August 6th, 2008

Fireflies and other childish pleasures

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:

cowgirl2-6-13-2004-10-50-40-pm.jpg

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.]

26 Responses to “Fireflies and other childish pleasures”

  1. Dave Moelling Says:

    Without AC, Cable and Internet evenings were best spent outside. Less parental fear of strangers/predators also helped. A higher density of kids in the neighborhood was also conducive to firefly hunting.

    (One last factor I forgot was skeeters. Before environmentalism came skeeters were fought like an invading army with DDT and drainage of water. Now in New England we have wetlands, damp spots, and just mud where mosquitos breed driving everyone indoors at night)

  2. vanderleun Says:

    She’s a rounder I can tell you that
    She can sing ‘em all night too
    She’ll raise hell about the sleep she lost
    Even cowgirls get the blues

  3. vanderleun Says:

    Resist gun control. Make them give you back your pistols!

  4. vanderleun Says:

    And by the way, what about that Obama!!??

  5. vanderleun Says:

    If I read this correctly, the sekrit neoconnian subtext is that Obama does not want to kill voters, only capture them and keep them as pets.

  6. Jamie Says:

    I’m incredibly lucky to have found a neighborhood that appears to have been lifted, lock, stock, and barrel, from those days… Our neighborhood has big unfenced lots, a good amount of common land with woods at its margins and little copses of trees throughout, a creek running through it to a shallow pond with fun-to-catch fish that’s also a fantastic place to iceskate in the winter, a swimming pool and “clubhouse” for neighborhood events, tons of kids, tons of fireflies, and a neighborly attitude among residents that whatever kids happen to be passing through your yard, you should take note of them, answer their greetings, occasionally throw out a “Hey, you kids, pick up that candy wrapper!”, and generally be in loco parentis in the event of danger or trouble.

    A couple of years ago, my oldest, then nine, and a friend were poking sticks into the creek (more fun than it sounds, I guess), and stumbled into a nest of ground-dwelling bees. They were swarmed, multiply stung (we stopped counting at 50 on my son), and came running out of the brush toward the pool – where a neighbor raced out of the fence, tore off his shirt, beat away the bees, hustled the kids into the pool while telling the lifeguard we all hire to call 911, and got someone else to call us at home (because we were in fact at home, not helicoptering around our boy). Everyone in the neighborhood knows the story; many witnessed it. Not one person has ever suggested that the boys were insufficiently supervised or shouldn’t be allowed to play near the creek. I consider that a real rarity today!

  7. Fausta Says:

    I love the outfit, and the boots are to die for! My brother & I used to have cowboy/girl outfits with matching pistols that are now very difficult to find.

    Your boots are much nicer than mine, since yours appear to have a 3-color design. Mine were black and red.

    Obama who, Gerard?

  8. Steven Says:

    What’s the Matter With Kansas?

    Sincerely,

    Thomas Franks

  9. Steven Says:

    Whoops. I meant Thomas Frank.

  10. gcotharn Says:

    There has to be a stick horse nearby.

  11. Trimegistus Says:

    I’d bet it’s moisture that keeps them from luminescing west of Kansas. That’s where the rainfall drops off — and, not coincidentally, where land use turns from farming to ranching or timber. Also not coincidentally, the proportion of federally-owned land goes up as the rainfall goes down. So those western fireflies probably need more water.

  12. Cappy Says:

    Ah Hah!
    I knew it all along! Toy guns! Simulating the entire enslavement and genocide of ThirdWorldCultures(tm). Hideous competition and physical violence through the so-called game of “Spud”, where the stupid and the slow are not respected! Blahblahblahblahblah…

    Oh. OK, I’ll take my meds now.

  13. betsybounds Says:

    Well I lived in a neighborhood just like this one, with all the magic and beauty there–only it was evidently before the days of “catch and release.” We used to catch our fireflies and tear the light off the tail of the little buggers, then put them on our ring fingers and pretend they were diamonds. Yikes! You wouldn’t get away with that today, but it was fun.

  14. Terrye Says:

    I had one f those outfits too. I have been seeing more fireflies too recently. I live in the country and it seems to me that all sorts of creatures are making a comeback.

  15. Bob Estes Says:

    In Texas we called them lightning bugs. Nowhere near as poetic a word, but the creatures were just as magical. Actually, lightning bug is pretty poetic also, now that I think about it. Glad my kids got to catch some in Conn. Very cute in your cowgirl outfit!

  16. expat Says:

    We called them lightning bugs.

  17. ligneus Says:

    We lived in the country south of London [UK] in the war, every night we’d be woken by our parents and taken to the ‘dugout’, which was something like a cave dug into a hillside, a home made air raid shelter. Though I don’t remember any bombs falling in the area, there were dog fights overhead, searchlights scanning the sky, sometimes Doodlebugs [V1's] flying over and one Sat morning a lone German bomber dropped his bombs on a large building in the nearby town of East Grinstead which happened to be the town cinema and of course full of kids for the Sat morning matinee.
    One of our delights on the way to the dugout was to find glow worms, which, unlike fireflies, have a steady, surprisingly bright glow, and we’d put them in jam jars. I don’t remember how long they survived.

  18. njcommuter Says:

    MMmm, fireflies. When I was a child my family lived in Queens Village (in Queens, NY) and all the kids chased them. When my family moved to Westchester, I noticed there didn’t seem to be as many of them, but when I went for long walks around parks and paths, I saw them again. But where I was used to seeing yellow fireflies, these looked bluish-white. When I approached them, they disappeared or stopped flashing so I never found out if they were a different species or if I was just seeing them differently because of the surrounding light.

  19. ligneus Says:

    Here is an account of the cinema bombing, and my memory is faulty, it was on a Friday afternoon but there were many children attending.

  20. Roy Lofquist Says:

    Every once in a while I just kinda choke up. Thank you.

    By the way, your parents knew. The olden days were not nearly as good as we remember, but I think we might have been a little wiser then,

  21. strcpy Says:

    “A couple of years ago, my oldest, then nine, and a friend were poking sticks into the creek (more fun than it sounds, I guess), ”

    You must either be female or lived in a city, I can easily recall how much fun poking sticks in the creek was :)

    We (Tennessee) also call them Lightning bugs (or, more properly we call then “lightnun bugs”).

    “We used to catch our fireflies and tear the light off the tail of the little buggers, then put them on our ring fingers and pretend they were diamonds.”

    We smeared them in streaks across our face to have glow in the dark camo. I guess glowing faces weren’t really a god way to hide but at nine or ten it wasn’t much fun unless you actually shot each other in the BB gun wars so we weren’t really hiding anyway. I shudder to think what today’s nanny state would think of that one (especially since we usually started off in the day by blowing things up, cutting down a few trees in the woods behind the house and “sword fighting”, and then having an all out bottle rocket battle).

    Sadly one of the things that has really hurt their population is the multitude of mulching mowers in use now. They rest during the day in the grass and the suction on the mulchers is enough to suck them up and kill them.

    It’s unusual to see them like we did even back in the late 80′s and early 90′s. In the late 80′s at the gun range when we would turn the lights off there would be several hundreds of the things out in the fields. Nowadays if there are 50 of them the kids that are still around make a comment about how many there are.

  22. Gail Says:

    Ahh, lightning bugs. We put them in jars, too, but after an hour or so our parents would make us release them.

    Anyone else catch June bugs? Dad would capture one, tie a thread around a rear leg, and we would fly it helicopter-style around our heads. Great buzzing noise.

    We had the best woods you ever saw (this was in South Carolina): a wide expanse of some hundred acres between old neighborhoods with trees. Within, a creek with a log bridge, an earthen dam and a small lake, swinging vines, an abandoned apple orchard that had vines growing over the trees making them look like green beehives (you could slip inside and climb the tree, and watch through the scrim of leaves, unseen by all passersby on the trail). The creek banks had clay you could make things out of. There was a creeper-draped cathedral of very tall trees, surrounded by lower bushes that were canopied with creeper vines, so low that only kids and dogs could follow the labyrinthine trails beneath. That was the only way into the woodland cathedral. It was like the scene in The Wind in the Willows where Ratty and Mole found the god Pan in a glade.

    The swinging vine we loved the best was attached so high up in its tree, some 60 feet, that it gave you a real flat arc, and would fly you waaaaay out over some low-growing bushes. Closest I ever came to feeling like Peter Pan.

    And we ran free all day long, and the neighborhood moms would keep a weather eye out the window on us, but never let us know. It was divine. I really ache for the kids who are supervised to death and plugged into the damn video games and ipods all day long. You go on a trip with them and they don’t talk to you or look at the scenery. Pitiful.

    My dad told me a funny anecdote about his boyhood in Atlanta. They lived in a big old house on Peachtree Road, and there was a basement dug into the side of the hill. He and his cousin Jimmy discovered a rat hole down there.

    “We took our .22s and decided to deal with the rat problem,” he reminisced the other day. (Boys in the South were routinely given a .22 rifle as a rite of passage at age 12, and taught responsible gun handling by their fathers.) “Jimmy and I sat by that hole, watching the cheese bait for the longest time. Finally a rat showed up and we popped it: but it disappeared so fast we thought we’d missed it. But pretty soon it staggered out and died.

    “You know, we never did see another one,” he chuckled.

    Now that’s how you deal with varmints.

  23. rickl Says:

    I’ve always loved fireflies. They’re the most beautiful insects, and utterly harmless.

    I still see lots of them in early summer (June & July) but not so much now that it’s August.

    I’m sure I caught them in jars when I was a kid, but I don’t remember doing anything else to them. Nor would I condone it.

    I hadn’t noticed a drop in their population here in Pennsylvania, but I’d have to compare pictures taken today with ones from 20 years ago, which I don’t have.

    Unfortunately, I do have a mulching mower. Hopefully, through natural selection, they’ll “learn” to rest in bushes or trees instead of in the grass.

  24. SteveH Says:

    I spent the first 10 years of my life wearing a super hero cape around my neck fashioned out of a towel and clothespin.

    The times i didn’t have that on i was Little Joe Cartwright.

    You knew it was a productive summer day when you left a big ole ring in the tub after being forced to take a bath.

  25. Gringo Says:

    Neo, your cowgirl outfit reminded me of the Rodgers and Hart song
    Way out West ( on West End Avenue).

    VERSE

    I’d travel the plains.
    In mountain streams I’d paddle.
    Over the Rockies I would trail.
    I’d hark to the strains
    of cowboys in the saddle-
    not very musical but male.
    I’ve roamed o’er the range with the herd,
    where seldom is heard an intelligent word.

    REFRAIN

    Git along, little taxi, you can keep the change.
    I’m riding home to my kitchen range
    Way out west On west end avenue.
    Oh, I love to listen to the wagon wheels
    that bring the milk that your neighbor steals
    Way out west On west end avenue.
    Keep all your mountains
    and your lone prairie so pretty,
    give me the fountains
    that go wring at Rodeo City.
    I would trade your famous deer and antelope
    for one tall beer and a cantaloupe
    Way out west On west end avenue.
    Yippee-aye-ay!

    Note that your beloved cantaloupes are featured in the song. Concidentally, my roommate my freshman year in college was born and raised on West End Avenue.

  26. waltj Says:

    I remember fireflies very well growing up in Detroit. They’d come out on those languid summer nights, usually just after it had become too dark to continue playing “running bases” (our pickup game of choice; baseball got in my blood early and has never left). I never caught fireflies. Too easy. My friends and I were more inclined towards the daytime activity of catching bees and wasps in Mason jars. That had a bit more of an edge to it. It was pure luck none of us ever got stung. Our parents knew we were catching the critters, and let us do it, too. Figured we’d learn our lesson if we did get stung.

    What we did catch at night, my dad and I, was nightcrawlers (large earthworms, for you non-anglers) for our Sunday fishing trips up to my uncle’s house on the lake out in the “country”. Caught everything from bluegills to the occasional northern pike on ‘em. My various aunts would then cook them for dinner. To me, this seemed like the most natural way to spend a summer–fishing, playing ball, doing crazy stuff like catching potentially dangerous stinging insects, all with just enough adult supervision to keep it from getting completely out of hand. Don’t know how many kids get to have that experience these days, but my guess is not that many.

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About Me

Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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