This story requires a photograph. A photograph would make it easier to convince you that what I saw was real. But unfortunately it would be a photograph that is virtually impossible to take. Not completely impossible – a tripod and a long exposure would probably capture something - but even if you could conquer the exposure there would be no way to portray the depth or the stillness or the majesty. This was a once-in-a-lifetime event: pure, three-dimensional, wonder in-the-round.
I happened upon it last week by happy accident during a quiet midnight walk around the neighborhood on a hot, still, sticky mid-June night. There were no street lights, the sky was moonless and dark as coal. The temperature during the day had been in the high 90’s with heat indices well into the 100’s.
Even at midnight the heat continued to radiate from the pavement. There were fireflies flitting about, “Uncle Tim’s Fireflies” I call them, because they always peak around his birthday on June 16th.
But on this particular night they weren’t near the ground, they mostly hovered in the trees. As I approached the empty lot I could see a strange light radiating from the clearing. And as I walked into the center of the lot I was struck speechless. I stood there for a few minutes in awe. I had never seen anything like this in my life before.
I returned to the house immediately and rousted the daughter, who had just gone to bed.
“Sweet Pea, get up, get dressed… quick, you’ve gotta see this!”
“Just come, you won’t believe it.
Our small Pennsylvania neighborhood was built upon a rounded limestone ridge in the middle of a tight meander in the river. It was laid out in the 1940’s and 50’s and then filled in in the 1960’s and 70’s. But with the exception of the occasional odd lot or major addition, development long ago passed it over and moved on. The bushes have become overgrown and the trees have become old and gentrified. Ignoring property boundaries, the collective yards have become a dense and mature forest of fat gnarly maples, stodgy oaks, blotchy sycamores, and tall aging tulips.
Just down the road, at the apex of the river bend, sits an empty lot. It is a low spot that floods spectacularly each time the river crests. As such, it is impossible to build on and so it stands empty and undeveloped.
The trees of the forest spill down the hill until they meet the flood plain. There they end abruptly and are met by an ambitious understory of invasive species like ailanthus and bamboo that compete aggressively for space, knowing full-well that regardless of what does manage to catch on, it will likely be uprooted or buried by the silty muds of the next major flood.
Last summer a developer went in and spent a few days clearing out the underbrush in the empty lot and cutting sight lines down to the river. They left the big trees along the edge but cut down or bulldozed those on the flood plain. Out in the middle of the lot they built a retaining wall of large sturdy limestone boulders.
Inside this wall they buried a layer cake of sand, stone and rock, tamping it down with large machines and spraying it heavily with water to collapse the soil and bind the layers together. It was leveled off at a height just above the top of the local flood plain. With more boulders and sand, large machines built an inclined ramp that connected the platform with the road above. Together these constructions form a sturdy (if not hastily placed) platform upon which someone may someday (foolishly) attempt to build a house. But it also provides a uniform, circular incision into the woods along the river.
The daughter and I walked quietly down the road to the old lot where we opened the imaginary door and walked down the incline onto the platform in the center of the clearing.
In every direction fireflies were throbbing and cavorting. There were bazillions of them. But they were nowhere else around the neighborhood, they seemed to all be here at the empty lot and we were smack in the middle of it.
It was a spontaneously-ordered, secret gathering of like-minded and genetically similar individuals for the purpose of celebrating in the midst of June.
It was a firefly flash mob.
“They’re not all the same you know,” says my daughter matter-of-factly, “each different species has its own frequency, brightness and pattern of flashes.”
I look again and a new dimension is added. Now the flashes become urgent strings of information: phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. The world becomes the inside of a fiber optic nerve – information traveling back and forth in every conceivable direction like a gigantic, three-dimensional microchip, transmitting pulses of light in complicated patterns.
It was as if a million bazillion bugs were reading the encyclopedia out loud and all at once. The forest was screaming at the top of its lungs but not making a single sound.
It was literally like being at the center of a gigantic 360 degree globe. It was a huge goblet, a glass basin of fireflies. There was no inside or outside; there was no upside, there was no downside. There was only near and far and then farther still as the flashing insects ripped messages back and forth like a zillion LEDs pulsating at the speed of nature. They were talking at a rate faster than an old man could watch.
I looked down to see my feet but they had disappeared behind the urgent flashing of fireflies in the grass. I had no feet, I had no arms. There WERE no feet and arms. We had become engulfed. There were only fireflies – infinitely in every direction.
You couldn’t photograph it, you surely couldn’t paint it. All you could do is stand quietly and experience it, taking mental notes and hoping that later (now) you might take your best shot at trying to describe it.
This is a once in a lifetime event, I told the daughter: “you’re right now seeing fireflies as good as they get; you’ll likely never see fireflies like this again. And if you DO… then you are a very lucky person."
The daughter and I stood there in silence for the longest time. Finally one of us spoke.
“Should we go wake Mom up?”
We looked at each other and then back at the flash mob.
“Yeah, we’d better.”