July 10, 2003


"Our General...sayled to a certain little Island to the Southwards of Celebis...throughly growen with Wood of a large and high growth.... Amongst these Trees, night by night, through the whole Land, did shew themselves an infinite swarme of fierie Wormes flying in the Ayre, whose bodies being no bigger than common English Flyes, make such a shew and light, as if every Twigge or Tree had beene a burning Candle." Sir Francis Drake 1577

It is July 1981 and we are sitting on the front porch steps of our first place truly in the country, about sixty miles from where I sit this morning. It is our first night in the new house that does not seem to be ours yet, will not for some months, but rather a quaint little cottage that now contains all of our things. It is not our front porch or our pasture or our road yet, but we are starting the process of allowing that place to own us. There are the same warm barely perceptible evening breezes, insect noises and undefinable aromas then as we know now from this front porch, so the moment is easy to recall in memory.

The horizon some miles away appears faintly as a gray-pink outline each time the thunderhead flashes lightning over Grayson County to the south. There is no thunder, only whirring stridulations of a vast chorus of bush crickets, katydids and a hundred voices that are new to us. And the fireflies begin to emerge from the tall grass, first a few and near us, then by the hundreds, blinking candlelights down the meadow, and up across the road by the old house and field. To the vanishing point they rise and blink and signal. Indigo dark is punctuated by cool flickers of amber and lime, some sustained, some staccato code, many rising during their brief pulse, others falling, the females waiting patiently on the tips of timothy grass for motherhood.

Then, the headlights of an approaching car beam over the pasture ridge, sweeping briefly across the meadow as the car turns off. And I imagine that, with that signal, hundreds of the thousand fireflies blinked together in response to this greater light. Yes, it happens too at times with lightning near enough to produce stroboscopic shadows of trees along the road. Yes, there are times that a small detachment of these lowly luminous beetles work together briefly in the same language, synchronized by light... a language they both produce, and understand. I am amazed.

But consider this greater wonder: In a few places in Thailand and Malaysia, every single firefly blinks no more than 13 milliseconds before or after its thousand neighbors, producing a stunning stroboscopic chorus of light alternating with brief periods where every last one of the thousands all pause together for a short while before starting the giant synaptic pulse once more. And compounding this oddity, there is one place not far from here, in the heart of the Smoky Mountains, where one can see synchronous fireflies. There it begins in one part of the cove, and passes like a human stadium wave to include every part of the super-organism that can encompass many acres of woods and field. And this seems worthy of a pilgrimage later this month.

Posted by fred1st at July 10, 2003 07:01 AM | TrackBack

The Elkmont synchronous fireflies are truly one of nature's wonders to see. The show used to be one of the Smokies "secrets", known only by the locals and those who happen to visit Elkmont at the right time. In the last few years, the show has gained alot of press and is attracting large crowds now, which, is not necessarily a bad thing. Oh well, there are still other secrets, such as a 1900 era steam train laying on the forest floor on one of the highest mountains in the Park, and hidden coves where the forest floor is covered with an outrageous display of wildflowers as far as the eye can see, but don't ask me about those.
I believe the firefly show is over by the end of June. If you are considering a pilgrimage, you might call the NPS at (865)436-1200 to check.

Posted by: fletch at July 10, 2003 07:33 AM

My daughter and I were admiring the fireflies last night here in the mountains of PA. They truly are a wonder as most things are on the farm. I thought (hoped) you might write about them. Thanks, Fred!

Posted by: connie at July 10, 2003 06:36 PM

I was walking one of my favorite trails on the Berry College campus in north Georgia, back when I was a student there. It was the old dirt road back to Possum Trot (Fred, you may remember that road), lined with big shady trees on either side and surrounded by pastures. It was dusk, and the fireflies were out in force.

There was a copse of trees off in the distance, and as I approached I could see that the fireflies, for whatever reason, had chosen to concentrate their numbers in this spot. Their lights filled the branches and lit them up like Christmas trees...thousands of them, blinking and pulsating, and every so often they would seem to synchronize and blink in time for a few beats, then the effect would dissipate. It was one of the most magical things I've ever seen. I think it's unlikely that I'll ever see a firefly display like that again.

Posted by: Curt at July 11, 2003 09:34 AM

I remember a conversation we had once about whether non-humans have "rhythm." What say you now?

Posted by: nathan at July 11, 2003 10:23 AM

Post a comment

Remember Me?