Monthly Archives: August 2021

World of Wonders: Fireflies

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Like Aimee Nezhukumatathil, seeing fireflies takes me back to my childhood. Unlike Aimee Nezhukumatathil, I called them lightning bugs. Also unlike her, I never saw the species in the Great Smokey Mountains that lights up synchronously.

My memories of fireflies are not so much tied to my family but to my Illinois childhood front yard — the same yard that hosted the catalpa tree. Summer evenings I’d quickly finish dinner then run outside and play with the neighborhood children, often catching fireflies and putting them in empty jelly jars with holes poked in the lid. I remember that some of the neighborhood kids would catch a firefly and throw it sharply on the sidewalk, killing it, but also making the light remain steadily lit. That always made me sad. When I told my mother about it she said that she used to pull off the light and stick it to her middle-left finger and say she was engaged.

I remember the smell of fireflies which is not unlike the smell of freshly picked leaf lettuce. I remember how the fireflies’ legs tickled my hands as I gently held them. But mostly I remember the way they lit up summer nights, some slowly blinking, others blinking more quickly. All you had to do was stand still, then one would fly past you and you’d reach out your arm and catch it.

I remember feeling remorse when I didn’t let the fireflies go at the end of the night, but instead placed them on my nightstand. I’d wake up to many dead fireflies. It made me feel like I was as bad as the kids who deliberately killed the fireflies.

I remember making love in a dark field in Illinois one summer night and seeing millions of lights of fireflies around us as they tried to find their own mates. I also remember, later in life, watching a firefly light up on a leaf, then watching a nearby flying firefly blink and fly nearer the one on the leaf, this continued until they met up and mated.

In Maryland we live in a suburb and while we have fireflies, they are no where near as prolific they were in my childhood. I never fail to squeal when I see my first firefly every year, usually around the first of June. I’m surprised I didn’t mention the first firefly of this summer in my blog of delights — oh wait, nevermind, I was consumed with cicada love. There were a couple years when I saw barely any fireflies and I put that down to the chemicals our lawn service (now cancelled) sprayed on the lawn.

I get the best views of fireflies late at night high in the trees in our backyard where they light up more quickly than in the evening. Perhaps they are different species. A few years ago, in the early morning after my husband’s 60th birthday party, my daughter insisted my husband, son and I accompany her to what she called the “firefly tree” a few streets away. We followed her and at her direction, lay down on the ground, staring at a tree. Slowly it started blinking, then more and even more. It was as if the tree was covered in blinking fairy lights. I tried to capture it on my phone, but the video does not do it justice at all.

I didn’t know until reading Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s essay on fireflies that the larvae and eggs of fireflies are bioluminescent. Now that would be something to see! I’ll keep my eyes open for that sight.

World of Wonders: Catalpa Tree

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In World of Wonders, Aimee Nezhukumatathil describes her early relationship with the catalpa tree as “…shade from persistent sun and shelter from unblinking eyes…”. My early relationship with the catalpa tree is much different. I didn’t worry about too much sun and no one stared at me. I’m white and lived in a white area, Nezhukumatathil is a woman of color (born to a Filipina mother and a father from South India) lived in a white area as a child.

The catalpa tree is probably the first tree I was able to identify and that’s because every house on the block had at least one in their front yard. Ours was to the left of the house, as you looked out a front room window (to the right of the house if you were looking at the house from the street). It was very tall and had a very thick trunk (at least that’s how I remember it). I was pleased, last year, to be able to identify a catalpa for my son’s tree-savvy girlfriend.

Because my childhood street was lined with catalpa trees, I was often tempted to ask the city to rename our street Catalpa Street (instead of the unfortunate Heine Avenue). I never did ask, but I wonder if they’d even consider it. I mean, who wants to live on a street that was a synonym for butt?

Once, when I was maybe 7 or 8, perhaps younger, I noticed baby catalpa trees growing beneath our tree. I was so happy to see the tree had babies that I wanted to help, so I brought a watering can (or maybe it was just a bucket) and watered the babies. As soon as I started pouring water on the babies I became soaked from above. At first I was so terrified that the tree thought I was harming her babies so she treated me to the same event that I and ran away from the tree, but then saw that even out from beneath the branches the water poured down. Then I realized that we’d just experienced a typical late-summer sudden downpour. I never did water the baby catalpas again.

Many years later I realized that the baby catalpas were not actually catalpas, but weeds with similarly shaped leaves. Even later I’ve discovered their name — velvetleaf (Abutilon theophrasti) and whenever I see one I remember (and sometimes tell someone nearby) the story of being watered by a tree.

If you go to Heine Avenue today, you’ll see very few, if any, catalpa trees. Over the years they became victims of storms, and old age. In fact, looking at a 2018 Street View of Heine Avenue, the only remaining catalpa tree is around the corner on Highland.

One storm I vividly recall happened when I was about the same age as the vengeful tree incident. I’d been playing with neighbor kids and suddenly the wind began blowing. The mother at whose house I’d been playing called us all inside and we went to the basement*. When we came out of the basement and the mother walked me home there were at least two catalpas down blocking the street. For years afterwards the neighbors talked about being in “the tail end of a tornado” although, in hindsight, it was probably a derecho**.

*Apparently, and with good cause, my parents were beside themselves with worry. From what I remember, the mother whose basement I was in wouldn’t let me run home — she thought it was that dire. I think that at some point during the storm the host family finally answered their phone (at that time folks only had one phone) and told my parents I was safe. My parents were angry that the host family didn’t call them to tell them I was okay.

**Coincidently the only other derecho I have been in (a few years ago), I was again at a friends house and my worried family (husband and children) had to track me down.

World of Wonders: Explanation

As I mentioned in my last post on When I’m 64, our book group is reading a book by Aimee Nezhukumatathil called World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks and Other Astonishments and hearing we were reading it was delightful because I’d sat in on a Zoom meeting between Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Ross Gay (the impetus for When I’m 64) and thought I would probably like World of Wonders. I’ve read one essay/chapter and I know I am going to love it. Not only is the writing delightful, but the book is illustrated beautifully by Fumi Mini Nakamura.