Nature's Notebook - Tim Abbott
There are faeries once again at the bottom of our garden. For a few magic weeks at midsummer, spriggans leap and brownies laugh and swamp candles flicker.
Last night at dusk, out where grasses sway in the meadow beyond the garden gate and a wild apple reaches its gnarled limbs to touch the western stars, they all took wing and began their meandering flight. From under leaf and blade, first one, then swarms of winking lights called and responded among the grasses: “Here I am, come dance with me!” Enthralled, my children and I stood by the garden gate and watched the wisp lights in the vapors swirl and eddy from tassels to treetops.
All too soon, the mower will make its annual circuit of the old field and the fireflies will be gone. But now, with berry blossoms and swooning bees on every bush and vine, flowerbeds bursting with blue-eyed spiderwort and iris spears tipped with indigo, the cusp of June is sweet expectancy and we revel in the dance.
You cannot rush this festival of lights. Three years ago, the first lightning bug was a solitary traveler, grounded at my feet on a chilly 4th of June. The next week they winked and drifted in their meandering thousands out over the field and through the branches under a starlit sky. Out here, where bats flitter to music only they can hear and there are no cicadas yet to drone away the golden dregs of summer, we welcome the fireflies.
Knowing that the warm glow of the lightning bug is the result of a chemical reaction does not blunt our response to bioluminescence. Rachel Carson describes a night in Maine when the spring tides of the new moon brought luminous phosphorescence crashing to shore:
“The surf was full of diamonds and emeralds, and was throwing them on the wet sand by the dozen... The individual sparks were so large — we’d see them glowing in the sand, or sometimes, caught in the in-and-out play of the water, just riding back and forth.”
Her image reminds me of night swimming in warm seawater, where sometimes the act of plunging below the water creates such agitation among the algae that the bioluminescence is enough to see by. Sailors often remark on the incredible trail of milky light creaming in their wake, as one of my ancestors did on a voyage to China in 1843. A month out from Philadelphia on the brig Childe Harold, Henry Morse Olmsted noted in his log:
“Those who go down to the sea in ships and do business upon the great waters, see the wonderful works of the Lord. And truly we saw last night one of his wonderful works. It was a grand view of the phosphorescence of the Ocean. It surpassed anything of the kind I have ever seen. We all noticed when we went on deck after tea that the water was more luminous than we had yet seen it, but at 9 o’clock it suddenly became brilliant beyond the power of my pen to describe. The vessel was going thru the water at about 4 knots and as she broke thru the sea, one blaze of silver light lit up her forward sails so much that one could almost see to read. The wake was a straight path of light in the midst of the dark waves. As far as the eye could reach, around for miles, every crest of a wave gave forth that same, clear, lovely light. All were on deck admiring it. Little Fanny was awakened from her sleep to see the Ocean on fire.... About 2 o’clock in the morning I was called... to see a school of porpoises along side. The phosphorescence still continued. The motion of the fish thru the water was shown by streaks of fire, their forms as distinct as at mid-day. I thot of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner:
“‘About, about, in reel and rout / The death fires dance at night/ The water like a witch’s oils/ Burnt green and blue and white.’”
It is a remarkable description by a literate observer, a witness to fantastic natural events. Henry Olmsted saw the wonderful works of the Lord dancing on the face of the ocean, and scientist Rachel Carson dipped her hands to scoop liquid fire from the foaming shore. We inlanders have our own night magic, on warm summer evenings brimming with fireflies, and whether by the hand of God or faerie dust is ours to wonder.
Tim Abbott is program director of Housatonic Valley Association’s Litchfield Hills Greenprint. His blog is at greensleeves.typepad.com.
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