Elkmont Fireflies by Chrissie Anderson Peters
Fireflies are special messengers that whisper in the night. Don’t lose hope. Magic does exist.
Lightning bugs find their way into most childhood memories. From the time I was big enough to toddle around a backyard and reach skyward on warm summertime nights, I jumped, darted, and made empty grabs in the general direction of little flashes of light. They’re as much a part of my summer memories as hot dogs roasting over a campfire; playing in a creek with cousins; or telling ghost stories in a circle at dusk, right when the shadows stretch and fall, pushing the limits of my childhood willingness to believe and the boundaries of my long-ago imagination.
I remember my cousins coming down every year from Detroit, playing in the backyard at my grandparents’ house, having nightly contests to see who could catch the most, and talking Mamaw Little out of one of her beloved canning jars, making a nest of grass for their beds, filling the jar with as many lights as possible between the four of us (five, if my cousin Melenia was visiting from Southwestern Virginia), and the disappointment the next evening when those lightning bugs no longer lit up, and we started the hunt anew.
I started researching lightning bugs a few years ago, thinking that I needed to write more about my bygone small-town summers of childhood with my cousins. I learned that there are different species of lightning bugs, not just one kind. The insects inhabit most parts of the world, giving me a sense of commonality with once-children globally, not just in my little corner of the world.
I discovered information about the natural phenomena called “synchronous fireflies” (particularly, from a species named Photinus carolinus), which takes place in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for about a two-week period each late-May through mid-June. According to the Park website, even though there are at least 19 species of fireflies that live in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, these lightning bugs are the only species in America whose individuals can synchronize their flashing light patterns. Growing up in the region, I had never heard about this. How was it that I had to learn about it through the Internet instead of through friends and family members who had actually experienced this wonder? I was determined to see this phenomenon for myself.
I knew nothing whatsoever about the lottery process to see the synchronous fireflies. I knew only that the whole thing sounded cool, and like something that I definitely wanted and needed to experience. In 2017, shortly after that year’s firefly display, I mentioned on Facebook that I really wanted to go one year. My friend Amy messaged and invited me to attend with her and her daughter for the 2018 season. Fast-forward to the next-to-last week of June 2018. I posted, asking, “Hey, when is our lightning bug date?” She responded that it was that very Saturday.
It turns out that the opportunities to get a good viewing for the synchronous fireflies in the Smokies are really few, compared to how many are interested in doing so. The National Park Service holds a lottery to choose the numbers of vehicles, types of vehicles, even down to which nights each lottery winner can participate. The lottery itself takes place during the last few days of April. When applying, candidates must select a vehicular option, regular or large vehicle (if selected, there are additional fees for the actual parking of the vehicle). Applicants must also choose a primary date for which they would like to attend, as well as an alternate date. The window of opportunity for viewing can vary each year. Factors like weather and temperature can directly impact the display each night of the two-week season. The chances of winning the lottery are slim. I know people who have applied for five years or longer, who still have not had the chance to see the fireflies in action.
Arriving at the site, our hosts started with instructions: “We’ll hike the trail, cross the bridge, and then continue up the paved roadway that leads up the mountain. You can stop wherever you want to. You can see the lights from just about anywhere along the roadway. We try to settle in around the third telephone pole. There is great tree coverage, you can see better where there is not a lot of open sky... The lights from flashlights bother the fireflies. All flashlights have to be covered with red cellophane. Do not shine flashlights skyward, even after your cellophane has been attached, it distracts the lightning bugs, and the other people watching them. Always shine your flashlight on the ground directly in front of you. Don’t get lost. I mean, you probably won’t, but just remember where you have gone, and stay with a friend.”
My pulse raced as we set off on the first part of the trail. The walk itself was breathtaking. Rushing water over ancient rocks, in creeks and down mountains in the shadows of tall trees, fallen logs, and laurel thickets galore. The musky aroma of the forest, a cross between decomposing leaves and wood, mixing with some flowery aroma, from a source I could not pinpoint. And the faint odor of mint, no doubt growing beside the various creek branches that forked all over the mountainside. I kept my eyes open, spinning around each time I thought I saw a light.
Maria, our camp sponsor, came by, giving more tips. “They’ll start up, here in a little bit, probably around 9 or 9:30. You’ll see them over here,” she pointed across the roadway. “It’ll kinda look like they’re raining down. Then, just a little bit after that, you’ll be able to look here at the edges of the road, and they’ll just come up in waves, that’s what it will look like, just waves of light coming up the road. And then they’ll go back down the same way.”
I asked if they just stop, like they start.
“They do. Usually between 11:30 or midnight, somewhere around there. They just kinda cut it off and go to sleep for the night. Just getting ready to do it again tomorrow night.”
The females stay closer to the ground, watching as the males light up the night sky to attract the right mates. The reason for the synchronization of the lights and patterns? No one knows.
In listening to others talking, I learned that this whole display is a mating ritual. It takes fireflies about two years to mature to adulthood. Upon becoming adults, they never eat again. The adult lifespan of the insects covers about three weeks. Which means that about two-thirds of their adult lives is spent attracting the perfect mate, to insure the continuation of the species. And, for this particular species, most of that adulthood can be witnessed right there, each year, a new population of adults joining the ritualistic dance. The various light sequences alert others to what kind of lightning bug emits that particular pattern. Typically, the females stay closer to the ground, watching as the males light up the night sky to attract the right mates. The reason for the synchronization of the lights and patterns? No one knows. Some speculate that lighting at the same time, in the same way, might keep one male from showing off more than the others—to level the playing field.
The synchronization, I learned, would not be perfect. Some might emit a quick sequence of five lights, while others might send off as many as eight. Even though the number of flashes could vary somewhat, they would happen quickly, whereas most lightning bugs we see seem to give off only one or two flashes at a time, with a greater period of dark between the flashes.
The first few blips of light, I kept turning around, trying to identify the source. Part of me thought, “This looks just like what I see at home. What’s the big deal?” Then, the performance picked up. Just like any worthwhile event, the evening required a warm-up, a sort of dress rehearsal, leading into the big show. A few single lights led to a few more lights that pulsated quickly. I squealed like a kid. Near us, several groups of females huddled close together in little enclaves on the ground. As the darkness gathered closer around us, all of my senses seemed heightened. The sound of the creek seemed to amplify as darkness fell. The humidity of the day gave way to the kind of cooling down that you only experience during summer. An electricity hung in the air, literally, as a storm approached and lightning zigzagged the sky, barely visible through the canopy of trees holding hands overhead. Thunder growled long and low. I worried that the procession might be hampered in some way by the distraction of a coming storm. As if to answer my concern, a host of lights started blinking in earnest across the way.
I stared in amazement. I turned on my phone’s video camera. How in the world did none of what I experienced show up at all on my video screen? They were so bright! There were so many of them! Why wouldn’t they show up, so I could share this with friends who couldn’t be there? While I’m sure that there are highly scientific reasons for this, it occurred to me that not capturing it on video only reaffirmed the sacred feel of the whole experience.
I had looked so forward to being there, to seeing this great spectacle. I had committed to writing about it. Yet, as I stood there taking it all in, I realized that there are some things in life for which words fall short. Remembering that this is a mating ritual, I suddenly felt as though I was encroaching on their privacy. What right did I have—did any of us have—to stand there gawking as they procreated? Would any of us invite the world to watch us in our most intense moments of sexual intimacy? Yet, here we stood. Watching. Feeling. Yes, feeling. The lights became far more than a series of patterned lights blinking on and off. The lightning bugs created a sort of palpable Morse Code, sending signals that we could see, but that no part of us could ever truly comprehend. It occurred to me that I had been chosen, not in a lottery, but somehow, by the universe, to stand in that singular place, in those specific moments, to witness life. All of life, not just the fireflies. My own life simultaneously felt enriched, and insignificant. Nothing I had ever experienced could compare to this.
As a music lover, the fluidity of this orchestration overwhelmed me, and I cried. Not at all unlike a symphony or an epic drama, the majesty erupted in rapture as time passed, minutes no longer mattering.
In the time since my original research, studies now point to firefly numbers diminishing. A February 7, 2020 article from PBS, points to habitat loss, light pollution and pesticide use as major global factors leading to the demise of these beloved insects. Another source, Bioscience, warns of the potential dangers of the tourist industry, people like those of us drawn to the displays of these synchronous lightning bugs. “Firefly tourism,” it says, “attracts more than 200,000 visitors per year and carries considerable economic benefits. However, if such tourism is not responsibly managed, it can threaten firefly populations.”
I am reminded of the wonder that these creatures have instilled in me since childhood. Then, of standing there on that particular night, thinking of other memories, and comparing them. Try to imagine that part of a rock concert when every cigarette lighter (or, now, every cell phone flashlight), sparks to pay homage and honor in some tangible way, responding to the emotion encircling and washing over the entire audience. Imagine the most mind-blowing concert you have ever witnessed, each note of each song sung and played to utter perfection. Imagine the hope, dreams, and inspiration which any creative endeavor imparts. And then add the harmony of rushing water, cicadas, and peepers. Then insert the perfect riff of thunder. Imagine all of that, and it still would not even approach what I stood privy to that night. Just like the ephemeral and hallowed happenstance of childhood summertime, the firefly show surrounded and encompassed us, while remaining just barely out of reach.