A few weeks ago I read a magazine article written by a young woman who was recalling fond memories of watching fireflies on summer evenings as a child with her family. Her parents would bring along a large cage and give it to the girl and her brother so they could catch the fireflies. Children love to run and try to catch animals. Just watch any toddler waving her arms and stampeding a flock of pigeons. But these fireflies stayed in their cage.
When the family left the park at the end of the evening, they took the firefly cage with them and the parents placed it in the children’s bedroom. A living little nightlight. By the time the children woke up the next morning, the firefly cage was gone, discreetly spirited away by their parents during the night so the brother and sister wouldn’t see what happened while they slept.
The fireflies had died.
The writer’s language, as she recounts her later discovery of this gentle deception, shows an uneasy awareness of the insects’ plight, her description of “the dead little bodies,” with their “half-dried wings and quivering, then quiet, legs” demonstrating an empathy with their suffering, even as she never explicitly acknowledges that caging them was wrong. Later in the article, she cites the statistic that fireflies in the wild live for around two months, while those that they caught and caged died within twelve hours, but says nothing further on the subject. The remembrance of the firefly nightlight that she and her brother shared leads the writer instead to reflections on change and mortality.
The lessons parents teach their children about our relationship with nature are so lasting and important, lessons that will influence their attitude toward the earth and its creatures throughout their lives. My parents and I enjoyed watching fireflies, too, but it would never have occurred to any of us to try to capture the little creatures. My mother in particular valued the wildness in wild things and reveled in the free and untrammeled workings of nature. Any animal or plant, any stray cat, any bird, any wild creature had a right to its existence.
Fireflies are living creatures, not toys to be gathered for our use and then discarded. The lives of these insects have a place in the world, of spiritual value to humans, of essential value to the creatures themselves, and ecological value to the world in which they live.
Thanks to Amber Foxx for her assistance in editing this post.