I didn’t think I would have a reply to Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s essay on the peacock because I have little experience with the bird. Once I saw one on the roof of a farmhouse in northern Illinois, another time I saw and heard them at a public garden somewhere and then there were the few at that alligator tourist attraction near Orlando, Florida.
Nezhukumatathil doesn’t necessarily focus on peacocks, but on her relationship with them — how she loved them, seeing they all over the place on a trip to India, and how she drew one for an animal drawing contest in grade school, only to be told that the assignment was to draw an American animal. That’s something I can sort of identify with, a teacher calling me out on my artwork involving a bird.
In my case the bird in question was a turkey and in my case I only had to color it, not draw it. We were told to color our turkeys and bring them to the teacher so she could write our names on them for name tags for our desks. When I brought my finished turkey to my fourth grade teacher, made fun of the way I colored it and refused to write my name on it. This is the same teacher that told me I couldn’t sing. To this day I don’t even try to do artwork, even coloring in those grown-up coloring books. Nor do I sing out loud within hearing distance of anyone other than family (and that only rarely).
Aimee Nezhukumatathil finally got over her self-professed hatred of the color blue and finally admitted that peacock blue is her favorite color. In my case — I have not gotten over the stings of criticism from Mrs. Tidwell.
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.
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.