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Editor's notes: Thoughts on lightning bugs
editor's notes

I don’t know what started it, but it’s been bothering me.

I wonder if there will still be room for lightning bugs when the developers get through.

Maybe I wonder because the South Carolina foothills where I’m from used to be crazy with the things. You saw them in the hundreds and smelled honeysuckle from the ditches and fenceposts and somehow the world seemed like it could go on like that, barefoot and in tune with the whole universe.

I can still see it in my mind’s eye, those lights like tiny wayward embers from invisible fires.

I don’t know if they’re still there in such abundance, the lightning bugs. Or the honeysuckle, which perfumed summers as it grew in viney glory all over my papa’s yard at his oil-heated cinderblock house on the mill hill in Pendleton.

Fast forward to adulthood and lightning bugs – I believe some northerners call them fireflies – never seemed so plentiful here, at least not in my going-on-40 years worth of memory of coastal Georgia, a good bit of which tends to run together broken up by Army service or just not paying as much attention as I should to my surroundings.

The grind of trying to make a living and pay for things tends to warp one’s focus at times. Or maybe I was just too busy to look.

Still, every once in a while you’d see them in the pine trees as darkness gathered, one or two or several, but never in splendid numbers.

Once, though, in the mid 1990s, driving back up to South Carolina on family business on a late summer night I saw them just over the Carolina side of the border on Highway 119, like little lanterns out in the woods. It made my heart hurt, they were so beautiful, so I pulled over and sat for a moment and just watched.

Even as recent as this summer I thought I’d spotted a couple of lightning bugs off near our pumphouse, flying low out in the thick woods in the side lot, a buffer between an ever busier road and our home, but I couldn’t be sure. It elated and saddened me at the same time.

From what I read and hear, lightning bug numbers are fading. Reading online you learn the insects, beetles in reality, are vulnerable to one or more of the same combination of manmade circumstances killing a lot of the poor creatures unfortunate enough to be stuck in the same world we exploit: loss of habitat, pesticides, light pollution, climate change and so on. In a word, us.

In my darker thoughts, there will be no lightning bugs in the future. The rural places, the wild places, will be gone, replaced by factories and warehouses and strip malls, accompanied with crises real and imagined, ginned up to keep us at one another’s throats and afraid of what or who is next.

In the meantime, the nights if anything are brighter minus the lightning bugs, darkness rent by the steadily expanding glare of blinding white headlights. The headlights seem angry, as if in the reach of their white beams is a vision of how far we have to go to get where we are.

The people in charge, the ones who push the buttons that launch the bulldozers, say it’s for the kids and the future. So the bulldozers have been set forth and we’re seeing economic development hereabouts at a scale unimagined 20 years ago.

Lots of jobs for lots of kids, sooner than we know. One thinks it must be worth it, given the quiet wonders being sacrificed to attain the future in whatever rat races lay ahead – places to treasure because they’re away from manmade things and manmade sounds. The chance to coexist with magic like lightning bugs.

But I do recall we were never very good to lightning bugs, not as kids. We captured them and put them in jars and made rings or bracelets out of their abdomens, tearing them in half to save the part that glowed.

Their beauty assured their destruction. That’s how life is, I reckon. In our need to possess, to own, to reshape, to be somebody, we kill off the things we don’t value enough until it’s too late. Or some of us do, anyway.

And sometimes, we realize the error of our ways and work to bring them back.

Maybe somewhere down the line, the children of our children’s children will have secured the futures our generation is laying foundations for now, at what I believe is our great cost. Perhaps then they’ll seek to bring back the things we almost threw away in the name of progress.

So, there’s always hope. I just hope there are always lightning bugs.

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