I saw some fireflies the other evening while I was taking a walk at dusk, the first time I’d seen any in many years.
Ah, fireflies! One of the wonders of my youth. On warm summer nights—which are very common in New York, heavy and humid and sultry—as dusk arrived and night fell, the magic would begin. All the neighborhood kids stayed outside as long as we could, returning home only when our parents forced us back inside to go to bed.
It’s hard to believe, because it’s so rare nowadays in surburbia, but we kids generally spent an enormous amount of time outside of the house, roaming around and doing nothing special. Organized activities were almost unheard of; we made our own fun.
Sometimes it was the sort of thing our parents didn’t know about and wouldn’t have appreciated at all had they known, like playing in the unstable structure of a half-built house where we had to be on the lookout for the owners or the workmen who would chase us away with scary threats. Sometimes it was just the languid pleasure of sitting on the curb, pointy rock in hand, rhythmically hitting a roll of caps, listening to the resultant “pow!” and watching the small spark (it smelled wonderful, too).
Sometimes our activity was more structured, such as a game of spud. Throw the ball up, catch, try to hit someone with it. Fun. Then there were the acorn wars, in the autumn when the oaks that dominated our neighborhood dropped their bounty and we collected the nuts into wagons and threw them at each other without any sense that this activity might be at all dangerous.
We wore cowboy outfits when it suited us, complete with hats, holsters, and toy guns. Sometimes we were the Indians and got tied to trees. When things were really dull, we dressed up in whatever else was at hand: long flowing skirts from our mothers, hula outfits, and ubiquitous ballerina garb.
Here’s neo-neocon in one of those early incarnations:
But fireflies were the best of the best. They swooped conveniently low, just the right height for a child to catch in her hands and watch the glow illuminate her fingers. Then they were released, only to be caught again. They lit up in a certain predictable rhythm. Just a moment’s flash, but a sharp eye could see and find unlit ones even in the dark, especially by moonlight.
Fireflies loved the suburban yards of my youth, perhaps because the woods were very near. They were easy to catch. But we learned to our sorrow that snatching them and putting them into jars—even if we were careful to punch holes for air so they could breath—only led to a bunch of dead fireflies the next morning.
We didn’t want to kill the fireflies, only to capture their beauty and have them for pets, to watch them luminesce to our heart’s delight. But alas; we learned we could only catch and hold them for one brief shining moment.
[NOTE: Here's just about everything you wanted to know about fireflies. And if that's not enough, here's some more. It turns out---not surprisingly---that the flash of the flying fireflies is associated with males looking for females. And for some reason, fireflies don't luminesce west of Kansas, although no one quite knows why.]