We’re in the warm clutch of summer, when fireflies begin their dance through the deep velvet nights of June and early July. Summer in our villages and towns has to be held close and breathed in because it is sweet and it is brief, and the obvious metaphor for life itself is so poignant.
Fireflies, or lightning bugs, are my flighty icons of summer, but it seems that the joy of the season presents in some very mundane ways. Several friends told me that summer hits them as high-impact pleasure in the form of homegrown beefsteak tomatoes. A long-lost relative of the hard, tasteless pink fruits that pass as tomatoes, the backyard variety is quite sensual and delicious and best if eaten right off the vine, at room temperature, perhaps with a sprinkle of salt.
Lots of people feel that way about other seasonal foods. It doesn’t matter that we can get corn and clams and watermelon all year; the sweetness of corn plucked from a field in the morning and served up just hours later is sublime. Clams and fish just seem to taste better in the summer.
A friend said that the Platonic ideal of summer for her is the very-late-afternoon hour at the beach, after almost everyone has traipsed home with their chairs and their phones and their kids. She says it is the silence-except-for-the-waves and the calling of the gulls that get her thinking that if time stopped, it would be OK.
Summer sounds, or perhaps it’s the silence, speak to me as well. Backyard birds wake me up in the morning. The porch gets so still in midday that I can hear the bees buzzing outside, and toward evening the birds sing again. Soon cicadas will join the symphony. It is the quiet, the escape from man-made noise that feels like an extraordinary gift. Winter can be still, too, especially in a snowstorm, but it chills the soul rather than expanding our senses.
I saw my first firefly maybe two weeks ago, and I sighed to no one, “Summer is here.” Lillybee the dog made a few swipes at the fantastical distractions, but they’re too quick for her, slow as they may be. In an instant I time-traveled to my years growing up in Queens, waiting for the fireflies to arrive so we could snatch them out of the air and put them in glass jars. We poked holes in the metal tops so the bugs could “breathe,” and we let them go after a night flickering away in our dark bedrooms. When we opened the jar, we released the lightning bugs and also a distinctive musky beetle smell that lingers in memory.
What an unlikely creature. According to www.fireflies.org, there are fireflies on every continent except Antarctica. And there are thousands of species, most but not all of which display bioluminescence. The light they produce is uniquely energy-efficient, pure light without heat. Scientists continue to study the bioluminescent chemicals in the hope of finding human applications.
Fireflies grow from larvae that live underground all year. In the larval stage they eat slugs and other soft critters. They emerge in the summer heat and flash their lights in order to attract mates. They either eat other fireflies or don’t eat at all during their brief season on earth. After mating, they die.
In only two places around the world, Southeast Asia and the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, fireflies synchronize their flashing lights for reasons that remain a mystery to scientists. Apparently it’s quite a show.
I’m happy enough with the mini-diamonds flashing around my garden.
And you? What’s your iconic summer experience? The perfect plum? Fireworks on the Fourth? One friend said it was the sight of the camp bus rolling out of the Home Depot parking lot with her three sons onboard. Another friend cherishes the privacy of her mornings, sitting in her garden with a mild espresso and a strong book.
For us firefly lovers, time is short. Along with so many of nature’s gaudy performers, fireflies are endangered by pesticides and encroaching development. It helps to turn off outside lights at night, allow some wood and debris to accumulate and avoid poisons in the garden.
Imagine it: A creature that lights up and flashes its desire out into the night. That says summer to me.
Copyright 2019 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.