As twilight falls, as we approach August, the little sparks of light appear nightly– fireflies, lightning bugs, glow worms, whatever one chooses to call them. They start early in July– one sees a few sparks here and there but as July draws to a close, twilights dawn with a display of tiny fireworks. Why do they hold such fascination for young and old alike? Why do they bring us such a sense of wonder as they flicker on and off in some rhythm unknown to us but titillating in their communication with each other?
Of course I remember, like everyone else, catching fireflies. It was a ritual my Sicilian grandfather reenacted with me every summer. Grandma would save me a peanut butter jar, nicely washed with little holes in the top she made with an old-fashioned can opener. Grandpa and I would go out for an after-dinner walk, a treat in itself. It was an excursion with a purpose, a hunt to catch those bugs whose tail ends light up, on and off, I learned later, to signal mates.
Grandpa always managed to catch one and we would walk home victorious, with me clutching my precious jar with my favorite kind of bug residing within. There was the exciting story we would tell Grandma and she would give me a lettuce leaf in case the bug should be hungry in the night. Then to bed. And then the real waiting began– lying in the dark with the jar on the bedside table waiting for my captive bug to alight. I would wait and wait but no flickering light appeared and before long I would fall asleep in the arms of disappointment.
It was even worse in the morning. The lightning bug did not look well. His antennae would be damp and sticking to the jar in a bad way. He was not eating the lettuce leaf. And this was my first lesson in the perils of capturing and imprisoning a wild creature. They did not behave like they did when free. Finally in a child’s form of despair, I would let him go and he would leave so much the worse for wear. What is this human quest to capture animals for our own pleasure at their peril? Think zoos, circuses, the exotic pet trade. It is awe gone rancid, becoming greed, selfishness, a fetid form of supremacy.
Years later, on my husband’s great aunt’s farm in Ohio, the trees would be filled with lightning bugs mating. It was a sight I had never seen. Whole trees would light up at once and upon close examination one would find hundreds of fireflies. It was a cathedral of flickering lights that inspired reverence for God as we beheld the mystery with our hearts.
And now, living in a converted barn which allows many bugs to enter despite window screens, I no longer want to capture fireflies and put them in a jar. I am happy to see them fly freely inside and outside the house. They bring sheer delight as they light up in the darkness. I am a child again with my grandfather, as I stay awake as long as possible, watching the little flickering lights inside the room and outside in the trees. I think of simpler days and after dinner walks with Grandpa. I think a lot of my grandparents with nostalgia, and the magic of this tiny bug amazes still. But wild creatures belong in the wild. A lesson to be learned from this Midsummer Night’s dream.