Do you want to see fireflies? I asked my 9-year-old daughter.
“Oh, yes!” she answered.
“There’s a Firefly Walk this Friday night at Armand Bayou Nature Center. I’ll sign us up.”
And so we went - me, her, and my mother. We arrived in the early evening of an early May day, before the Houston summer heat had made the notion of tromping around a bayou something only an insane person would choose to do. We gathered with other bug enthusiasts in a half-circle around our guide for the evening, a teacher by profession and nature lover by passion. Our group was an assorted lot of parents accompanying children of various ages and attention spans. Our guide explained how many species of fireflies there are in the world (2,000), how the insects produce light (two chemicals, luciferase and luciferin, convert to energy in their tails), and what their lights means (this boy firefly finds this girl firefly very attractive). “Hopefully, we’ll see some tonight,” the guide said. And then we were off, down a dirt and gravel path into the scrubby thicket of trees sprouting around the brackish water of Armand Bayou.
We saw birds. But no fireflies. We saw turtles. But no fireflies. We walked until the path ended at the water. We saw the orange sun sink behind the trees with the colors of the night swirling down to meet it. But no fireflies. So, we turned and started back. The path grew dark, and stars began to twinkle in the slivers of sapphire sky we glimpsed through the tree canopy. A slight desperation sounded in our guide’s voice as she used a black-light to illuminate colorful lichen growing on the bark of trees newly-grown since the great hurricane, Ike, laid waste to the area a handful of years back. The children delighted in the colorful displays revealed by the light, but I was disappointed. This isn’t what I came to see.
And then, we approached a clearing.
“Is that one?”
Voices shouted the reports as the children dashed about.
“Look, Laura, over there! Do you see it?” I asked my daughter.
“I see it! I see it!” She ran off to chase after the dozen-or-so glowing insects flitting near the trees.
It was time to go. Our relieved guide gathered us together and led the way back to parking lot. “I saw fireflies, so we got our money’s worth!” Laura exclaimed, satisfied.
“When I was a little girl, we called them lightning bugs,” I said.
Do you want to see fireflies? I asked my 17-year-old son.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a firefly,” he answered. I maneuvered the car around the curves of Vestavia Drive in Vestavia Hills, Alabama a month later. We had come to see family; me and my mother returning home, my children visiting a place they had only heard about. I drove them along this street, winding along the crest of Shades Mountain, to show them the view. They are children of flat land, steam-rolled flatter than a pancake. I wanted to show them a mountaintop and everything spread out below. I stopped the car on the shoulder of the road, a street lined on one side with fine, large homes from the first half of the 20th century, the days of Vestavia’s founding as a suburban enclave on a rocky peak just south of Birmingham. Across the street from the houses, the land drops away, down to Shades Valley below. Each homeowner also owns the parcel of land across the street, so that nothing can be built to block the view - the view of the valley cradling the city of Homewood and Samford University, my alma mater. The valley spreads to the north, and in the distance, silhouetted against the darkening sky, the statue of Vulcan, god of the forge, lifted his spear as a symbol of Birmingham, a city founded on iron, coal, and limestone, the holy triumvirate necessary for steel-making. We came to the mountaintop to see the view, but as we admired it, something else caught my eye. A flash by the azaleas. A twinkle by the boxwoods. “Do you want to see fireflies?” I asked Davis.
And when he said he had never seen one, I said, “Look there.” Laura saw them first, two twirling around each other, streaking light as they went. And then they were everywhere, emerging from the bushes and trees all around us, flitting around in the warm air of a June Southern evening. And we saw many, flashing in the yards throughout my hometown, during our visit.
We left Birmingham and drove southeast, along U.S. 280 to Auburn for my son to visit the campus of Auburn University, my daddy’s alma mater. And from there we drove southwest along Interstate 85 to meet I-65 in Montgomery which led the way to my daddy’s house near Mobile Bay. The fireflies were with us, twinkling in the bushes along the side of the freeway, until we passed through the state capital, and then they were gone. “Why aren’t we seeing any more fireflies?” Davis asked.
“When I was a little girl, we called them lightning bugs,” I said.
Do you want to see fireflies? No, I want to see lightning bugs. The lightning bugs of my childhood nights. Evenings in our backyard. The air cooler as the sun dipped low. I ran around in the grass, always with a long stick in my hand brandished like either a sword or a wand, depending on the flight of my imagination at that twilight hour. They emerged from the bushes and my mother’s plants. They darted and flashed. I caught them in my hand, quite easily I recall. I watched each one flash his little tail as he sat on my palm. I cupped my hands closed and saw the light glow on and off through the cracks between my fingers. I released each bug into the air. And then I caught the next one, stopping only occasionally to pluck a blossom from the honeysuckle vine that spilled over the chain-link fence between our house and the next-door-neighbor’s. I pulled the cap off the blossom, drawing the stamen out the bottom, and dripped the sweet nectar on my tongue. And then I chased the next darting flash until the dusky violet twilight deepened into velvety blackness and I could no longer spot the lightning bugs’ dark bodies swooping around me.
My yard now sits a few blocks from a lake that’s really a bay that empties into another lake that’s really a bay that spills into Galveston Bay which empties into the Gulf of Mexico. With all that water around, there are bugs. Plenty of bugs. Beautiful ones like dragonflies and butterflies. And annoying ones. Itch-inducing, disease-carrying ones. Mosquitoes. The truck comes by regularly on the many-months-long Houston summer nights. The buzz of the spraying truck is only slightly less annoying than the buzz of the nuisances it comes to exterminate. The poisonous fog spews into the air.
I never see lightning bugs in my yard.
Less than two miles away from my house, I sat in the half-circle gathered to listen to the guide for our Firefly Walk. The brochure I held in my hand that night by the bayou stated, “Fireflies are very familiar on summer evenings.” I wish that it were so. That I could walk into my yard at nightfall and wait for the little flashes to begin. A light show put on by little bugs shining their little lights in the great, big darkness.
May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,Leigh Ann Thornton