Daily Archives: August 31, 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.