I once heard the publisher of Outside magazinespeak, and what he said still resonates with me: “The best moments of our life happen when we are outside.” That’s been true for me; and it’s especially true for my children, since they were lucky enough to grow up on Siesta Key, as preschoolers catching crabs in the tidal pools near our home at Point of Rocks, and as teen-agers escaping with their friends to a tree fort they’d built on an island in Little Sarasota Bay.
One of the first pieces I wrote for this magazine was about an outdoor experience I shared with them in 1985 shortly after we moved here. You’ve probably enjoyed that experience, too: hunting for fireflies at twilight, equipped with only a jar and sense of wonder. I thought about that story as we worked on this “Outdoor” issue and managed to dig it up. It sparked some magical memories for me; I hope it does for you as well.
The children come scrambling up the stairs to the deck, breathless with excitement.
“We need a jar!” cries Kate. “Give Matt a jar!”
“Mom,” begs Matthew. “Will you come? To the end of the driveway?”
“You’ll be amazed,” promises Kate. “We need a jar.”
I stop unloading the dishwasher and reach high in a cupboard for a jar. Incredibly, we have one, with lid to fit.
In gym shorts and a flannel shirt, I follow them down the stairs and into the twilight. My legs ache pleasantly from my run on the beach, and my damp hair is ruffled by the night breeze.
Behind us, I hear the waves. Looking back, I see the low-hanging evening star shine in a sky of gathering purple.
And then, at the end of the driveway, I see them, dozens of flashing lights, like tiny spaceships hovering about the woods across the street.
The children run among them, seven-year-old Matthew capturing bugs with dazzling ease, four-year-old Kate dancing at his side.
“Don’t smush them!” she calls. “Here, Matt—another one!” The air is rich with the smell of the woods—crushed ferns, damp leaves, a faraway hint of jasmine.
Lightning bugs, I remember reading somewhere, are the last metamorphosis of glowworms. As flying insects, they live only a few weeks and do not eat, recklessly burning their energy in a lovesick light show designed to attract a mate before they’re extinguished forever. In tropical rainforests, some species flash in synchronized bursts of light, pulsing together with the pagan rhythms of primeval need.
Our lightning bugs, more restrained in this more temperate climate, disdain such group rituals. Each sends its own lonely signal across the singles bar of the woods.
I sit on a child’s tricycle, watching the insect-filled jar swing like a lantern from Matthew’s hand, and I’m swept back 30 years into my Illinois childhood, when I ran beside my brothers trapping fireflies in the fields behind our house.
How mysterious the world was then, lit with the splendor of the tiny insects we carelessly sentenced to an airless death, and how safe, bounded by the house behind us and my mother’s call floating through the dark. It fills me with contentment to see my children tonight dwelling in a similar universe.
The lightning bugs glow and disappear among the trees like feral eyes, like a stellar Morse code I’m too earthbound to translate. I wonder what mysterious message they’re transmitting across the road, across the years.
After a while, we open the jar and release the insects, then drive to the drugstore on an errand. At the check-out counter, Kate tries to describe the lightning bugs to the teen-age cashier and the store manager, a man in his 60s.
“Lightning bugs!” they exclaim, remembering, and everybody smiles.
When we drive home, the woods are dark beneath the rising moon. But we’re still glowing, remembering the smiles in the store—four generations, flashing in synchronicity, warmed by the tremulous light of a handful of insects.