While camping with my young family in North Carolina I experienced something truly splendiferous for the first time.
A campfire worked itself into a steady quiet burn. Smoke spiraled lazily from its center. The day settled out in a tired wash of well-worked muscles. Each kid, except for the three-year old who was asleep in the tent, had a stirring stick inside the fire. Not that the fire needed stirring, but kids seem compelled to play with fire, literally and proverbially. They’d ignite the end and then, sparkler-like, draw designs in the air until the flame died out. Then they’d spin smoke signals, tendrils of nothingness joining in the spiral from the center of the main fire. This game could go on for nearly an hour until we called bedtime. Until then, we let them play.
My eyes followed the line of smoke upward as it wove itself among the dense canopy of leaves. No breeze of any kind disturbed the disappearing trail of grey. The trees stood completely still and quiet. The coolness of the air began to settle in around our feet. I leaned back on the large log I sat on, hugged my arms to warm up a bit and looked up to see the stars. Nothing surpasses starlight’s intensity when out camping somewhere far from city lights.
The overhead leaves and branches obstructed the view of the night sky, except for a patch here or there. My eyes searched to find familiar constellations, but the sections of sky I could see were too small. Then movement caught my attention. The leaves weren’t moving and yet they seemed to move. I asked my husband if he’d heard of a meteor shower happening. That caught his attention. He sat down beside me and looked up.
I pointed to the patch of sky I’d seen moving. “There,” I said, and “there, and there.” A meteor shower for sure, but without the streaks of light. These stars resembled embers in a fire, a quick flash of light that would disappear then quickly reappear as another flash nearby.
“That is not a meteor shower,” my husband said definitively. “Those are fireflies!” He laughed. “Come here, kids, you gotta see this!”
What? No. That’s not what fireflies look like, I thought to myself. Those lights are in the distance, high up in the atmosphere. And yet, I looked again, maybe he’s right.
The excitement and shift in his voice elicited instant obedience. The stirring sticks dropped to the ground and they rushed over to where my husband sat. He pointed skyward.
“Do you see those lights in the trees?” he asked the kids. “Watch. See those flashing, moving lights? Those are fireflies.”
“Cool!” The two of them said in tandem. “Can we catch them?”
“Don’t be silly,” I said, “they’re way past the tops of the trees.” But as I said this, the lights drew closer to us. Sure enough, the small group of lights flitted about lower and lower in the branches and then began to spread out and disperse. They didn’t fly close enough for us to see any details, we simply admired their on again off again glow.
The kids ran and jumped and spun around under the disappearing blinking bugs. The air around us felt magical somehow, as if the sky itself had reached down and christened our camping spot with traveling starlight. Tinkerbell herself couldn’t have cast a better spell.
I’m pretty sure we floated off to sleep on a cloud of wonder and awe.
The cleverest of magicians and the finest of artists, Gaia, the ancient Greek goddess of earth, surely weaves her incantations and her brushes with panache and skill. Better than stargazing and better than a meteor shower my first experience with fireflies put a smile on my face that lasted several days.
Thinking about it even this many years later makes me want to believe in magic.