Author Archives: Sandy Stott

Catch a Lightning Bug

By Corinne H. Smith

“Have not the fireflies in the meadow relation to the stars above, etincelant [twinkling]? When the darkness comes, we see stars beneath also. … Do not the stars, too, show their light for love, like the fireflies?” ~ Thoreau’s journal, June 16, 1852

This month, I’ve made a habit of walking in the early evening. Around 7:30 p.m. I head west. I move from my native suburban-scape to the confinement of small city streets: first passing 1950s brick homes set back on sizable yards, then pacing past older row houses with front porches crammed full of chairs and toys. Eventually I turn a corner and come back. My circular route is about 20 blocks long and takes most of an hour to finish. Along the way, I seek out Nature. I’m apt to encounter bounding squirrels and rabbits, squawking robins and catbirds, and weeds and wildflowers in bloom. I consider this walk an exercise for both physical and mental health. I look forward to it.

But one day in the middle of June, I got a late start. The sun was dropping quickly as I made my way toward it. Already the day lilies and other light-attuned flowers were closing up for the night. I figured I wouldn’t see much out and about. I knew my route well by this time, so I was in little danger of stumbling or fumbling, no matter how dark it got. Still, I know I walked a little faster than usual so I could get home before true nightfall. Silly me, I didn’t think to bring a flashlight.

As I hustled past a strip of edge woods, I stopped abruptly. Had I seen a little light in the foliage? Or were my eyes playing tricks on me? Was it already the season for lightning bugs? I waited a few seconds, and a tiny light blinked on and off again. Yes! A lightning bug! Were there more? I waited … and rejoiced that there WERE more. When was the last time I had seen a lightning bug? It seemed like years. And when was the last time I CAUGHT one? Oh now, that would be more like decades.

Not a stop on Corinne's walk, but we like the bugs' motion.  Photo: Bigstock

Not a stop on Corinne’s walk, but we like the bugs’ motion. Photo: Bigstock

For the rest of my walk, I craved the sight of the lights. I scanned the open yards and the areas near bushes. All of a sudden it seemed as if lightning bugs were beginning to rise out of the grass, everywhere. (I’ve never called them “fireflies.”) I couldn’t believe it. Was this their first night? Or had I been too house-bound to notice their arrival? It was, I was embarrassed to admit, the latter.

Henry Thoreau thought the lightning bugs shined like stars come to earth. (His journal entry posing this idea sounded similar to the time he saw clouds reflected in Walden Pond and wrote, “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”) But I didn’t look skyward to see if the stars had come out yet. My eyes were focused at ground level. I loved seeing these little flyers and their lights. I was a block from home when I decided that I wanted to catch a lightning bug before going in for the night.

“Where there was only one firefly in a dozen rods, I hastily ran to one which had crawled up to the top of a grasshead and exhibited its light, and instantly another sailed in to it, showing its light also; but my presence made them extinguish their lights. The latter retreated, and the former crawled slowly down the stem. It appeared to me that the first was a female who thus revealed her place to the male, who was also making known his neighborhood as he hovered about, both showing their lights that they might come together. It was like a mistress who had climbed to the turrets of her castle and exhibited there a blazing taper for a signal, while her lover had displayed his light on the plain.”
~ Thoreau’s journal, June 14, 1851

Leave it to Henry to create a medieval metaphor for the mating rituals of the lightning bug. I laughed at the thought of him running after them. But then I did the same thing. It sure is a challenge: to see in the dusk and to discern tiny dark and flying bodies against the dark background of the yard. The trick is to focus on one light. Let it blink a few times. Find and follow the moving body with your eyes. Then put your hand below the bug and lift it up. With any luck, the critter will be in your palm. Blinking.

I ran after one and missed it, and ended up with an empty hand. I homed in on another one and missed again. Fortunately, I was alone on the street; I hoped no one was watching from a window. Darn it, I used to be able to do this when I was growing up. Catching lightning bugs should be easy. How could I forget the technique? This should be just like riding the proverbial bicycle.

As often happens, the third time was the charm. When I brought up my hand, a lightning bug was in it. I held my breath as the little guy walked to the tip of one finger. I said hello, told it how beautiful it was, thanked it for letting me catch it, and wished it well. It spread its wings and took off into the air. I watched it blink away.

I was still smiling when I unlocked my door and walked back inside.

Leave a Comment

Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Living Deliberately, Nature, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote

Here and Charleston

Caveat: This is not a post that takes us out into the redemptive natural world, at least not at its outset.

I had never respected the government near to which I had lived, but I had foolishly thought that I might manage to live here, minding my private affairs, and forget it. For my part, my old and worthiest pursuits have lost I cannot say how much of their attraction, and I feel that my investment in life here is worth many per cent less since Massachusetts last deliberately sent back a innocent man, Anthony Burns, to slavery. I dwelt before, perhaps, in the illusion that my life passed somewhere only between heaven and hell, but now I cannot persuade myself that I do not dwell wholly within hell. – Thoreau, from the essay, Slavery in Massachusetts.

I can’t shake (don’t really want to) the sadness and horror I feel at the recent murders in Charleston, South Carolina. Often, when I feel this way, I turn out toward the trees and hills for solace, but the image of the gunman (gun-boy) keeps following me, as does the loss of fellow citizens at prayer. And so I’ve turned from the outside in; I will write a bit and perhaps understand a little more about how the face and force of terror can follow us everywhere. And maybe that writing will show me a way to fight the helplessness I feel in the face of our ongoing arming and shooting of ourselves.

Early reports call the gun-boy a “loner,” and that term seeks, I think, to isolate, to suggest that he is singular and not representative. But that seems a lie. The gun-boy is from somewhere; he is rooted in white supremacist cant, and he does represent a part of our society that feels it has the right to suppress and murder anyone who “gets out of line” and is not white. The gun-boy and his ilk are terrorists. And they hope through instilled fear to return to or perpetuate a system where terror is institutional. Slavery was clearly such a system.

And so the gun-boy represents also a larger section of society that believes in some closet of the mind that those with colored skin don’t somehow measure up…because their skin is colored.

Sometimes, uncertain of words or unsure how to settle a roil of emotions, I turn to Henry Thoreau’s writing for its calm, lucid surfaces, even as I know that strong sub-currents lie beneath them. But in this angry time laced with disgust, I turn instead to his turbulent essay, Slavery in Massachusetts. In it a deeply angry Thoreau takes up the case of Anthony Burns, a runaway slave captured in Massachusetts in 1854 and the last slave to be returned to the south from that state. He tallies the extreme force and cost that society gathers to uphold the corrupt Fugitive Slave Law, and he wonders aloud if it is time for revolution. In short he goes at the system that oppresses and at each person who contributes to that system.

IMG_0404

How, all this makes me wonder in my whiteness, do I contribute to the culture from which the gun-boy comes? And how do I oppose it?

Without straying too far into territory that requires many words and whose cross-currents are also strong, I will say that racial identity seems to me a construct that allows us to locate “the other” by pointing to difference. And, as a social construct, it can be enforced (e.g. Jim Crow laws) or denied (e.g. whiteness). Still, whiteness is such a construct, and it seems as easy to unhorse it intellectually as it is difficult to minimize its influence culturally. Simple ancestry suggests its silliness: whatever your assigned or held race, go back 10 generations and consider your 1024 ancestors, those people leading to the current point of this chevron, you. What are the chances that all of them are of the same cast, same source? Unless you are from a newly discovered and isolated group on some unforeseen and overlooked island, the chances are zero. Zero for you, zero for the gun-boy, zero for everyone.

Taking away membership, however, hasn’t been particularly effective as a way of promoting understanding and peace; perhaps replacing it is a better route.

I turn again to Henry Thoreau, who seems to have kept his balance, even when he felt himself “wholly within hell.” What did he do? It seems that he worked daily – both at his studies and writing, his life’s work, and at his relationships, both human and Natural. Every day, on foot and in writing, he sought connection and understanding; he went out to find them. The membership he discovered and developed finally was, I think, his greatest achievement.

End Note: it occurs to me that in making this post, I turned instinctively to Thoreau’s essays, and now I recall an old lesson: that the word “essay” comes from the French word essayer, meaning to try, attempt. That’s the work of the day and the day.

2 Comments

Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Living Deliberately, Nature, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote

The Magic of Baby Birds

By Corinne H. Smith

“We too are out, obeying the same law with all nature. Not less important are the observers of the birds than the birds themselves.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, March 20, 1858

When I picked up the phone, I heard nothing but panic in the voice in the receiver. The words came loud and fast and all in one breath: “There’s-a-baby-bird-in-my-driveway-and-the-mother-flew-away-and-I-don’t-know-what-to-do!!!”

I didn’t recognize the voice at first, and the only words I caught for sure were “baby bird.” I switched the phone to the other ear so I could hear the person better. “I’m sorry, what?”

She repeated herself, this time a little slower and clearer. “There’s a baby bird in my driveway, and the mother flew away, and I don’t know what to do!”

Ah. It was my friend Marie. A city girl who moved to the country.

“Okay,” I said. “I’m not sure you need to DO anything. What happened?”

She was still flustered. “When I came home just now and parked my car, I saw something moving in the dirt, sort of jumping around. Then I saw an even smaller thing with it, like a little ball of fur. I turned the motor off and sat there and watched. I realized these were two little gray and brown birds, and one was awfully tiny. I got out of the car, and the bigger one flew away. But the smaller one didn’t. I walked past it and onto the porch, and it still didn’t leave. I thought, this can’t be right. That’s when I called you.”

mariebird

“This stuff happens,” I assured her. “A baby robin was in my yard in the same situation a few weeks ago. It was chirping outside my bathroom window, sitting on the ground, all by itself.”

“What did you do?” she asked.

“Nothing. I went outside later, and I saw a mother bird with the baby. She was leading it under a bush for protection. They were gone the next time I looked.”

“I don’t have any bushes in my yard,” Marie said. I knew she was right, because I’ve been to her house. She has some tall pine trees hovering over her roof. But there is no natural lower shelter where a ground-bound creature in potential danger could hide. And it was already dusk. Predators would come out soon. I tried to think of something she could take out to help. A cardboard box set on its side, maybe?

“Aw, the poor thing,” she said. “It’s still sitting out there. Clearly, it can’t fly.” Now she was watching the scene from her front window. “How did it get here in the first place?” she wondered.

“Maybe it was a first flight gone awry.”

What is it about baby birds – or really, about any small wild animals – that makes us think we’re responsible for their rescue? Sure, there may be times when we need to intervene. But in most cases, adult birds know better than we do how to resolve bird challenges. This was not the first time in history that a fledgling didn’t have a clue.

I started to ask Marie if she had a box when she interrupted me. “Oh, the bigger bird came back! Look at that, it’s hopping. And now the little one is hopping, too.” She laughed. “I’ve never seen this kind of thing before. The adult takes a few hops toward the street, and then it looks back to see if the baby is following. It’s chattering, too. It could be saying, ‘Look, this is the way we do it.’ Oh, this is funny! I’ve never seen this kind of thing before.” And she provided a hop-by-hop description as the pair moved slowly toward a neighbor’s yard that was full of both manmade and natural lawn decorations.

“Uh-oh, the baby stopped in the middle of the road. It’s pooped. It’s not going anywhere now. What if a car comes?” On my end, I thought this was an unlikely event. Marie lives in a very quiet neighborhood, and only close residents drive on her road. And anyway, Mom or Dad Bird persisted and insisted. After a quick breather, the two continued to make steady progress.

“Almost there, they’re almost across. Oh, wow! Other birds are flying in now. One, two, three, maybe four or five. They’re chattering too. It’s as if they were waiting to see what would happen, and now they’re cheering the baby on. ‘It’s okay now,’ they’re saying. ‘You’re back together with us.’” I couldn’t help but smile at this welcome outcome.

“It takes a village,” I said.

“ … to raise a baby bird!” Marie finished. We both laughed. Potential tragedy seemed to have been averted.

“What will happen now?” she asked.

“Hopefully, they’ll teach it to fly.” We could only cross our fingers. Marie turned away and didn’t see whether the small flock left by land or by air. By the time she thought to look again, she saw no little brown birds.

Our watching done, we said our goodbyes and hung up the phones.

Mark this as a day when one little bird and two grown-up humans
learned something new.

5 Comments

Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Living Deliberately, Nature, The Roost, Thoreau Quote