One ordinary Tuesday afternoon, as I worked in my home study, my wife, Marianne, called me. She all but sang into the phone that she’d forgotten that she’d won a coveted place in the lottery to see the synchronous firefly display at Rocky Fork, the Tennessee state park near our home in Jonesborough.
“It’s tonight! Did you remember?” she asked.
“Well, no,” I said, squirming at the interruption.
“But you can still go, can’t you?”
“Um. Well. When?”
“We have to be in Flag Pond by 7:50pm,” she said.
Flag Pond, TN.
I went full Eeyore on her. “Okay,” I said. “I guess I can go.”
“I’m going to call Ben and Elizabeth, and see if they’ll join us. We can have as many as five people in the car!”
Ben and Elizabeth, our adult children, live nearby, but scheduling us into their lives takes time, and we didn’t have enough of that to wear them down into a “yes.”
Good luck with that, I thought.
The upshot of all this was that I was going to have to stop writing, eating peanuts, and (when stuck on a sentence) watching old SNL skits on YouTube in order to walk the dog and throw together some kind of snack supper for us, because there was no way Marianne was going to be home in time to help. Then, since it usually happens this way, I was going to have to hustle her out the door so we wouldn’t be late and miss the shuttle that would take us out to the state park which closes at dusk each evening.
Call me clairvoyant, but when we got into the car, by ourselves, at 7:20, to make a 45-minute trip in 30 minutes, Marianne looked at me and said, “Speed if you have to.”
“You should call the number on the reservation form,” I said. “Tell them we’re on the way.”
“Good idea,” she said.
When I heard her leaving a message, I said to myself, Crap. We’re screwed. No one’s going to get that message.
Fortunately, there was only one really slow car on the narrow, winding road to Erwin, and it turned off toward Greeneville. So I started flirting with a speeding ticket, again.
“I’m so excited,” Marianne said. “We get to see the fireflies!”
We can see lightning bugs from our porch any freakin’ night! I said. To myself. The things we do for love, I guess. And I did enjoy driving like a teenaged moonshiner without my wife telling me to slow down. In fact, she said, “This is fun.”
We should be late to something you want to do more often.
The directions told us to look for an asphalt parking lot somewhere in the 1500’s on Hwy. 352, Flag Pond, TN. When we got off of Hwy. 19W and onto 352, the numbers were in the 4200’s, and going up.
“Why are the numbers getting bigger?” Marianne asked. “We’re supposed to find 1500. We’re going the wrong way!”
“We can’t be going the wrong way,” I Eeyored. “352 started right back there. There has to be some kind of break. The 1500’s have to be this way.”
Damned if I know!
Yanked from a calm evening at home, flying through curves at expensive-ticket speeds, certain that we’d missed the shuttle, my whole demeanor sucked oxygen from the air and light from the sky. I was a human black hole.
If we have to turn around and go home, I’m going to enjoy making her miserable the entire evening.
We passed the entrance to Rocky Fork State Park and still no 1500’s in sight. Less than a quarter mile beyond the turn-off to the park, Hwy. 352 turns right and heads up the mountain and into North Carolina while the Old Asheville Highway runs straight through downtown Flag Pond, TN. In the southwest corner of the intersection, in an asphalt parking lot, we saw a white passenger van next to one of those white canopy tents that vendors set up at festivals to sell homemade trinkets, melting brownies, and bars of goat’s milk soap.
“That’s got to be it!” said Marianne.
I pulled up to the tent as the van, packed full of firefly watchers, pulled away. We were relieved to see a number of other people standing around and waiting for the next shuttle. Marianne got out of the car to let the people sitting in folding chairs behind a folding table know that we were legitimate lottery winners.
After parking the car, I stuffed my camera, tripod, and a bottle of water in my backpack and joined Marianne at the tent. The tent people knew each other and were laughing and talking loudly about people they knew, but the rest of us didn’t. I always find that insufferable, and that night found it especially so. I wandered toward a tall, wooden sign filled with rules about watching fireflies.
Seriously? Rules for watching fireflies?
No bug spray.
No flashlights or cameras without red filters.
What’s a red filter? And how does it help take pictures of lightning bugs? I moped back to the car and put my camera and tripod away. At least my pack was lighter.
Back at the tent, a man with a girth so colossal he looked like he had swallowed a hay bale was pulling the cord on a Honda generator.
“You trying that again?” asked the lady who had signed us in.
“Thought I would,” said the man.
The generator sputtered to life and another large, colorful wooden sign lit up with electric fireflies. The man stood in front of the sign with a trying-not-to-be-too-proud grin on his face, arms spreading around his belly, and his hands in his pockets. Half of his hands, anyway. That’s all that reached after his arms spread around his belly.
I walked up to the folding table laden with Friends of Rocky Fork bumper stickers, t-shirts, and membership applications. While appraising the offerings, I asked the woman behind the table what the rules meant by a “red filter.”
“Oh, it’s just one of these,” she said holding up a 4-inch by 4-inch piece of red cellophane.
“How can you take a picture through that?” I asked.
“It’s just for your viewfinder,” she said. “To keep the artificial light at a minimum. Too much light will affect the fireflies.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling a bit foolish.
I took the cellophane, hustled back to the car, and retrieved my camera before the shuttle returned.
Why didn’t I just ask about that at first?
Winners of the firefly lottery get assigned to one of several nights of viewing, and our guides for the evening were two state park rangers, Jeff, slender as a sapling, and Carl, thick as an old oak. They were armed with Glocks, radios, electric lanterns covered with red filters, and genuine excitement at the chance to take another group into the woods until 11:00pm to watch fireflies do their mating dance.
When everyone had been shuttled into the park, Jeff called us together and told us that we’d hike about a mile into the park.
“We’ll cross the first little footbridge,” he said, “but we’ll stop before the second, bigger bridge. That’s just so we know where everyone is. When we get there, we should still be able to see, so wander around and find a comfortable place to park yourself. About 9:45 the fireflies will start the show, and by 10:00 they should be in full display. When they start, even a quick burst from a flashlight will throw them off for a cycle or two. So please keep your lights off unless you really need them.
“I’ll lead us, and Carl will pull up the rear. So gather up whatever you’ve brought, and let’s go!”
Rocky Fork State Park is a 2000-acre quilt of dense, Appalachian cove forest in the steep, rocky folds of the Cherokee National Forest. The main trails at the park are old logging roads. The Friends of Rocky Fork group is cutting some new, single-track trails here and there, but we stayed on the rough and rutted road next to Rocky Fork Creek, which is just big enough for fishing.
“I really need to come up here and fish this creek,” I said to Marianne as we walked.
It’s been years since I’ve been fly-fishing. The fish in this creek wouldn’t be very big, but regardless of size, it’s hard to look away from any brook or brown trout. All those red and yellow dots on their mossy-green backs and silver flanks create bright constellations that speak to me of the first stirrings of Creation.
Something in me began to glimmer.
As we walked, I asked Jeff if a firefly’s light is bioluminescence similar to what I’d seen in foxfire or, once at Folly Beach, in ocean waves.
“It’s bioluminescence,” he said, “but the reaction happens because of chemical called luciferin. Fireflies’ light is the only cold light.” Jeff raised his hand toward the darkening canopy of poplar, oak, and hickory. “On the planet.”
I marveled at the thought of cold light.
When we reached a small clearing, the logging road bore to the right and began to climb. A narrower trail to the left stayed close to the creek, which was getting smaller the further we followed it.
“The bridge is just up there to the left,” said Jeff pointing toward the narrow trail. “Make yourselves comfortable.”
Marianne and I walked toward the bridge. Several of us, including Ranger Jeff, crossed the bridge. A few fireflies were beginning to light up down close to the ground, so I prepped my tripod and locked my camera in place on top of it. Not having done this kind of photography before, I struggled with the mechanics of taking pictures of moving objects in in little to no light.
“How’s it going,” Jeff asked when he walked past me.
“Not so good,” I said. “I’m kind of a novice, and I’m not sure how to go about this.”
“What kind of camera do you have?” he asked.
“I have the same camera,” said Jeff. “Do you have it on auto or manual focus?”
“You’ll need it on manual.” As I switched the lens to manual focus, Jeff took off his pack. “I’m going to throw a bright light out there for you a-ways to give you something to focus on.”
He shined an unfiltered flashlight beam onto a tree limb thirty or forty feet in front of me. I focused on the limb, and he turned off the light.
“Now, just adjust your shutter speed as the light dwindles.”
“Cool. Thank you.”
I set the timer to a two-second delay, the shutter speed for long exposures, and began to play with what little firefly action was already happening.
My glimmer got a little brighter.
Marianne had walked past the bridge a hundred yards or so. When she came back, real darkness was settling in, and she was giddy.
“There’s a clearing up there, and they are really starting to flash!”
A man named Dave, a Friends of Rocky Fork volunteer who comes all the way from Knoxville twice a week to work on trails, was there to help Jeff and Carl wrangle firefly watchers. He came to us from below the bridge and said, “Come down here! Around the corner it’s amazing!”
I gathered my gear, turned on my red-filtered flashlight and eased back across the narrow footbridge. When I looked down the trail, I was looking into deep darkness, and for a moment, I didn’t breathe.
The term “synchronous fireflies” had always made me imagine lightning bugs going on and off like Christmas tree lights in regular, monotonous intervals. I learned that in the mating ritual of this species of firefly, the males hover ten to twenty feet above the ground creating frenzies of brilliant yellow lights. At some point, responding to God-knows-what stimulus, they go dark. All of them. All at once. Poof. This gives the ladies down nearer the ground a chance to respond with their more subtle, coquettish glow. Then the guys get all excited again and – all at once – start flashing, Me! Me! Look at me!
Around the edges of all that, a few smaller, pale blue lights came on, and stayed on for as much as ten seconds. These were blue ghost fireflies, and their light is ghostly, indeed. On photographs, their creeping blue lights create long, eerie streaks beneath the dazzling yellows above them. As we were walking out, a single blue ghost hovered toward me and landed on my shoulder. It stopped me in my tracks. A firefly’s adult lifespan is about two weeks, but I felt like I’d been touched by something ancient and sacred. How do the smallest of physical things evoke such deep and timeless wonder?
As for the total firefly display: Imagine lying on your back in a field where neither light nor clouds dim the splendor of the night sky above you. Above you, the stars shimmer through the last of the day’s heat as it rises through the earth’s atmosphere. Now imagine that every so often those stars cease to shine. They go dark for a few seconds, and when they appear again, you see entirely new constellations flickering above you. Now imagine this happening over and over, and if you have never seen a synchronous firefly display, you’ll have some idea of the experience we were having that evening at Rocky Fork State Park.
Having found my vantage point, I leveled my tripod, wrapped a red filter around my camera’s viewfinder, secured it with a rubber band, and draped my bandana over the little orange light that shines on the front of the camera during the two-second delay. I set the shutter speed at thirty seconds, aimed my camera blindly toward the hypnotizing flurry of lights.
When there was nothing to see but fireflies, I noticed the depth of the darkness in that remote mountain hollow. With all other visual distractions dissolved, I smelled the rich aromas of leaves rotting beneath the trees and hard earth cooling underfoot. I heard the rhythmic pulse of crickets, and the gurgle of cold, clear water washing over smooth gray stones. In that numinous, purifying moment, all things converged into a single, otherworldly celebration. And the numbing darkness I had brought with me sloughed off, giving way to bright wonder.
*I wrote this piece about a year ago, and am just now posting it. If you enjoyed it, please share it! Thank you for reading, Allen.