Earlier this week, my friend Barbara and I headed out to a meadow just before dusk to meet with Sara, a firefly expert, and Michelle, a fellow firefly fan. Barbara and I are working on an extended project about this place, and she has made many gorgeous pictures of fireflies here, so we thought it’d be great if someone wise in the ways of fireflies could school us about what we were seeing.
We had a terrific time, although we didn’t see nearly as many fireflies as we had expected to. It was, it turns out, a bit of a seasonal low point–the waning days of summer’s earliest fireflies, and very early in the waxing of the next species, whose time to spread their wings starts soon. Still, we learned a ton–including the difference between photuris and photinus, and between boy flashes and girl flashes, as well as assorted details about the evolution of firefly glow and about their mating habits.
Equally captivating, to me, is what the fireflies engender. As we tell folks about our interest in these beautiful bugs, people send us pictures or point us toward other artists also interested in them. Two great images that came our way last week were from 19th century Japan. Here’s one of them:
Many people in Japan, it turns out, have a profound affection for fireflies. In fact, that ardor rises to the level of a being a general cultural appreciation of them. Sara had been in Japan earlier in the month, giving a talk at a scientific conference. To her surprise, even lay people attended. And not only did they listen avidly, they also asked great questions and seemed to fully appreciate the information being presented by the scientists.
In addition to the images that have come our way are recommendations of other pieces–like this haiku by the poet Issa, who lived approximately two hundred years ago:
A giant firefly:
that way, this way, that way, this –
and it passes by.
Michelle also told us about an artist she’s especially fond of, Canadian Michael Flomen. He uses photographic materials and a deep appreciation of light and chemistry (no wonder he likes fireflies!) to make his images–which are utterly literal and entirely abstract at the same time. Rather than using a camera, he lets the fireflies walk on photo paper, for example, and leave their own trail. Here are a couple of his collaborations with fireflies:
These, in turn, remind me of the work of Martin Prothero, who sets out carbon-coated glass plates and lets animals trace their own paths across them. Here is one:
Firefly traces, animal tracks, human artworks — fleeting marks of lives being lived well.