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Fireflies

07/13/05 12:00AM By Peter Gilbert
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(HOST) It's that time of year when fireflies come out at dusk. Commentator Peter Gilbert recalls treasured childhood memories of trying to catch fireflies and wonders what makes them so special.


(GILBERT) Of all the memories of growing up in the country, I'd wager that catching fireflies - or, as we called them, lightning bugs - ranks second only to taking a plunge in the local swimming hole.

There's the joy of staying up late. In the summer it doesn't even begin to get dark until after 8:30, and so catching fireflies means staying up well after bedtime.

There's the joyful abandon of running around in the dark, getting hot and sweaty. There's the camaraderie of doing so with siblings, cousins and friends.

There's the joy of the chase. Catching the little black beetles is tricky because their on-and-off light makes it a hide-and-seek challenge to cup one's hands carefully around them as they fly, silent and almost invisible, through the darkness. And there's the problem of perspective: the fact that a bug is just a single dot in the dark makes it hard to determine just how close or far away it is.

Scientists can explain the chemical reaction that produces the light, but they don't know how the beetles turn it on and off. En- ergy conservation enthusiasts would note with admiration that virtually all the energy produced by a firefly is given off as light - not heat. Lightning bugs don't feel warm in your cupped hand as a light bulb would; a light bulb converts only about 10 percent of its energy to light and the rest is wasted as heat.

But for kids, the greatest joy comes from the beetle's apparently miraculous ability to glow. They are literally luminous beings. Many a weary child has fallen asleep watching them with wonder as they glow in a glass jar beside the bed, only to have mom or dad steal in to set the fireflies free again after the child has fallen asleep.

Robert Frost wrote a six-line poem entitled "Fireflies in the Garden." Here it is:

Here come real stars to fill up the upper skies,
And here on earth come emulating flies
That, though they never equal stars in size
(And they were never really stars at heart),
Achieve at times a very starlike start.
Only, of course, they can't sustain the part.

Once, when reciting the poem on a college campus, Robert Frost himself remarked that poems "are fireflies. They represent our lucid intervals and glow only for a moment."

Perhaps, even as children, we have a sense of the transient nature of things - our fleeting insights, nature and life itself - always changing. On, off. On, off in the darkness. Catch it if you can! Grab it before the light goes out again and it flies away! That's where the challenge is, and the joy.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier. "Fireflies in the Garden" used with permission of Henry Holt & Co.

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