Photinus pyralis: Nature’s Kaleidoscope

by Natalie St. John

a tiny firefly lights up at dusk in a field of tall grass.As the July sun began to retract, a cloud of darkness crept in, dimming everything in its presence. My back rested against the rough bark of the Eastern White Pine as I watched the slow transformation. A pool of fallen pine needles brushed the soles of my bare feet, and the sweet smell of sap permeated the air. Sitting anxiously under the comfort of this tree, I awaited the visual symphony. Cued by the darkness, they began to migrate into sight. They seemed to appear exponentially, and soon, hundreds of the tantalizing insects had invaded the summer sky. Though each illuminated individually, they seemed in tune with each other, like a well-rehearsed orchestra. At first they were silent, still, and nearly invisible, but suddenly, without warning, they exploded into a burst of light, like a meteor making its sacrificial plunge to the ground. It was nature’s kaleidoscope.

I didn’t want the display to end. I wanted to keep it, contain it, own it. I imagined them in my room: a spontaneous bio-illuminating night light. They could endlessly dazzle me with their unprompted radiation. The decision was clear, and it was time to capture.

I stood up from underneath the tree, abandoning my seat of pine needles and sap. The sun-bleached grass scratched at my ankles as I made my way across the lawn. I felt the comfort of the familiar ridges in the soil as my feet greeted the ground. I moved slowly. Waiting, and watching the sudden changes between brightness and invisibility of the indecisive insects. Then I lunged. With my arms extended and my fingers slightly cupped, I reached for the illuminating bug. As quickly as he had lit, he dissipated into the darkness of the sky. Gone.

I strained my eyes searching for the fleeting insect. A vibrant flash, and he was resting upon the tip of an overgrown blade of grass. In the time it took to turn my head in his direction, he was invisible again, hiding under the blanket of the night sky. Deciphering the flight pattern of the little bug was as futile as attempting to follow a descending leaf in a gust of autumn wind. Stubborn, determined, and allured by the beauty of the mysterious creature, I was not discouraged. I refused to succumb to the firefly’s teasing. I continued to reach, lunge, and grasp for the intermittent burst of light. Each time clasping my hands and drawing my arms back to my torso. Slowly, I’d peel apart my two fingers and peek through the small opening. Multiple attempts yielded nothing but an anticlimactic dark tunnel. Perhaps it was luck that when I again pressed my eye to the small gap in my hands, rather than being met with darkness, the ridges of my palm and my tree climbing callouses were tinged in an orange light. Sweeping my vision toward the other side, I saw the mysterious fluorescing insect, nestled in the crease of my fingers.

I immediately refolded my hands, delicately, but firmly as to not let him escape. I ran from the valley up the steep grassy incline, trusting that I had memorized the rocks and ridges of the hill. Placing the bug safely in one hand, I reached for the sliding screen door to the house, and slipped inside. I paused as my eyes adjusted to the indoor lighting, and my feet adapted to the cool tile floor. Then I made my way to the kitchen, kneeling down to reach the cabinet storing old recycled containers.

My fingers first clasped the rim of a large washed out yogurt container. It was a good size, but too murky and opaque. His light would not be able to transcend the thickness of the plastic. Tossing the old container aside, I dug deeper in the cabinet. This time, my hands landed on something colder and more rigid. I grasped the opening, and pried it out of the cabinet. It was a clear glass jar. The peeling faded label indicated that it had once contained Smucker’s grape jelly. It was large enough so he could fly, but transparent to show off his light. The jar would make a perfect home for the little insect.

I slipped my fist inside of the jar and slowly released my fingers, exposing the palm of my hand. The firefly refused to let go, preferring to remain glued to the inside of my hand. Using the tip of my nail, I gently flicked him into the glass. I reached for a sheet of plastic wrap and smoothed it along the rim of the jar. A rubber band secured it in place. With a toothpick, I diligently pierced the taut plastic with an array of small air holes. With the addition of a slightly moistened maple leaf (for water, food, and comfort), my firefly’s home was complete.

Cradling my fingers around the ridges of the glass, I carried the jar upstairs into my bedroom, gently resting it on the windowsill adjacent to my bed. Eagerly, I brushed my fingertips over the tip of the light switch, inviting the darkness. Staring intently at the jar, I awaited my personal light display, preparing for my room to be illuminated by a fanfare of fluorescence. It never came. Did he escape? I flicked on the light and pressed my nose to the glass, my eyes scanning the interior of the jar. He was there, nestled along the edge on top of the leaf. But he refused to light up. I stared at him until my eyes began to water. I didn’t understand. Maybe he was shy, maybe he needed some time to adjust to his new home. Disappointed, I abandoned the jar and crawled into bed, convincing myself that he was just tired and he would light up tomorrow.

When I checked on him the next morning, he was still pressed against the edge of the glass. Stretching the rubber band, I peeled off the plastic wrap and stuck my hand into the jar. I placed the bug gently on the surface of my hand and brought him under the light. His delicate body made my hands look like those of a gawky giant. For the first time, I noticed the subtle pattern on his wings, how large his eyes were in comparison to his vibrant orange neck, and the unique dull yellow color of his unlit lower torso. When I took him for myself and confined him to a tight glass jar, he lost his magic. An insect that refuses to light and remains glued to the ground could not be a firefly. He didn’t belong to me. I was a thief. I stole him from the sky.

 a firefly resting on a handGuilty with consciousness, I secured him safely in my hands and carried him to the backyard. Slowly, I unfolded my hand. When he made his way to the edge of my finger, I did not try to stop him. With a swift opening of his wings, he was gone. When it grew dark, I sat cross-legged in the long blades of grass in the backyard. Again, the fireflies migrated into sight and conquered the darkness of the sky. They flew closely, certainly within reach if I outstretched my arm. But my arms remained nestled in my lap. They were not mine to take. They were to be admired by all, not taken by few. With my eyes glued to the sky, I watched the performance of the tantalizing insects. I knew that they would eventually decide to leave. They would come and go as they pleased. I couldn’t control them and I couldn’t contain them. But that was ok. When they chose to appear, I’d be there. I’d be waiting to appreciate the beauty they shared.

Firefly on Grass Photo by Raymond Hennessy
Firefly on Hand Photo by Hung Wai Addy Ho

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