the UO’s Department of Theater Arts, said every state has Shakespeare festivals, but Palmer is among a minority of American directors to be so bold with the Bard. Schmor is, too, with productions that have included Hamlet with zombies and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a Mardi Gras musical.

Schmor says that Shakespeare and his Elizabethan contemporaries were quite willing to radically rewrite plays, so much so that Shakespeare’s originals no longer exist. The notion of “the great English poet” whose text must not be altered came centuries later, during the Victorian era. It’s a reverence known today as “Bardolatry.”

“I personally think that’s a disservice to his theater,” Schmor says. “I’m glad [Palmer] is doing what he’s doing.”

While Schmor radically reworks Shakespeare’s texts to tell a new story, Palmer goes a step further by adding passages from other works and from his own fertile imagination—deepening audience members’ delight or furthering their fury.

One reviewer, for example, hailed Palmer’s modern Lear as something “to cherish” while another said the same production “stripped away its soul.” Recently, one gushing group of viewers came to Comedy night after night. But Palmer also keeps a letter from an irate patron who wrote following an earlier production: “Who the hell do you think you are? Shakespeare is probably rolling over in his grave right now after what you did to his play.” Another confronted him in a bar and accused him of “murdering” Romeo and Juliet.

“Most of the Shakespearean companies are in fidelity with the text,” says Kirk Boyd, director at the former Willamette Repertory Theatre in Eugene and veteran of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. “I think as artists we’re challenged when we take a piece of literature and try to mine what’s in there. There’s plenty of artistry and work to do with just what’s in there. I don’t have anything against [major adaptations]—I’m just not into it. I want my Shakespeare traditional.”

“His adaptations always have a reason,” counters Maggie Chapin, who has acted in many of Palmer’s productions. “They’re so fresh, and they’re so new—especially for someone who loves Shakespeare as much as I do.”

In February 2010, Scott Palmer will debut his original adaptation melding Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew with fellow Elizabethan playwright John Fletcher’s The Woman’s Prize, a hilarious but nearly forgotten sequel to the Bard’s popular comedy.

—Eric Apalategui ’89





She from Whom All Blessed Strings Flow
Four generations of University harpists, one unlikely matriarch

Photo: From left: Sally Calkins Maxwell (seated), adjunct instructor of harp Laura Zaerr, and Rachel Miller; inset: Ruth Lorraine Close
INSET PHOTO PROVIDED BY SALLY CALKINS MAXWELL / GROUP PHOTO BY JACK LIU
From left: Sally Calkins Maxwell (seated), adjunct instructor of harp Laura Zaerr, and Rachel Miller; inset: Ruth Lorraine Close

Adjunct instructor of harp Laura Zaerr ’84 can name the entire line of succession of University of Oregon harp professors on just three calloused fingers. Before Laura, there was Sally ’57. And before Sally, there was Doris Helen ’31. Before Doris Helen, there was no harp program at Oregon. But there was Ruth Lorraine Close. And because of Ruth, now there is Rachel, and all the others.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning.

She was never quite the picture of a fairy godmother. She had bobbed red hair, high-society manners, and a closet stuffed with the sort of Great Gatsby–era fashion that would make Daisy Buchanan jealous. But for dozens of lucky and talented harp students whose wishes she’s granted, Ruth Lorraine Close might just as well have sported gossamer wings and a glitter-bespangled wand. Close never attended or taught a single class at the University, but her spirit and influence continue to be passed from generation to generation of Oregon harpists.

Born in 1896 to a wealthy East Coast family, Ruth Lorraine took up the harp at age eight. Hoping to cultivate her obvious talent, her parents took her abroad to soak up the belle époque grandeur of the Continent and to study with some of Europe’s greatest teachers. In addition to her harp lessons, the young protégé studied conducting, piano technique, music theory, and soon could speak four languages. She enrolled at Stanford University at age fifteen, and was one of the first women to complete a prelaw degree there. After graduation, she wed a banker named Carlos Close, and the two moved to Portland.

Years of performing followed. The young Mrs. Close was the principal harpist with the Portland Symphony Orchestra (later renamed the Oregon Symphony), which had been founded in the year of her birth, making it the oldest orchestra in the West. In the mid-1920s, the orchestra was one of the largest and most highly acclaimed symphonies in the nation. Portland by this time was a thriving city, with an ever-increasing network of streets and bridges and more cars per capita than Chicago or New York. In such a modern environment, with women gaining voting rights and occupying a staggering 2.4 percent of the local work force by 1920, a female presence among the symphony’s ranks was certainly quite novel, but not unheard of.

If any doubts remained regarding her fitness to be a member of the orchestra, however, Close’s concert reviews would quickly lay them to rest. Each year between symphony seasons, she traveled extensively, giving well-received performances around the Northwest, as well as in San Francisco, London, and Paris (where she was able to indulge her penchant for tiny French slippers embroidered in all the season’s most fashionable colors). An item in the Morning Oregonian of April 11, 1929, titled “New York Hails Harpist,” proclaims that Close’s recital in Steinway Hall, her first New York concert, was applauded by a “large and discriminating audience,” and had been a grand success.

At home in Portland, dedication to her students was just as important to Close as her own accomplishments as a musician. She was the head of her department at the Ellison-White Conservatory of Music, where she taught French as well as instructing young musicians on the harp. One of her students, a Eugene native named Doris Helen Patterson, so benefited from her tutelage that in the spring of 1927, she was chosen from among eleven of the nation’s top high-school-age harpists as the soloist for the 260-member National High School Orchestra. Patterson’s reward, apart from the honor of being chosen, was the privilege of performing on a Gothic-design harp valued at $2,000—the same price as an expensive house at the time.

Four years later, in 1931, it was Patterson (later to become Doris Helen Patterson Calkins) who founded the University of Oregon’s harp department and became its first professor. The 1931–32 School of Music course catalog notes that a term’s worth of weekly harp lessons in her studio could be had for $18. Calkins retained 90 percent of that fee, while the University received the rest; music professors were paid no additional salary.

Years passed. The Great Depression and ensuing political upheavals and war forced the Portland Symphony to suspend its regular concerts from 1938 until 1947. At the University, a new wing was added to the School of Music in 1950 to accommodate ever-expanding needs. Close and her husband moved to California; he died, she remarried. All the while, Calkins performed and taught while raising her own family, including her daughter, Sally, who had begun her own career by playing with the University harp ensemble when she was just six.

Fast-forward to 1969, when the fairy godmother first appears on the UO scene. When Ruth Close died at age seventy-three, she left bequests to Stanford University and a number of other institutions and associations. The remainder of her generous estate, however, was left to the University of Oregon, for the purpose of establishing a scholarship fund for advanced music students, preferably (but not exclusively) those hailing from Oregon or Washington and studying the harp or composition. The money was a great and welcome surprise for the School of Music, which godmother Close recognized as home of the outstanding harp program on the West Coast at the time.

The scholarship fund aided scores of University music students, and, thanks in large part to Doris Helen Calkins’ efforts, funded the Ruth Lorraine Close Awards. Beginning in 1975, these awards offered $2,000 scholarships to each of three winners of a contest presided over by the National Harp Society and held each year in Eugene. The national Close Awards were adjudicated by internationally recognized musicians, who, while on campus for the competition, also held master classes with award contestants and University students. Close’s name (and the University) became well known in harp circles as a result of these prestigious awards. The national awards competition ended in 1990, but Close scholarships have continued to this day to support UO music students.   

Sally Calkins Maxwell, the little girl in the University harp ensemble, grew up, graduated, and eventually replaced her mother as harp professor in 1975. After a long career at the School of Music and on the national harp scene, during which she became something of an expert on Ruth Close, Maxwell was replaced by one of her own students, three-time Close scholarship winner Laura Zaerr, in 2001.

Now it is Zaerr who is shepherding a new crop of young harp players along the paths to their careers (and yes, some are young men). Among her students is Rachel Miller, a freshman music major who credits her own Close scholarship as the major source of financial support her family needed to send her to college. Miller is already excelling on her instrument, hopes to travel the world with her music, and perhaps one day may become a teacher herself.

Somewhere, one imagines, her unlikely fairy godmother is playing her harp up in a heaven full of tiny French shoes, smiling down at the thought.

—Mindy Moreland, M.S. ’08





UO Alumni Calendar
Go to uoalumni.com/events for detailed information

June 3
Southern California Alumni Chapter
Hollywood Ducks networking night
Los Angeles, California

June 3
Southern California Alumni Chapter

Hollywood Ducks networking night
Los Angeles, California

June 4
Eugene, Oregon

Senior sendoff
UO seniors celebrate their graduation

June 28
Treasure Valley Chapter

Wine, cheese, tenors, and strings event
Sun Valley, Idaho

July 7
UOAA Travel Program*

Italy’s magnificent Lake District

July 11
Portland Chapter

Portland young alumni pub crawl

July 25
Puget Sound alumni Chapter

Puget Sound taste of Oregon event

August 6
UOAA Travel Program*

Switzerland traveler’s choice

August 8
Uoaa Travel Program*

Cruise the legendary Rhine River

August 16
Northern California Alumni Chapter

Oakland A’s baseball game

(*For detailed itineraries, see uoalumni.com/join/travel)

UO Alumni Association logo





DUCK TALES

Just Right Here
By Ana Maria Spagna ’89

Photo: Family standing on deck of house looking at orange smoke-filled sky
CREATIVE COMMONS PHOTO BY KJELL OLSEN

A small crowd of volunteers assembles outside a cabin, pushing wheelbarrows, carrying rakes and loppers, chainsaws and gas. We do this every Monday night, at a different neighbor’s home, but with an early-season wildfire burning, this week it’s more urgent. Helicopters thwap overhead. Smoke obscures the horizon.

When I was a kid in Southern California, each October the sky turned orange, and on TV, red garlands of flames snaked down brown suede hills. Bazillion-dollar homes in Malibu tottered uncertainly, silhouetted against roiling flames, then fell and slid toward the sea. For a kid like me, cross-legged on the shag rug, there should’ve been terror in it, except that it was as predictable as the World Series or Wimbledon. With a shrug, I thought: Gawd, how dumb! Those people should move away! Today, in the Cascades, the sky turned dirty yellow as overcooked squash. It happens every year.  Most people know the story: a hundred years of fire suppression created lousy forest conditions—trees crowded too tight, disease and pest-plagued—and global warming added climatic conditions.  Just right here, in the past decade, wildfires in the surrounding wilderness burned 5,000 acres, then 50,000. The sheriff delivers evacuation notices that stack up like junk mail announcing the obvious: Move away! I’m running a chainsaw instead.

Like most of my neighbors in this tiny mountain town, I built my own home. I built it here because I love this place, blindly, indiscriminately, probably foolishly. I love it because the mountains rise steep and craggy, and the forest holds silence like a blessing, and the river runs fast and blue. The house took my entire life savings, a heavy debt, and a year to build. My hair turned gray overnight. I thought: I never want to do that again as long as I live. I also thought: I will never leave.

That was years ago, before the fires started to grow so large, before talk-radio hosts and newspaper editorialists joined the chorus: move away, move away! Now even the firefighters who hold daily briefings can barely restrain their exasperation. We would not have to bother, they think, if it weren’t for you.

True enough. We live in what’s called the wildland-urban interface. (The acronym, WUI—WOO-eee!—makes the discussion sound a lot more fun than it is.) Population estimates for the WUI vary from 34 million in the lower forty-eight to 140 million. What doesn’t change is the forecast of doom: the number is growing fast. If not for us, government agencies could manage forest fires differently, allow them to burn unhindered more often and do the work that fire should do. That’s a problem, I agree, one with plenty of large-scale solutions worth debating.

Meanwhile, for me and my neighbors, the problem is simpler. This is where we live. What can we do about it?

In June, we sent out letters to every property owner offering to do some work, any work, to help protect their place. We tacked a sign-up sheet in the post office, and right away, names appeared in ballpoint scrawl. We showed up with tools, removed dead vegetation, thinned live vegetation, pruned tree limbs, did anything we could to prevent a rogue ember from burning down a house.

We bragged to a visiting state forester.

“We’re creating a whole lot of defensible space.”

“That’s no way to think of it,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“When the Big One comes, there might not be anybody around to defend these cabins. Not safely. You gotta think in terms of survivable space.”

It was a sobering, if inarguable, point.

Back at the cabin, nightfall approaches. A cool breeze blows, and the river runs gray with glacial melt. A six-year-old tugs on her mother’s leg to point out wild rose petals floating pink in an eddy. We’re chatting as we work, about music and gardening, anything, anything but fire. There’s laughter and camaraderie, and I’d like to say that it’s all Amish barn-raising and square-dance fun. Mostly it’s just work, and for most of us it’s work after work.

But it’s making a difference.

A woman in her sixties stands poised to throw a long limb onto a burn pile.  I race forward to help, and she yanks back.

“I used to play semipro softball. Contrary to what people think, I can throw.”

I step back and watch her hurl the heavy branch high.

“Don’t underestimate me,” she says.

I smile.

“I never will again,” I say.

I’m hoping that might apply to all of us, those of us here tonight, those of us in the tiny mountain town, and the millions of us staked out in the WUI, disparaged and discouraged. We can do more than you think. More, even, than we think.

When we’re done affixing blame and wringing our hands, done analyzing history and zoning laws, done filling out forms and making computerized overlay maps and attending meetings, when we’re done looking for market solutions or government grants, when it seems like there’s not a thing left to do except move away, we can pick up a tool, any tool, and get to work. Just right here.

Ana Maria Spagna lives in Stehekin, Washington. She is the author of Now Go Home, a collection of essays, and winner of the 2002 Oregon Quarterly Northwest Perspectives Essay Contest.


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