Category Archives: News and Events

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.

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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.

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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.

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Swimming Upstream

Salmon, shad, and alewives were formerly abundant here, and taken in weirs by the Indians … until the dam and afterward the canal at Billerica, and the factories at Lowell, put an end to their migrations hitherward; though it is thought that a few more enterprising shad may still occasionally be seen in this part of the river…. Perchance, after a few thousands of years, if the fishes will be patient, and pass their summers elsewhere meanwhile, nature will have leveled the Billerica dam, and the Lowell factories, and the Grass-ground River run clear again, to be explored by new migratory shoals. – A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

Yes, it often seems that hope is measured in “thousands of years,” but every so often it shows up as more immediate; sometimes there’s even a human helping hand.

May 25th: It’s the day after the Damariscotta Mills Fish Ladder Restoration Festival, but when we arrive a little before noon, the gravel lot is mostly full, even as the festival signage is down. For the first time this year, the sun is summer hot. We cross over a small bridge, and I look down into the clear water flowing toward the salt pond downstream. We are at what’s called the head of the tide – fresh water upstream to our left, salt to the right. We’re here to see the anadromous alewives as they complete their spawning swim from the sea to Damariscotta Lake, which is exactly 42 feet above this meeting of waters. Up those feet they must go…without feet, of course.

The tents for the festival are still pitched, but only a stain from a dwindling pile of melting ice suggests that yesterday this flat spot by the stream was full of noisy human celebration, including the chance to eat the smoked brethren of those swimming by.

We idle forward and turn left, upstream by some buildings that once made use of the river running by; the falls rise ahead, and just across the narrow river it’s impossible to miss a squall of gulls. They are sleek and loud; for them the festival happens every day of the spring run. Also across the river at the fall’s base lies a stretched curtain of orange plastic meant to discourage ambitious fish, who would go right at the impossible falls. Instead they are meant to aim right, where a small, rounded pool empties into the river. Above that pool, another, and another, and on…up; the ladder rises. Now, in these pools six-or-so feet across, we can see the concentrated fish in dark tens as they circle, gathering, we suppose, strength and the fishy equivalent of resolve for the next climb to the next pool a foot above.

Swirl of alewives in one of the pools. Photo: Russ Williams

Swirl of alewives in one of the pools. Photo: Russ Williams

A narrow path runs up beside the pools, and we climb its shallow slope. At pool ten, we lean on the railing and watch the swimming swirl of fish; then, we begin to watch the thick muscle of descending water from pool eleven; we watch it closely. Do alewife jump upstream like salmon, leaping then lagging back, then repeating until they gain the next bit of slackened water? No fish breaks the surface, but there, there goes a black streak close against the dark brown stone underwater; up goes a fish, and another, another still…ten in a minute. So they rise, one by one, pool by pool.

Later, at the top of the ladder, we lean again on the railing and watch the portal where the placid lake water begins to gather speed before disappearing down stream into the ladder. To the left a swirl of 30 fish spins in the currentless water- What now? their swimming seems to ask; What now? Then, apparently at some signal, they shoot away up lake as a pack; the water is empty; its dark olive bottom vacant…for a bit. Nearby, we can make out the outline of a long-sunken skiff.

A fish appears. It seems just that – appearance from nowhere. Another materializes. And now, if we watch closely, we can see each quick dark streak as each alewife reaches a summer of procreation and slow swimming. It is the promise lake.

The Ladder

The Ladder

Back downstream, we pause again at the ladder’s outset, where the aspirants gather in the quick water, amid the claque of gulls. Up close, the gulls look huge, their wing span equal to the spread arms of an adult human. A gull lifts up and drops into the water, beak down; he lifts his head and flaps up into the air again. From his beak a full fish protrudes, its tail flipping still. Other gulls zero in on their successful relation; he tips back his head and swallows the eight-inch fish whole, chokes it down in a hurry. His neck swells like a stuffed sock, and his relatives veer away, as if to say, “Aw, Chuck bolted another down whole; Chuck’s no fun.” They settle again to watching: for fish near the surface, and each other. Within a minute four more gulls catch fish and, just like Chuck, they bolt them whole, each taking the fish down head first.

In 2013, an estimated 900,000 alewives made it to Damariscotta Lake, even after people and gulls removed their share. Who knows what this year’s tally will be? During this 30 minutes, we’ve seen a few hundred of that tally climb an inspired and inspiring ladder, living on into one of the earth’s best stories of return.

As we turn to go, hundreds more alewives press on upstream. The water roars; the gulls squall, dive and squabble; urgency reigns. So too does life.

Here’s the web address for the folks who have restored the fish ladder. The site is rich with information and its photo gallery is superb.

Link:https://damariscottamills.org/

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