There aren’t many places where darkness is total these days. Lights of some sort always seem to be there, showing us the way through the darkest hours and filling the night sky with reflections of our human needs for light’s safety.
There’s an occasional moonless night on our farm, though, when clouds cover even the stars’ light. It’s not total darkness – something I believe is impossible to find any more in our lower-48 states – but on those nights it gets downright dark.
Such darkness is refreshing and pleasing to the eyes, in many ways.
We had one of those nights a while ago, me having to guess-and-feel my way through night’s thickness between our barn and the house.
The usual chorus of Timber Creek frogs and the dampness from a refreshing June rain earlier in the evening were amplified by senses sharpened by not being able to see my way. Even the normal petrichor of mixed post-rain ozone and soil hung more thickly than normal.
I stopped halfway between the buildings as much to allow my senses to absorb what the darkness offered as much as to gather my physical bearings.
Just then, a brief spark lit the darkness across our lawn. And then, another and another and another.
Like thousands of tiny camera strobes flashed by fans sitting in a darkened stadium, June’s fireflies came to life.
While watching those fireflies, I pondered whether most of my northern Driftless neighbors would admit to youthful summer nights of chasing fireflies across lawns city and rural, and looking with wonder at the complex creatures after capture. Who hasn’t poked holes in a jar’s cover and sprinkled the jar’s bottom with grass for a few captured fireflies?
Such lessons those captured fireflies taught. We quickly learned and re-learned how the fireflies’ survival was sadly short in those jars, and three or four fireflies in a jar could never replace a lantern.
Somehow though, that urge to catch fireflies stays with us, even as we reach our lives’ falls and winters.
That night, my mind created a picture of children young and old skipping crazed patterns as they followed fireflies across the northern Driftless Area’s lawns and pastures.
In my recent years, fireflies have come to mean much more than youthful summer skipping through the darkness.
Whenever our daughter Alyssa was away for summer visits with relatives or attending school or camps, my wife Dee and I sat silently while we waited for each night’s fireflies to appear. In those fireflies’ lights we saw Alyssa here with us, though reality has hundreds or even thousands of miles between us. It’s a tradition that’s continued even since Alyssa’s move into adulthood and her own home.
And in those fireflies’ twinkles we see other important people in our lives who aren’t here beside us.
“There she is,” Dee whispers as each night’s first firefly appears.
As more appear, we see our parents and ancestors beyond, my children Jessica and Jamie and their families, and so many others – some still bound by earthly mortality and others freed from earthly shackles. They dance and play around us with flickering gaiety inviting us to join in their other-worldly celebrations.
Most people look to the stars to see loves who aren’t beside them. That’s a great place to look during frosts of falls, winters and early springs, but not during summers.
On summer nights, craning necks aren’t required to see our loves in the stars above. Instead, during summer the stars above float down on fireflies’ tails to our rural soil, bringing with them light-shows worthy of all the heavens. Even the heaviest clouds in the darkest nights can’t hide their summer follies.
I continued through the farmyard darkness on that recent night, along the way enjoying the fireflies’ visit and determined to tell Dee about how they gave me vision in the darkness. I also considered how well a Helen Keller quote fit so perfectly with my short journey.
“I would rather walk with a friend I the dark, than alone in the light,” she said.
There with the fireflies, I was surrounded by friends.
Dee greeted me with her usual smile and hug as I entered the house.
“There she is,” she whispered into my ear while pointing to the small, flickering firefly’s light outside one of our windows.
— Scott Schultz