A Shining Moment
of East Tennessee
few times in life there are shining moments, moments so special, so
rare, that we know, even as they are happening they are moments that
will be remembered for a lifetime. Shining moments don’t come very
often, but I had such a moment.
I’d heard stories of some special lightning bugs in
East Tennessee. So, what make these fireflies distinctive, you say?
Fireflies are fireflies. They all do the basically the same thing,
don’t they? FLASH. Well, yes, but unlike most fireflies, these
particular creatures all blink together - in synchrony. Impossible?
That’s what I thought. Everybody knows that fireflies just flash
when they feel like it, at random.
I wanted to see these unique fireflies for myself.
Unfortunately, fireflies live a very short life span, about three
weeks, and their season had passed. I decided right then and there,
however, that I would see these fireflies even if I had to wait a
Last week the time finally came for me to travel east
to the mountains and take a field study course – yes – "bug
lessons." When my friends asked me what I planned to do on
vacation, and I said, "study fireflies," I could see their
eyes glaze over. "Okay, if that’s really what you want to
do," they all said cheerfully, in unison.
I knew what they were thinking.
I persisted. I packed my hiking boots and flashlight
and went off to the mountains. The gathering of folk was a bit
extraordinary, I must admit. There were entomologists, amateur
naturalists, a reporter, a park ranger, environmentalists, the
interested, the curious, a few disgruntled spouses who were forced to
come – all of us with one things in common, we were bug watchers.
Now, there is a dark side to this firefly story. It
seems that black bears and fireflies enjoy living in the very same
area. While fireflies are "people friendly," bears are
another matter. Earlier in the year a woman was actually killed while
hiking the nature trail. Sort of puts a damper on enthusiasm. Smart
tourists tended to avoid the area. Bug watchers, of course, were not
among the smart tourists. Besides, we had paid tuition, so we took our
chances - anything to observe the synchronized fireflies or "photinus
carolinus" if you want to get technical about it.
Dusk came… but the fireflies did not. Seems these
fireflies do not come out at dusk. They come out only in full
darkness, in other words, when they get good ‘n’ ready. Sure
enough, as if on cue, at about 9:30 the fireflies begin to twinkle. We
were told that the fireflies we would see were mostly male. They glow
to attract and mate with the females who lurk in the grass, showing
off like teenagers.
As I was clopping along the narrow mountain trail in
total darkness, I began to realize just how demented this adventure
really was. Walking fast to keep up with the group, I was afraid of
falling down the mountain into the river or turning my ankle on the
rocks. We carried flashlights covered with red filters to avoid
disturbing the fireflies, but were advised to use them as little as
possible. Night creatures should be studied and observed in darkness.
They are a part of the night and we too must be a part of the darkness
to see them. Walking along in silence and total blackness, even the
pale glow of the moon was bright to eyes accustomed to darkness.
We walked through meadows of tall grass, looking for
the path where the grass was bent over, wondering if snakes come out
at night and what invisible creatures might lurk in the darkness. We
crossed a narrow bridge, hoping not to slip into the murky water
below. Finally, we beat down the grass and sat on it to watch the
firefly light show, hoping the chiggers were asleep.
Sitting there in the wilderness I knew I had reached
the edge of sanity, a foolish old woman, risking broken bones, out in
the night in bear country. Yes, I’d surely gone mad. I watched
myself doing all this, and wondered. For what? Just to see lightning
But the fireflies did not disappoint us. The flashes
of light were brilliant, much brighter than normal fireflies -
splashes of light in the darkened forest. One firefly flashed and all
the other fireflies followed with a radiance of their own, almost as
if they wanted to outshine each other, pulsating in a primitive,
rhythmic dance of lights. They did not just flash and then pause. They
blinked for six consecutive bursts before pausing for eight eternal
seconds between flashing episodes. It was magnificent, incredible, a
moment of awe.
These fireflies are different, a species found only in
a very small area, at a very specific altitude, in a very specific
habitat. Was it the complete darkness of the wilderness that made them
so dazzling or simply their own bioluminescent lanterns turned up
high? It was difficult not to think of fairies, magic and enchanted
forests; yet, these are nocturnal creatures of biology, not mythology.
I pinched myself for a reality check.
In a just a few short weeks, the tiny lightning bugs
mature, mate, lay the eggs of their young and die. A few short weeks
and life is over for the season. Yet, their short lives sparkle
brightly. They are shining stars in the insect world, creatures of
magical beauty in an environment so fragile that it is feared they
will be destroyed if humans continue to come. I will not detail their
exact location, though it can be found if you search for it. If you go
to see, you must tread with care. You must go with respect for the
environment and with openness to the wonders of nature. You must go
silently and in darkness.
Bug watching in bear country is not for everyone and
probably should not ever be. For those who persist, it is a moment of
splendor, of unity with nature, a shinning moment to be remembered for
Copyright 2000 Sheila Moss