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Last sync:2023-02-01 13:15
In which John talks about fireflies and childhood and what was wrong with him in high school.

The footage of lightning bugs in an Indiana field comes from this video, shared (as this one is) with a Creative Commons license: Thanks to YouTube user Cee Nova.

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Good morning, Hank, it's Tuesday.  I really liked your video about shooting stars and seeing streaks of light at nighttime reminded me that it is firefly season here in Indiana and today, I'd like to tell you about my complicated relationship with fireflies or, as I called them as a child, lightning bugs.

So I always thought of fireflies as a singular thing, but in fact, around the world, there are over 2,000 species of these soft-bodied luminescent beetles.  Some glow with amber light, some with green, some with yellow.  They can tell each other apart by the pattern and color of their flashes.  Some species even glow in sync with one another so that entire trees full of fireflies look like Christmas trees with lights blinking on and off.  Some fireflies are predators.  In fact, members of the firefly family (?~0:46) will mimic the light patterns of other species of fireflies so as to attract and eat them.

Here in Indianapolis, there are dozens of species of fireflies.  One, the (?~0:58) firefly, became the state insect of Indiana in 2018.  Indiana's Department of Natural Resources released a statement pointing out that the (?~1:07) firefly is a true Indiana native, whereas, and I'm quoting here, "Many other states have state insects that are not native to their areas," a diss presumably intended for our neighboring state of Ohio, which chose as their state insect the seven-spotted ladybug, an invasive species introduced to the United States in 1973, but I'm not here to talk about Ohio's dubious selection of state symbols, I'm here to talk about fireflies, which are, of course, absurdly wonderful.

The problem with fireflies, though, is that they are so obviously and ostentatiously beautiful that they can be like a little cheezy.  I remember once in high school, I was outside with a friend and she commented on how the fireflies were really lovely, and I said, "Well, but thye're a little lame, though," and she paused for a moment before saying, "What is wrong with you?"  

What was wrong with me was that I was afraid to experience unironized emotion.  Afraid that if I gave in to the phenomenal beauty of fireflies, I would seem childish or naive or worst of all, that I would be seen as innocent and vulnerable, and I was right to worry about that.  I knew by then that it is not only carnivorous fireflies that lure in the innocent and vulnerable only to hurt them.

So when I was a kid, fireflies were an example to me of the world's strangeness and beauty, of the absolute astonishment that life exists at all, let alone in such bizarre abundance, and then in my teens and 20s, fireflies represented to m a beauty I needed to protect myself against feeling too much or too directly, lest I drown in either misguided nostalgia or the flood of emotion I was always trying to dam up within myself, but now, they mean something else to me.  What gets me about fireflies these days is that they make their own light.

I mean, they get their energy from the Sun just like the rest of us do and so in a way, their light is sunlight, just like all Earth light is, but still, fireflies make light where otherwise there wouldn't be any.  Hank, you told me recently that there are planets in the universe that orbit no star, planets that are just hurtling through the vast and empty places between solar systems, and on those planets, you explained, everything is very dark all the time, and when I asked you if there might be life on those planets, you explained that, yeah, perhaps if there are geological temperature differentials or something, there might be energy that could be captured and used to fuel some kind of life, and then you said, but there wouldn't be any light though, before pausing and adding, Oh, unless they make it themselves, and I found that possibility, however distant, quite encouraging so here's to celebrating light where we find it and making light where we don't.  

Hank, I'll see you on Friday.