Fireflies and the First Dance

We didn’t see them coming. They surrounded us as we lay in lounge chairs on the beach, wrapped up in sleeping bags–because even though it was late June, nights were still cold on the sandy shores of Lake Superior.

We had been too engrossed in laziness, watching the horizon change colors, melding from pink to red to dark blue. We had been too captivated by the lights of the ore boats gliding across the surface of the lake, following them as they crested the horizon, then faded away into the distance, listening for the soft hum of the engines, and actually being able to hear them from miles away in the deep silence. We had been too focused on spotting the first few stars as they revealed themselves in the moonless, darkening sky.

The first fireflies that flitted about on the periphery of our eyesight–before the great horde enveloped us–had seemed like nothing unusual. They’re a common sight in the northern landscape on summer nights. They’re something all children, at one time or another, has chased across their backyard at a late night barbecue, or has captured in a jar to ponder for a while, marvelling at the magic of the odd, cold light until their parents made them unscrew the lid and set the winged creature free. Although fireflies make an appearance every summer, it is only for a few, short weeks, and it was a lucky night when we saw two or three in the yard.

They affirmed for me, as a child, that there really was magic in the world.

This magic of the firefly begins when they hatch from eggs in late summer into larvae, known as glowworms. They live in the soil for a few years, then construct a mud chamber in the soil into which they settle. In this little mud chamber, their larval body is broken down and they transform into their adult form, emerging when the conditions are right as the twinking firefly, ready for its first sky dance. This stage of flickering light lasts only three to four weeks while the fireflies mate. There are many species of fireflies around the world, and all of them undergo this metamorphosis on their life journey.

Although my husband and I both enjoyed fireflies in our childhood, the great swarm that surrounded us so swiftly and silently was not our usual experience. We discovered, as we looked behind us at the wide expanse of beach to the tree line, that instead of one or two lights, the entire pine forest was alight, as if hundreds of strands of lights had been strung while we were watching the sun slide behind the lake. Thousands upon thousands of nature’s strobe lights danced in the night sky around us, twinkling and bobbing erratically down the vast sand beach stretching for miles in either direction.

It was a firefly dance party on the beach, and we had crashed it.

As the stars appeared, one by one, or in two or threes, the sky began to mimic the beach. I would  look away for one momenyt, watching a spectacular firefly dance move, and when my eyes returned to the sky I would find three new stars were out, as bright as if they had been there all along. The Big Dipper appeared directly in front of us over the lake, poised to scoop water out of the great basin.

As it grew darker, the Milky Way revealed itself, stretching across the sky from the lake horizon,  sweeping over our heads, then disappearing behind the treeline. When it was full night, we could no longer see the line between water and sky. All that remained was darkness and light.

The firelies did not radiate enough light to make it brighter, but held a light that was self-contained, like the stars. Their biolumenescence, which is caused by a chemical reaction, is the most efficient in the world, with all of the energy being emitted as light and none as heat. But to me, it just seemed like the stars had come to Earth to spend the evening on the beach with us.  And they were dancing.

I have thought about that night many times since. It is my happy place, where I go to reaffirm the dream that my life can be whatever I make of it…and to remind myself that there really is magic in the world.

I have seen the stars dancing.

It was the night I began to metamorphise as well. I had been in my mud chamber, burrowed in the ground, being broken down. I was ready to begin transforming, springing forth wings and learning to sparkle and fly.

I brought home two rocks from the beach that had been rounded by the waves. They have embedded stones and swirls within them. Though they are gray and somewhat drab, the amalgamation reminds me of the fireflies, the swirls, the milky way. They sit on my writing desk as a reminder of that night; a reminder that perfect moments do happen, and that I have to cherish them, hold them in my thoughts, continuously smoothing them, remembering.

Since then, I have made many changes in my life–at times fearlessly, and at times merely pretending to be fearless.

I’ve found it works either way.

There are many more steps to go before I can say I danced without abandon on the beach under the Milky Way on an inky black, summer night. But I keep working towards it. I have felt a few flickers of light within and my wings are getting stronger every day…

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