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First sign of summer. May 30, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben supposes that for each of us, there’s a distinct moment when we recognize that, no matter what the calendar says, summer has arrived. Your roses are blooming. It stays light until almost 9 p.m. You can smell grilling up and down the street. It’s time to take the cover off the pool. Your tomato plants are setting fruit.

Our friend Ben experienced my own personal “summer is here” moment this past Friday evening, when I saw that the first lightning bugs (aka fireflies) had appeared in the backyard here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home Silence Dogood and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA.

Silence and I had decided to relax out on the deck with our black German shepherd, Shiloh, and watch the dusk come down. Suddenly, I saw a lightning bug. And then another. And another. Silence and I were as excited as kids with our first tricycles. Lightning bugs! The lightning bugs are here!!!

Our friend Ben loves lightning bugs because they remind me of constellations in the sea of darkened grass, earthly echoes of the unreachable sky. They also bring to mind fireworks, shooting upward from the ground in a grand display before blinking out, or perhaps shooting stars in reverse. And the leisurely pace at which they blink on and off, drift here and there, will set a frantic, chaotic mind at ease faster than anything I know.

Lightning bugs: The illuminators. The peacemakers. Our link to the distant stars.

But this year, our friend Ben was happier to see lightning bugs than ever before, given that in recent years their populations have been threatened by urban and suburban sprawl and the light pollution they bring, fatally disrupting the lightning bugs’ mating cycle. (See my earlier post, “When the lights go out,” for more on this threat.) Thank heavens there are still some lightning bugs in my world and in my yard.

Welcome summer. Welcome lightning bugs!


When the lights go out. September 2, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben loves two things about summer: the long, slow descent from dusk into dark, and the nightly light show put on by the local lightning bugs in our yard and the surrounding fields. (Of course, I love all the fresh fruits and veggies, too. But you can keep the heat and humidity all to yourselves. Global warming, keep away!) So you can imagine my distress when I read that lightning bugs, aka fireflies and glowworms, are in decline all over the globe.

Our friend Ben is obviously not the only human who loves lightning bugs. The most memorable passage in Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle involved her family driving out to a Midwestern farm field at dusk, facing the vehicle towards the field, and flashing the headlights. Like Muslims turning to face Mecca at the muezzin’s call to worship, a billion lightning bugs flashed back in perfect synchrony.

Our friend Ben still loves to picture that scene, and another that Silence Dogood showed me years ago when she was looking at one of Martha Stewart’s books. The photos showed a backyard under huge shade trees. Martha had hung paper globe lanterns and strung tiny white lights from the branches of the trees, so at dusk, the whole setting was transformed into a wonderland of such surpassing, magical beauty that Silence and I, whose backyard also features a flat lawn under a great allee of maples, still talk about creating our own version. But usually, I point out that we already have one, nightly, without causing the slightest jump in the electric bill, all thanks to the abundant lightning bugs that call our backyard home. On a clear, starry night, with stars above and below the trees, we could sit on the deck forever, soaking it all in.

But “forever” is more time than our lightning bugs may have. Reports of global firefly decline made headlines this weekend after an international firefly summit was held in Thailand. The 2,000 known species of firefly—which is actually a beetle rather than a fly, bug, or worm—are apparently threatened by urban and suburban sprawl, industrial pollution, and habitat loss from logging and the like. Already ephemeral (adults live only three weeks), they may soon be extinct. (Google “fireflies” for the AP story, “Experts fear firefly populations are blinking out,” for more details.)

As one self-taught firefly maven from our friend Ben’s home state of Tennessee pointedly put it, “It’s these McMansions with their floodlights.” And as Barbara Kingsolver saw, artificial lighting disrupts the lightning bugs’ mating behavior, which is the actual reason they light up: The males, which are the ones that blink on and off, are signalling their desirability (and availability) to potential mates. If too many other lights come on—and stay on—it may confuse the females, who may no longer be able to see or respond to the males. And with just three weeks in which to mate and produce eggs, a disruption could prove to be the end of the next generation. No wonder populations are in decline!

Even here, in the scenic middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, our friend Ben has seen more floodlights going up, and fewer lightning bugs this year. This is a grief without solution, as far as I can see. Lightning bugs are beautiful rather than useful, so I doubt that knocking on doors, saying “Would you mind turning off your floodlights? You’re destroying lightning bug populations,” would have much effect. (Or, let me amend that, much good effect.) 

I suppose that, with widespread habitat destruction, pollution, and overhunting threatening so many species with extinction, in the Arctic Circle, in the oceans, in the rainforests, lightning bugs may not seem like such a big deal. Who cares about bugs (with the exception of useful insects like bees) when whales and polar bears and songbirds are threatened?

Well, I do. I don’t want to live in a world where lightning bugs no longer usher in the summer night. I don’t want to picture generations of children growing up without seeing the miracle of a lightning bug flashing on their hand or in a jar. I don’t want to lose these wondrous earthbound constellations, this gift of sheer delight from a generous Creator. I don’t want my heart to break because the beauty of the world is blinking out.