I’ve been enjoying one of Nature’s great phenomena, the common firefly, as it lives out its cycle of life this summer in our yard. At dusk, these small flies emerge from somewhere in the grass or trees and commence with a light show that is every bit as remarkable as any laser extravaganza. Every ten seconds or so, every one of the thousands of fireflies lights its abdomen for a second, performing its best to attract a mate, doing what it must to survive and thrive. It’s a daunting task, this, considering the scores of competitors who are trying to achieve the same attractive result. But the effect for those of us in audience is astonishing: hundreds of tiny flashlights in orchestrated choreography through the deepening darkness of evening.
I can watch the dance for hours. Their performances are limited to a short time, so the time for appreciation is limited. But every night their appearance is as fresh and mystical as the previous night, as if I had never witnessed their tiny, plaintive dots of light ever before. On special occasion, one might even choose to light on my outstretched hand, as if looking for a momentary place to rest from constant flight and flash. And when it happens, I am touched, in the same way as when in the presence of a giant redwood tree or eye-to-eye with a penguin or beholding some other treasure of Nature.
There are lots of people who have never seen a firefly. Fireflies aren’t visible everywhere, so when describing their short summer life, I might encounter quizzical looks and expressions of surprise; there is always wonder at things we don’t fully understand. Folks are usually surprised to learn that they can be found around the world, even in places where one would not expect. (However, they are not found everywhere in the U.S. No one is really certain about why this is so.)
Fireflies have an elemental quality about them. Ask anyone familiar with “lightning bugs,” as they are sometimes called, and he/she is likely to tell you stories of warm summer nights, during a simpler time in life, of following the luminescence where it would lead, of loving the feel of at least the memories, if not the realities. (We like to cling to the recollections which make us feel best; the harsh ones fade with time.) Fireflies, like most awakenings to Nature, fill us with questions and wonder. They have always been with us, as I suppose they will always be.
I find that there is a great deal to learn by watching fireflies. It’s not so much that I know a great deal about them or that I’d really like to be a firefly, for that would be a dangerous thing! There are too many predators who prey on the small to warrant that desire. But observing their flashing, silent drifting on the night air always gives me pause, to reflect, to wonder, to be grateful, to be humble, to recognize my own life from the center of this sometimes-puzzling creation we inhabit. I’ve discovered quite a bit about myself, just sitting in the yard with these tiny lights around me. If you’ve never had the opportunity to be immersed in such illumination, I can highly recommend the experience as breathtaking, even fulfilling, to all one’s senses.
And so with the passage of summer into August, fireflies begin to dim their accents. It’s not that they will go away forever, but that my awareness of them will fade for a time, until the next generation emerges to remind me of both their plight and radiant joy. Maybe it’s the fact that I don’t see them very often which endears them to me, makes their life cycles both unremarkable and yet inspiring at the same time. Whatever the reason, I have come to treasure fireflies. And later this month, when I find myself on the front porch tracking what could be the last firefly of the season, I know that it’s life-light signals the reality of generations yet to come….