Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Friends ask me if I've been birding lately. It's usually a reliable go-to in conversations. Not so much, I tell them, with an apologetic shrug. The fact is, there's a bit of a disincentive to do what you usually do just because you usually do it, even though you're usually glad you did it when you do it, for the usual reasons.
It's also the case that I did not see a scarlet tanager this spring or hear a veery, or cross paths with many warblers, as I might have if I'd persevered; and while the space they would have filled is okay, like the little hopeful black-and-white pictures in a stamp album, the real stamps would have been better, I know.
Sometimes you have to keep up the old rituals because if you don't keep them up, you might lose your way some day, like a fellow who can't remember which house is his.
Which is why I went to look for fireflies out at Rock Meadow in Belmont on Sunday night, the second night of the so-called supermoon, the moon in perigee, venturing closer, like a wild critter hoping to be fed.
I stopped first at Robbins Farm, the hilltop park in Arlington Heights with its unimpeded view to the east. It was around 8:45 p.m., a little past moonrise, and Arlington did not fail me. Around 300 people were arrayed on the grassy ridge, like observers at the apocalypse, with telescopes and flashing cell phone cameras trained on a rose-colored translucent moon just climbing out of a gray mist.
I like it that a good number of my fellow townspeople will assemble to watch a moonrise, even if it's been hyped as a supermoon. They must have been pleased to see their separate yens braided together into a popular event, with a line of cars slowly cruising for rare parking spaces. Or maybe they'd hoped they would be the only ones.
I watched their kids racing around, not showing the least interest in the main event, but maybe tucking away the memory of a summer evening when they all went out to see the moon. And maybe they'd gotten a brief explanation of the moon's elliptical orbit and learned those two mysterious astral words: apogee and perigee, like twin brothers in a Persian myth.
But I had other lights to see. So I angled back downhill toward my car, passing a woman who'd found a good solitary spot for a picture. I took her place. By the little community garden, through a perfect-sized gap in a leafheavy tree, the rosy moon—not especially super, but getting its due—peered back.
I followed the back roads into Belmont and ended up at Rock Meadow, feeling pleasantly sinister as I pulled onto the dirt shoulder and slowly got out of the car like a suspect in a Perry Mason episode. Entered the meadow on a path through tall grass, a darker indentation. Came out into the wide view. And saw the first spark. Firefly!
The man with the faltering step clumped his way along the boardwalk. I was invisible, like the tree that falls noiselessly. No one was around to see my Adventures of Tintin t-shirt. Mosquitoes registered my presence, but I thwarted them with my Deet. They hate Deet. You just have to say "deet" and they leave you in peace.
More fireflies were trying the dark, finding it a lightworthy medium. I walked and took them in, collecting sparks and flashes, discerning color—yellow, a few white—and duration—mostly periods, a few elongated into dashes—and profusion—more in the wetter swale, fewer in the drier. Sometimes I watched without glasses, widening each spark into a ghostlier sequin, a trick I've tried with frozen rain and fireworks displays.
They simultaneously invite and resist analysis. The word bioluminescence is approximately the length of one flash. A cold, chemical light is too cold and chemical a fact. That it is a summer delight and fantastic, serving a practical purpose that translates as romantic— getting warmer. Cool signals; meadow lights. Keep it brief.
As I neared the apogee of my walk, a yolky light was gathering near the top of a tree along Mill Street. I stood a while, waiting for it; then, impatient, moved myself, making it rise free again, the moon that had shyly followed me, yet was still back at Robbins Farm and a million other places.
Now I had two companions of light: the big chummy moon and the collective telegraphy of fireflies: one constant, a bit solemn, like a god looking for a friend; the other inconstant, but exciting, a language come to life, now an eachness of separate signals, now an orchestral wholeness of meadowspeak, which if it had music, might be Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night Dream Overture.
Hard to leave these companions, but what's a hello without a goodbye? A midsummer night's dream, maybe; dream optional. I backed out slowly to a few final firefly flashes—those last, long, midsummer notes—and gave a farewell salute to the moon--which deserves its own song.