As summer nears its unofficial end, at least here in the Mid-Atlantic where I live, I have begun to notice signs that things are about to change. For instance, this morning a dozen or more golden and brown leaves appeared on the hood of my car. The noonday sun doesn’t stand directly overhead anymore and it isn’t quite as intense, either. Goldfinches have begun loping their way through the trees again to feed and nest. Even a few of the neighborhood children, the older ones at least, have begun to fly off to school.
Perhaps the most poignant signal that the season is winding down sounded last night, when I realized the fireflies were starting to disappear. Flitting, delicate acrobats of the twilight, fireflies are a sweet treat of summer worth savoring, like a lime-flavored popsicle on a hot afternoon. They are also fleeting and easy to miss or take for granted, if you don’t pay attention, especially in our busy, day-to-day adult lives.
Catching fireflies (or lightning bugs, as they are sometimes called) with bare hands is a ritual my kids and I like to perform every summer. After dinner, we head out to sit beneath a grove of trees or walk along the woods’ edge and watch the fireflies rise from the grass, leaping up like green sparks from an unseen fire. Usually it’s a catch-and-release activity, but sometimes a few unfortunates wind up in a glass jar on the bedside table. Then later, as the darkness settles in, we’ll sit on the screened-in porch to watch the fireflies make their way up into the tree canopy. There they will socialize, or at least the ones that don’t get eaten as the bats emerge, and twinkle like Christmas lights long into the night.
There is something quite magical about their little trick, what scientists call “bio-luminescence.” It’s a unique, cold-chemical reaction that causes their tail-ends to glow green, flashing on and off at will — and it’s an action that is repeated with heat in the heart of every child who catches one. Having caught hundreds, I’m sure, my kids still get giddy with excitement each time they cup a new one between their small palms.
The pedestrian truth is that fireflies are really just beetles, most about the size of a small paperclip. They don’t last long, living only about 2 months in the summer, once they have matured. And, though they are quite simple to catch by hand, they (and especially their spirit) are hard to capture or illustrate on paper. In pictures on the Internet, for instance, fireflies just look like ordinary bugs. Or worse. Even at their glowing best, fireflies are not loved by the camera.
Dan Zanes does a good job of capturing the childish wonderment that fireflies engender in his song, “Firefly”. I learned to play it on the guitar and sing it to my kids on occasion. But are there many other songs out there that do the same? Not that I could find. The Magnetic Fields recorded “100,000 Fireflies,” a typically funny, cynical love song for them. Alan Jackson has a firefly love song, too, and even Faith Hill titled a recent LP “Fireflies,” but none of these efforts really has anything to do with the eponymous insect.
The Japanese poet Issa wrote 100 or so haiku about his encounters with fireflies. Often joyful (“a flower big / as an umbrella-hat / fly there firefly!”), usually humorous (“blown away / by the horse’s fart / a firefly”), sometimes sad (“do you think my sleeve / is your parent? / fleeing firefly”), Issa’s poems, though written 200 years ago and half a world away, paint a vivid picture that anyone walking on their summer lawn can appreciate. The Web site HaikuGuy has a nice collection that you can search. Eric Carle’s book, “The Very Lonely Firefly,” also captures the universal magic of the experience when a swarm of fireflies literally lights up at the end of the story.
To get to the heart of the real firefly experience, then, you have to have your own close encounter. So go out tonight and watch the remaining fireflies rise up out of the grass or twinkle their way into the treetops. Don’t wait another day. These seasonal tourists won’t stick around much longer and they will not be back until next summer.