The Wildness in Wild Things

Photo by Art Farmer (Evansville, Ill.), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (Firefly 0877)

Photo by Art Farmer (Evansville, Ill.), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (Firefly 0877)

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.


Photo by Art Farmer (Evansville, Ill.), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (Firefly 0877)

Photo by Art Farmer (Evansville, Ill.), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (Firefly 0877)

At this time of year, twilight is marked by tiny flickers of light. Over the ivy, fairy lights wink in and out as the fireflies dance in their annual revelry.

I remember hearing years ago that by the early ’60s DDT had all but wiped out the firefly population, but then, after it was banned, they began coming back. So I also see these dancing lights as beacons of hope. Hope that humankind can change its ways and respect the natural world. Hope that we humans can appreciate the beauty of earth enough to change our foolish ways.

If you manage to glimpse a firefly sans fire, unlit, in the prosaic light of day, to the untutored eye it looks just like any “bug”: a dull-colored shell, six little legs, “buggy” eyes, and antenae. Nothing magical there. To the casual human onlooker, just another insect, a “bug,” a word that evokes for your average human reactions of disgust, dismissal, or downright hostility. Think of ads for insect repellents or poisons, the most well-known of which proudly boasts the slogan “kills bugs dead.” What does this say about our relation with an entire category of creatures with whom we share the earth? Not to sound too sanctimonious here: I have killed my share of houseflies and mosquitoes and I’m the loudest and shrillest of screamers if I catch sight of a roach. But what about the good bugs? The praying mantis, the lady bug, the bee, creatures who benefit us and—in the bees’ case—without whom life here on earth would be all but impossible.

Why do we persist in manufacturing poisons that kill good bugs along with those that carry disease? Poisons that can kill humans as well. Just a few weeks ago, I glimpsed a headline on the Internet where 22 children in India had died as a result of eating a school lunch that had been contaminated with pesticide. When will we learn?

The first step, I believe, is to look at the natural world and observe. To return to the firefly, when I went in search of images for this blog post, I came across several that showed a beauty I hadn’t even seen: hidden beneath the dull, dun-colored carapace is a beautiful brilliant bright orange head and upper body. The brilliant orange almost seems like a signal, telling those who take the trouble to observe that “hey, something special and bright is going on here.” Captured in the midst of flight, wings extended, the firefly is more beautiful yet—and then there are the magic “fairy lights,’ lit at twilight for all to see.

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