The Lightning Bugs


Last night I pulled into my driveway, stepped out of my car, and stared at the trees looming in the darkness behind my house. Thousands of fireflies flashed their messages as they zipped in and out of the leafy shadows.

“Why don’t we ever try to catch them anymore?” I wondered.

When we were children, we played outside after dark during many summer nights.  At my house in the suburbs, streetlights cast enough light to keep me from being afraid of the monsters that I was sure were lurking in the darkness. But beyond the city limits at my grandmother’s house, lights were a luxury that belonged to the house and hand-held flashlights. Streetlights didn’t grow on trees, and the monsters used this to their advantage. They lurched closer, their long slimy tentacles and rough furry arms grasping for us just beyond the safety of our flashlights.

But firefly season made me feel braver. Fireflies weren’t afraid of the monsters in the dark. They flew right up to the dark and flashed their shiny butts (though we weren’t allowed to say the word “butts” in our house when I was a little girl) right in the faces of the child-eating boogeymen that I imagined. If the tiny little fireflies could do that, so could I.

I captured one like my elders taught me, leaving a jar open on the grass and clamping down the lid when the brave lightning bug flew inside to investigate.  Now he – or she – was my tiny, winged talisman, my natural defense against all things that go bump in the dark woods beyond the wide lawn. 

“Are they made of lightning?” I asked my mother.

“No,” she answered, and she went on to describe in age-appropriate detail the chemical reaction that made them glow in their search for a mate. My mother has always had an amazing knack for teaching. In retrospect, most of my childhood was just an extended lesson in math or science.

On one solemn occasion, we sacrificed a firefly in the name of science, squishing it on a piece of paper to release its mysterious chemicals and time how long they would continue to shine.  We killed it like the king killed the goose that laid the golden eggs, I thought, reminded of one of my favorite nursery rhymes.  At least this glowing goose had a lesson inside.

The rest of our fireflies escaped being squished. We caught them, stared at them, counted their legs and studied their wings, and contemplated using them as natural lanterns on a scouting mission into the pine forest. But we always let them go in the end. They always seemed flummoxed when we released them, impatient to join their brethren and confused about how they ever got into the jar in the first place. Away they flew, flashing their bottled lightning with pent up ferocity, lighting up the darkest corners of the night.

Last night, I thought about trying to catch fireflies again. Why has it been so long since I’ve done it? Maybe I’m just older, more mature and sophisticated, more aware that they are so much more beautiful in the trees than in a jar, and it would be a pity to remove even one. Maybe it’s case of having been there and done that; the magic is gone, and catching them would be boring. Besides, what will I do with them once I catch them?

There’s only one way to find out, and I've got a lot of mason jars ready to go.

photo credit: 4T3A5039 copy via photopin (license)