July 24, 2016

Partly cloudy

Glowing memories of lightning bugs

“I loved being outside. We’d hold lightning bugs in our fingers and pretend they were diamond rings.”
— Loretta Lynn

Lightning bugs and wild berries — two of summer’s great gifts to a child growing up in the country. Snacks and entertainment — free to all. No batteries, no money required.

Like the coal miner’s daughter, I loved being outside as a kid (still do). I picked wild strawberries, elderberries, black cherries, black raspberries and blackberries (still do).

And on summer nights — usually in June, when the Ohio weather became reliably warm and humid — my brother and I ran around the yard in our pajamas at dusk, feeling the cool dew on our bare feet, and caught lightning bugs. It was a rite of summer.

I don’t do that anymore, but I do enjoy stopping to watch the fireflies emerge in the darkest corners of the yard, under the low tree branches, as the daylight softly fades into tomorrow.

There was an art to catching lightning bugs, which I remember well. The luminous little beetle’s blink lasts only a second, so you’d have to run to the point in the yard where you saw the light, breathlessly wait to see it again, and then scoop the firefly from the air.

Grab a lightning bug in your fist and you’re liable to squish it. The trick was to cup your hand, catch it gently, and then tap the firefly into a washed-out pickle or mayonnaise jar with a perforated lid.

We’d put the jars on our nightstands and fall asleep, staring into the tiny twinkling lights. By morning, the ingenious bugs always figured out how to unscrew the lid and fly back outside to freedom.

OK, it was Mom.

If it seems like there were more lightning bugs when you were a child, you might be right. Reports suggest populations are declining, but the evidence is partly circumstantial, since fireflies are not easy to study. If there are fewer of them today, it’s likely due to the same old culprits that do-in other wild things — pesticides and habitat loss.

There are more than 2,000 species of lightning bugs and each has a unique pattern of flashes. The Morse-Code-like blinks are the insect’s way of communicating and finding a mate. Females lay eggs in the ground, where the larvae eat worms and slugs. The firefly’s lifespan is short, usually only a couple of weeks.

The flashes are created by a chemical reaction that is virtually all light and no warmth, unlike many human-invented lights, which waste a lot of energy by producing heat. Scientists have studied the firefly’s bioluminescence, searching for applications in everything from national defense to cancer research.

The two things lightning bugs need to work their magic are water and darkness. Those happen to be two things many people don’t want around their homes. We like yards that drain well. We view wetlands as undesirable and unproductive.

And we find security in lights. We put them around our homes, in parking lots, along streets and freeways. Even if you live miles from such things, their reflection in the night sky is visible from far away.

We also like uniform lawns and coat them with chemicals that kill just about everything other than the golf-course-like sod we associate with beautiful landscapes. We trim away low-hanging branches and wild shrubs because we want our property to look well-kept.

If there aren’t as many lightning bugs today, all that could have something to do with it. Perhaps their decline is another canary in our coal mine, warning us of the hidden consequences of the way we live.

I said lightning bugs and wild berries are free, but that’s not entirely true. They do require a bit of investment and sacrifice. You have to resist the human impulse to organize and tame native vegetation. That’s hard for many people to do.

It seems we are always trying to recreate all the things God gives us for free. We go to the grocery to buy berries, often shipped from across the country, when they used to grow for free in the fencerows of farms, before the land became housing developments or sprouted McMansions.

We kill the native carpet of lush clover in our yards and pay to maintain perfect grass lawns. We cut down shade trees and buy air conditioners. We move from cities to the country, and then install security lights because the quiet darkness is unsettling. Our homes pipe away the rain and pipe in water from faraway lakes and rivers.

I hope Father God and Mother Nature are sharing a nice pitcher of iced tea on heaven’s front porch and laughing at our follies.

Thank you, God, for your gardening talents. Thank you for the rain, for the shade, for the berries and flowers and soft clover — for all the things that grow and ask us only to let them be.

And thank you for the diamond rings that sparkle in the dusky corners of the yard on a warm June night.

Contact John Gladden at gladden@frontier.com or on Twitter @thatjohngladden.