Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Flying, Fleeting Things

I've been lucky --blessed, I suppose, if I can be honest with myself. For much of 2009 I rambled all over the country. I drove down the Mississippi, cut across the deep south on state highways and county roads, and spent some lovely time on the utterly abandoned Indian Pass in the Florida Panhandle.

I drove across the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, got happily lost (and crashed my car) in Ontario, poked around in the Adirondacks, and spent almost six months mostly alone with my dog in a one-room cabin without plumbing on a hill in Vermont, monkeying around with rocks, wandering in the woods, reading, and listening to nothing but Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Andrew Hill, and Art Tatum. I had at least a dozen discs by each of them, so I had plenty to listen to.

All told I spent more time somewhere else last year than I spent here in Minneapolis. I managed to not feel so crazy for a time.

Back in May, in Vermont, I saw the first firefly of the season. You don't see very many fireflies in a big city, but wherever I encounter the things I still experience an incredulity that swiftly cataracts into full-blown wonder. I am used to seeing fireflies flitting just above the ground, drifting across meadows or fields. There on the hill, though, even the highest trees were full of them, sparking out into the darkness from the branches of the towering pines. These were some seriously high altitude fireflies. They also weren't above congregating closer to the ground, often in ridiculous, awe-inspiring numbers (that's a photo of my dog, Wendell, above, and if you look closely you can make out the blizzard of fireflies he was admiring).

They're mostly just looking to get laid, I understand that much; their elaborate flash patterns are little more than pick-up lines, booty calls complete with bachelor pad mood lighting. But though I've heard all sorts of explanations for how they actually work over the years, nothing has stuck. I guess maybe I don't want to know.

I do know, however, that they are teases, inconstant dandies, and stingy with their magic. They make an appearance each year to defeat poetry and to mock art. They're damn near impossible to photograph. What in nature has their combination of gift, grace, and mystery?

You've heard, of course, that they fall in love with swallows, and are rebuffed time and again, something to do with some ancient tragedy, a romance that was punished by the gods. Once a year they gather in such huge numbers along a river in Canada that the glow from their revels can be seen from space. According to legend, cows regard them as divine, and find both comfort and omen in their presence. Scientists have determined that they have a huge shared neural library, which consists of almost nothing but stories --some of them thousands of years old-- of captivity. They are also, it is said, as prone to melancholy as Danes, and often die of heartbreak. In some cultures they are regarded as landlocked lighthouses, arrhythmic reminders of scriptural promise.

It's hard not to notice that though they have the gift of such dazzling light they spend the majority of their lives in darkness.

I try not to think about the actuarial tables for small things --fireflies, song birds, dogs-- but it's no use. They are always giving up, being ground down, disappearing forever. Fleeting is not a word that gives me much comfort.

For a good stretch of June it rained almost constantly in Vermont. So many nights it seemed like everything was drowning. A great many things (myself included) never learn to swim. It saddened me, though. On those nights of incessant rain I missed standing on the hill and watching the fireflies swarm in the trees and bushes. How much water, I wondered, could a firefly endure? How much rain before their fragile lights were permanently extinguished? I encountered a handful of fireflies grounded and struggling mightily in puddles and rivulets, still somehow capable of producing a feeble distress signal. A few of them managed to extricate themselves and flutter a few vertical feet, their light a spastic, panicked sputter --an instant of desperate, crazed calligraphy in the driving rain-- before crashing back down into a puddle, flying lanterns shot down in the darkness over waterlogged Vermont.

It's possible I was imagining things. It's always possible I'm imagining things --so small is my knowledge-- but I believed I was witnessing a tragedy of the most forlorn sort: the dying of a firefly, its suffering and panic exacerbated, surely, by the looming presence of a dark giant, helpless, drenched, and drowning himself, crouched in wonder and sorrow in the rain.

After the rains of June I never saw the fireflies again. But by then moths and beetles of a seemingly infinite variety emerged each night and began to attack the screens of the cabin, drilling in a ceaseless frenzy that could drown out Art Tatum. It almost seemed like they were trying to tear their way through to the light. Were they, I wondered, afraid of darkness? Or lonely for companionship? Or perhaps, I thought, they harbored the souls of reincarnated wrecks like myself, and spent their brief lives longing for a return to domesticity, a chair to perch on, a light to read by, a bed to sleep in for the night, someone to curl up next to. They were trying to break out of nature. Or darkness.

I almost envied them the fervor with which they sought light, and used to like to imagine that somewhere within me there was still a screen beyond which some pure light glowed, and that some small part of what was left of my winged soul was hurling itself up against it, time after time, in my dreams.


  1. I have nothing to add, but I see the snafu with the comments has been addressed. Other than that, as I say, I have nothing to add. Or nothing further to add. Other than that. Except perhaps: Lord, a man is a destructible thing, and a sorry bit of business all around. The hour has grown late. Thank you.

  2. Meers again, sir, demonstrating that per your instructions anonymity is now also a possibility, as well as a personal preference of yours, permanent anonymity being, if I understood your memo correctly, an ultimate goal.

  3. If there's nothing more, sir, I think I'll head back to the bunkhouse and leave you to address those wounds.

  4. Thank you, Meers. That will be all for this evening.

  5. I believe it's morning, sir, but I was happy to be of service.

  6. Thank you for addressing the comments snafu, Mr. Bergen. And thank you for writing this post, as it makes me understand why, for the past six months, fireflies have felt like the undercurrent to thought and feeling in my mid-life brain and heart. This is beautiful writing.

  7. Lyrical and melancholy, a beautiful meditation.

    Alison sent me, I'll be back.

  8. Something about this reminds me why I use deer hunting as an excuse to sit in one spot from 6 am to 5 pm. There are things out there that one doesn't notice unless a person is very still for long periods of time; a vole burrowing through half rotted autumn leaves, a tree frog scrambling across a moss covered log in 40 degree temperatures, the unbelievable noise a couple wolves can make padding through the leaves at only 70 yrds and their cries to each other through the stillness.

    I have long sat in the woods alone only to think about the relationships of men and women with each other and with nature.

    Thank who you must for this opportunity to view the greatest show in our world and do not dismiss it for the unseen green pastures over that fence.

  9. That's terrific, Sean. Thanks. And thanks to Lucy, Anonymous, and my always faithful squire, Ralph Meers.

  10. Sean, your post made my heart hurt to be back in the woods again. I've never sat that still for that long, and now I think I must. Thank you.

  11. The fan club loves this essay. Thanks, Brad.