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THE MAGIC OF FIREFLIES

June 27, 2020

Five years ago, on the first day of summer, a Sunday evening, right at dusk, the power went out at our house. Clare and I were sitting on our back porch, enjoying the ceiling fans and ice-cold beverages. When the fans stopped, and the lights went dark, we experienced something that is rare in our area of the county. Without artificial lights, there might have been total darkness.

The sky was clear blue darkening to indigo. Stars were coming out. The backyard lawn, a mix of Kentucky fescue, South Carolina Bermuda grass, and patches of white clover, grew darker by the minute. Then there were lights, hundreds of tiny flickering specks of light, hovering above the lawn. Lightning bugs put on a silent show in our backyard.

“They seem to be synchronized,” Clare said.

I agreed. It was as if Christmas lights had been strung across the open expanse and arranged so that they flashed off and on in some magical way.

An hour or so later, Duke Energy crews had the power restored. The fans were turning, the air conditioner was back in business, the refrigerator was again humming, and the lights were back on. I am grateful for those folks who work on a muggy Sunday night to keep the rest of us comfortable. But I must confess, I was also thankful for an hour of darkness that allowed me to see magical lights of stars in the sky and fireflies in the garden.  

Granny was my maternal grandmother.  She lived on South Converse Street in Spartanburg. From the time I was ten years old, I cut her fescue grass with an old-fashioned push reel lawnmower. Granny’s yard was so small that I could mow her lawn in about a half an hour.

In the summertime, I went to Granny’s house after supper, cut her grass, drank a glass of lemonade, and sat on the porch until dark watching the fireflies come out.

Running barefooted through Granny’s bluegrass as I tried to catch lightning bugs remains one of my favorite summertime memories.

When is the last time you saw a lightning bug?

Some folks have seen increasing numbers of these night visitors. Other people believe the twinkling flying lights are vanishing.  I posed the question last month to a book club that I lead. The responses were mixed.

“Growing up, I saw fireflies all the time, now I don’t see them anymore,” answered one fellow.

“I’ve got plenty of them at my place down near the river,” responded another.

Firefly Watch, based at the Museum of Science in Boston, has researched the question. They provide good information and possible solutions for revitalizing the firefly population.

 Lightning bugs are actually beetles. Fireflies are winged, distinguishing them from other luminescent insects commonly known as glowworms. They are surprisingly long-lived, but they spend most of their lifespan, two years or more, as grubs underground. The night lights that we see represent only about the last two weeks of their existence.

That magical display is all about producing more fireflies. They use those tiny lights to attract a mate. The males are the ones flying around flashing. Females are perched in tall grass, blinking subtly, waiting for a rendezvous with one of the show-offs.

This is where the plot thickens. There are more than 2000 species, each with a distinctive blinking pattern. Females hiding in the grass use these flash patterns, not only to attract a mate but also to fool others. Some mimic the patterns of another species and then eat the hopeful mate. Call them plural femmes fatales.

Where firefly populations have dwindled, researchers offer several remedies.

  • Remember that lightning bugs are not flies; they are beetles. So, if you want these flying nightlights to grace your garden, avoid using pesticides that target beetles.
  • Since these delightful guests spend most of their lives underground, anything that disturbs the soil or kills grubs will diminish the firefly population.
  • Mature fireflies prefer tall grass and moist soil. Frequent mowing of the grass too short contributes to drier, packed earth, and negatively affects grub habitat.
  • Outside artificial lighting affects the ability of lightning bugs to find mates.

Because these insects are a rather nondescript beetle by day and wait until dark to put on their dazzling display, they have a secret life. They are a flying chemical reaction that produces the sparkling light that we see. Their family name is Lampyridae from the Greek word meaning to shine. The light of these creatures varies in color from pale yellow to light red, from subtle green to muted orange. Firefly seems more poetic than fire beetle.

Some people vow and declare that lightning bugs do not inhabit the Western United States. Of the more than 2000 species of fireflies, only some actually light up. The ones that do don’t live west of the Rocky Mountains. California has fireflies, but they are not the kind equipped to twinkle. 

Some species synchronize their flashes in a light show that seems to be choreographed and well-rehearsed. Perhaps this is because flashing the species pattern in unison will ensure that females of the same species notice the males. Photinus carolinus is the only species in America that flash simultaneously; one place to see them is at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which features firefly tours directed by park rangers.

            I have never tasted a firefly, but my cat, Stormy, has. Her experiment didn’t last long. Firefly blood contains lucibufagin, a defensive steroid that tastes terrible. On the other hand, underground-dwelling larvae of the lightning bug are carnivorous. They feast on slugs, worms, and snails. Some resort to cannibalism and devour other fireflies. Once they become adults, they may not eat anything during their short lives.

            Oddly, lightning bug larvae develop their glow underground, perhaps leading to the concept of a glow worm. Among some species, even the eggs glow.

            Some species are aquatic. They lay their eggs, and their larvae live in the water. They have gills and dine on marine snails before climbing their way up a stalk of vegetation to take wing as an adult.

If you’re seeing fewer fireflies each summer, you’re not alone. Firefly populations may be on the decline due to a combination of light pollution, pesticide use, and habitat destruction.

I have tried to be intentional in being certain that my garden is firefly friendly. There are specific steps we can take to attract fireflies to our backyard. These suggestions are adapted from an article by Melissa Breyer published online on May 29, 2014. I take it that Melissa is a firefly enthusiast. 

            “Few things in nature are as magical as a backyard coruscating with the glow of fireflies. With that in mind, making a firefly-friendly garden can serve two purposes: it can help the fireflies, and it can fill your summer dusk with the beguiling beauty of bioluminescence! Don’t you want to see more fireflies in your backyard? Here’s how to make it happen.”  

  • Skip the chemicals. Most chemicals used outdoors to kill or deter certain bugs aren’t that selective; they will likely kill or deter fireflies as well. And since larvae are born underground, lawn chemicals in the soil will be detrimental as well.
  • Don’t disrupt the slimy things. As magical as fireflies may be, the larvae have a less-than-enchanting secret: they’re small carnivores that feast on worms, grubs, slugs, and snails. They do so by immobilizing their prey with toxic enzymes before sucking out the liquefied body contents. Sweet! Leave their slimy victims alone! Keep the zombie bug babies happy so that they can grow up to become pretty fireflies.
  • Provide good cover. During the day, nocturnal adult fireflies hide in the grass and low-profile plants. A nice variety of shrubs, high grass, and low-growing plants will provide shelter.
  • Give them what they like. Fireflies like moist areas, especially wet meadows, forest edges, farm fields, and wild bog, marsh, stream, and lake edges.
  • Plant flowers. With 2,000 species of fireflies — and many of them having different diets — it may be hard to pinpoint what your local variety likes to eat. Many adult fireflies eat very little, but regardless, many eat a mixture of pollen and nectar, so having a lot of flowers around should prove enticing. That approach is right for other pollinators, too!
  • Dim the lights. Since fireflies are so reliant on their light, confusing them with artificial light can cause problems. Street lamps, garden lights, and porch lights can all make fireflies a little shy.

When Clare’s mother died, we were cleaning out her home. Under her kitchen sink, she had a stash of Duke’s mayonnaise jars.

“Why did she save all those jars?” I asked.

“So we could catch lightning bugs!” chorused our children.

Times have changed, so the last suggestion is based on conservation concerns.

  • Resist the urge to put them in a jar. Yes, it may be one of the joys of childhood, but if you and your children and grandchildren collect fireflies in a container, do not take them indoors. Watch them. Enjoy them. Release them as you would a caught fish that you do not intend to eat. It is best to enjoy them as they flit about freely outside.

The first day of summer this year again fell on a Sunday night. We did not have a power outage. But after supper, Clare and I sat on the backporch and witnessed the joy of two of our granddaughters as they chased fireflies.

It is one of the simple pleasures of summertime.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

A STORY FOR FATHER’S DAY

June 21, 2020

A historical marker in front of the Holiday Inn in Newport, Tennessee, gives a brief synopsis of the life of Ben Hooper. A compelling part of the story comes from Dr. Fred Craddock, an outstanding preacher. I have heard and told this story many times. It is one of my favorites. Like most good stories, there are numerous variations.

Dr. Craddock was a professor of preaching at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta.  He and his wife needed a vacation.  They went to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where they rented a quaint cabin beside a mountain stream. 

On the first night of their getaway, the Craddocks visited a mom-and-pop restaurant.  It was not a fancy place.  It featured wooden chairs and tables, plaid tablecloths, and excellent down-home cooking.

As they waited for their meal to be served, they noticed an old man enter the restaurant.  Wearing overalls, he looked the part of a mountaineer.  He went around the room, moving from one table to another, greeting the guests at each table. 

Fred Craddock thought, “We’ve come to Gatlinburg to get away from people!  I’ll bet this old man is going to bother us!” 

Sure enough, the old man made his way around the room and came over to their table. “Hi, where are you folks from?” 

“We’re from Atlanta.” 

“What do you do in Atlanta?” 

Hoping to put him off, Craddock said, “I am a professor of homiletics.” 

“Oh, you teach preachers how to preach!” 

Dr. Craddock was confounded. The old man knew what the word homiletics meant. 

With that, the old man pulled up a chair and sat down at the table with Dr. and Mrs. Craddock.  He said, “I have a preacher story to tell you.” 

Craddock thought, “I’ll bet I have heard this story fifty times.” 

The old man started spinning his tale: “I was born and raised right here in the mountains of East Tennessee.  I never knew who my father was.  My mother gave me her name, not my father’s name because she did not want me to hold a grudge against him.  I was born out of wedlock, an illegitimate child.  Back in those days, that was quite a stigma to live with. 

“I always felt bad about myself.  When I was growing up, my classmates at school said some very unkind things about me.  When I went to town on Saturday, I had the feeling that people were talking about me behind my back.  After I was born, my mother did not go to church anymore.  She did not feel welcome. 

“My grandmother knew how important it was for me to attend worship.  Every Sunday, she took me to a little Methodist church nestled against the hillside.  We would arrive just as the service started so we could avoid speaking to anyone.  We would sit on the back pew.  When the service was over, we would leave immediately after the benediction and scoot right out the door.  We didn’t want to talk to anybody!

“I would listen to the preacher, but I did not like him very much.  He was a large man with a big booming voice. He had bushy eyebrows that jumped up and down when he preached.  He shook his finger a lot. I always had the feeling he was pointing right at me.  That booming voice and that pointing finger were quite intimidating.  I was afraid of the preacher.  For fourteen years, we had been going to that little church. 

“One Sunday, as we started to leave, the usher stopped us at our usual exit. ‘You can’t go out this way.  We’ve had a winter storm, and ice and snow have covered the steps.  It isn’t safe.  You’ll need to leave by the side door.’

For the first time, I found myself caught up in the line of people headed down front to speak to the preacher.  I did not want to talk to that preacher.  He frightened me so much!  I was walking down the aisle, glancing to the left and to the right.  I saw the side door and saw my opportunity to make an escape.  As I started for the exit, I felt an enormous hand on my shoulder.  I whirled around, and I was staring straight into the face of the preacher.

The preacher asked me the question that I had dreaded for fourteen years, ‘Boy, who is your daddy?’

The silence of that moment was deafening.  

Then the preacher looked at me and said, ‘Oh, now I see the resemblance.  You are a child of God.  Go and claim your inheritance.’”

Fred Craddock said he felt cold chills going up and down his spine.  He looked at that old mountaineer and said, “Please tell me your name.”

The old man said, “My name is Ben Hooper.” 

Then Dr. Craddock remembered his own grandfather telling him the story of an illegitimate boy who grew up in the mountains of East Tennessee, a boy who became an attorney, a boy whom the people of Tennessee later elected to two terms as their governor.

That boy was Ben Hooper.

On Father’s Day, those of us who have been blessed with a great dad have reason to celebrate. If our dad is still with us, we can enjoy the opportunity to be with him. If our father is no longer with us, we have cherished memories and favorite stories to recall.

The truth is that there are many children like young Ben Hooper who have not had the benefit of a loving father. For some children, dad has been absent, negligent, or abusive. For those children, someone else needs to bridge the gap. That person may be an uncle, a grandfather, a teacher, a coach, or, as in the case of Ben Hooper, a pastor.

People of faith affirm that every child has two fathers. We have an earthly father who may be a treasure or a bitter disappointment. We have a Father in heaven who never fails to be faithful and loving.

That is a reason to celebrate Father’s Day.

HONORING OUR FLAG

June 13, 2020

Clare and I recently purchased a new flag to display on the front of our home. For years we have proudly hung the flag that draped the casket of Clare’s father, Mr. Jack, Jackson S. Long. Mr. Jack served in the United States Marine Corps during World War II.  His honor flag was presented to Clare at his funeral.

Over time the old flag that served us well for so many years became worn and faded. Made of cotton, the flag could not last forever.

The new flag is fashioned from heavy synthetic material purported to be more durable than the old cotton banner. We hung it on our front porch just before Memorial Day and will display it there until Labor Day. In the near future, we will invite a local Scout troop to help us properly retire the former flag.

Our grandchildren have been keenly interested in the new flag. They enjoy rubbing the shiny surface and watching it blow in the wind. Some of the older children have taken an interest in the history of the flag. Perhaps this brief refresher will help us all.

June 14 is celebrated in the United States as National Flag Day. It commemorates the adoption of the flag of the United States on that date in 1777 by resolution of the Second Continental Congress. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation that officially established June 14 as Flag Day. In August 1949, National Flag Day was established by an Act of Congress. While Flag Day is not an official federal holiday, many Americans mark the day as our family does by displaying the flag. As Flag Day approaches on June 14, these reminders may help us pause and give the flag the honor it deserves.

 The early flags of the United States of America were all hand sewn. Each flag has a unique history. For this Flag Day, allow me to repeat some of those best-known stories.

The Stars and Stripes

Legend holds that George Washington visited Betsy Ross on July 4, 1776, and commissioned her to make the first American flag. Elizabeth Griscom was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She married John Ross in 1773. The couple began an upholstery business together, drawing on her needlework skills.

John Ross was killed in January 1776 on militia duty. Betsy married an American sailor who died as a prisoner of war. Then she married a soldier who died from the wounds of war. Betsy was three times the widow of patriots.  She continued the upholstery business, supporting and rearing her seven daughters.

The story of Betsy Ross’ commission to make the first American flag, as told by her grandson, was first published in Harper’s Monthly in 1873.  The account received wide acceptance. By the 1880s, many school textbooks included the story.

On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution, establishing the standard for flags of the United States. The wording of that document describes the Stars and Stripes: “Resolved, that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

Tradition says that Betsy Ross made the flag, using fabric from a white petticoat, a red shirt, and a blue coat. The colors held symbolic significance – white for purity, red for valor, and blue for loyalty. The stars were placed in a circle to show equality among the original states.

The American flag was lightly regarded during the early years of the nation. Long before it flew on the moon or fluttered over the White House; long before it reached the North Pole or the summit of Mount Everest; long before it was hoisted by Marines at Iwo Jima, folded by an honor guard into a triangle at Arlington National Cemetery, or unfurled by firefighters above the ashes of the World Trade Center, the American ensign was just a patchwork of cloth. That all changed during the War of 1812.

The Star-Spangled Banner

The British fleet made preparations for an attack on the United States. In Baltimore, Major George Armistead at Fort McHenry was ready to defend the harbor. He expressed a desire for a large flag to fly over the fort, one the British could see from out at sea, miles away.

Mary Pickersgill, a prominent Baltimore flag maker, received the order for an oversized American flag to measure 30×42 feet. Pickersgill was an experienced maker of ships’ colors.

She and her assistants spent seven weeks designing and stitching the garrison flag. They sewed by candlelight, sitting on the floor of Claggett’s Brewery, the only space in East Baltimore large enough to accommodate the project. They assembled the dark blue field and the red and white stripes of the flag by piecing together strips of loosely woven English wool bunting.  Each of the fifteen horizontal red and white stripes measured two feet wide.  Each of the fifteen five-pointed white cotton stars measured two feet across. They were sewn into the upper left quarter, forming the flag’s canton, the rectangle of dark blue fabric, which measured 16×21 feet. In all, the giant flag required 300 yards of fabric.

Pickersgill’s flag was flying over Fort McHenry when the British fleet attacked on September 12, 1814. Intense bombardment targeted Fort McHenry on the evening of September 13. Heavy shelling continued for twenty-five hours.  British ships were unable to pass the fort and penetrate the harbor. The attack ended, and the fleet retreated.

An American lawyer, Francis Scott Key, and an aide were aboard the British ship HMS Tonnant as the guests of three British officers. They were there to negotiate the release of prisoners.  Key, his aide, and one released prisoner were not allowed to return to their own sloop because they had become familiar with the strength and position of the British troops. They were detained, in effect making them prisoners. Key had learned of the British intent to attack Baltimore. Because of his detention, he was unable to do anything but watch the bombarding of the American forces at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore on the night of September 13–14, 1814.

As dawn broke on the morning of September 14, the battered flag still flew above the ramparts of the fort. Francis Scott Key, an amateur poet, celebrated the sight of the flag in verse. His words became our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Old Glory

In 1820, William Driver, a young sea captain, was presented a flag by his mother in Salem, Massachusetts. The hand-sewn flag was designed to be flown from the mast of the whaling vessel Charles Doggett. The flag had twenty-four stars and included a small anchor stitched in the corner of its blue canton.

As he left the harbor for a trip around the world, Captain Driver was the first to hail the flag as Old Glory. It served as the official flag throughout the voyage.

Driver retired from the sea in 1837 and moved to Nashville, Tennessee, taking his cherished flag with him. He flew his beloved flag on all patriotic occasions. When the Civil War broke out some thirty years later, he stuffed Old Glory as batting inside a comforter to conceal it from the Confederate Army.

The Pledge of Allegiance

In 1985, I traveled with a group of scouts to the National Boy Scout Jamboree.   En route, we visited the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. We stood gazing at the original Star-Spangled Banner, the same one flown over Fort McHenry that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the words of our national anthem. We marveled at the large size of that tattered flag.

Spontaneously, an Eagle Scout from Georgia snapped to attention, saluted, and recited, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…” 

Immediately, a host of scouts and other visitors joined in as we honored our flag and affirmed loyalty to our country.

On this Flag Day, we might all salute and pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. And, in this climate of heightened awareness of the need for social justice, pledge ourselves to the great promise and fervent hope of liberty and justice for all.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com