A Pavlovian Response Rewards One with Wonder
The Many of these postings have been about looking back—conjuring memorable events to capture some of my personal history to share with my daughters and grandchildren.
How many of you have memories of a summer evening that includes fireflies or lightning bugs? I sure do. For example, I recall seeing scattered lightning bugs rising up above the grass, presumably trying to communicate with a potential mate. My mother’s family used have picnics at Grandpa’s “farm” in West Virginia. My cousins and I (all under the age of ten years) would get glass jars, capture fireflies and parade them around showing them off to our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles—whomever’s attention we could get to admire our collection of “blinking bugs.”
My mother always made my cousins and me set them free at the end of the evening. It is one of those childhood memories that always makes me smile.
I recently had an experience that conjured those memories—only, in this instance the experience greatly exceeded my childhood remembrance.
Our home is located in a very rural area in Middle Tennessee. There is a pasture on the west side of the house.
Now, to set the scene for this experience, I have to explain that I get teased about my response to aircraft sounds. On the evening in question, at about 10:00 pm, I heard the distinctive slap-slap-slap of helicopter rotors that sounded lower than usual, and in a true Pavlovian response, hustled out into the front yard.
There is a row of trees on the east side of the property and I could see the aircraft’s lights blinking through the trees as it flew low overhead and continued on its way. I confess a bit of envy. It was a beautiful night to fly. The sky above was clear, the big dipper hung directly overhead, accompanied by a sky full of other stars.
I would have been content at that point and gone back in the house.
But then I noticed flashes of light high up in a tall hickory tree. The lights looked like white twinkle lights—bright and sharp. Fireflies! Not used to seeing fireflies high up in trees, I scanned several other tall trees in the yard. Each tree had its own set of flashing lights. More commonly we will see a few lightning bugs rising up above the grass in the pasture. Then my eyes were drawn to tall oaks 200 yards across the pasture, and I could see more flashes—not just occasional but many flashes in the trees. I watched in fascination.
As my eyes fully adjusted to the dark, I was able to take in the whole scene. There were many hundreds of fireflies, not only in the trees but hovering, rising and falling, across the whole pasture. I have never seen the numbers and density of lights like this before. It had the feel of a host of Disney-animated wonderland fairies flitting across the open fields against the dark backdrop of the woodland on the far side of the pasture. I called Peggy to share the scene.
We stood silent, mesmerized by the ebb and flow of light across the pasture. At times, all of fireflies would illuminate at about the same moment, then their individual rhythms would cause the light intensity to subside, then build back to another amazing display. A light foggy mist hung over the pasture, and the lower fireflies emitted an undulating, fairly-like ephemeral glow, while those higher were sharp points of blinking light.
The air was filled with the intoxicating aroma of sweet honeysuckle and privet flowers. Crickets in the fields provided a steady chorus under the rising and falling chirp of small frogs. We were immersed in light, sound, and aromatic sensory stimulation.
I do not know how to adequately describe this event, except to say that at that moment, I felt extremely grateful to be alive and present for this magnificent show.
Incidentally, I went out the next night to see if the fireflies were still there. They were, but the level of activity was perceptively less, not the emotion-stirring performance of the night before.
Footnote: There is an annual display of synchronized firefly flashing in Elkmont in the Smoky Mountains—that is all of the fireflies in the group flash at the same time in the same rhythm. Peggy and other members of Sisters on the Fly have attended this amazing display in the past and plan to be on hand for this year’s synchronized firefly display.