Wednesday, July 20, 2005


When I was a child, I loved the campfire, and I was so proud when I was the one who would build it. Gathering wood was an ongoing family activity. We picked up sticks on the way back from every walk. Now, in Canada's Provincial Parks, where we often camp, gathering firewood is against the rules. This is an ecologically sound rule, it allows the forest to recycle itself and standing wood to provide homes for owls and wood peckers. But it is still a loss worthy of mourning for campers. I miss the woodgathering.

Because of the firewood gathering ban and the ban on bringing wood from the States that might be infested with emerald ash borers and other pests, we have to buy wood. One time, Keith was terribly upset because the wood we purchased was punky. Lo and behold, that night, he discovered it glowing on the campsite around his chopping block--it was full of foxfire, and it was his first. He hung a piece in the tent and that night, it stormed. Lightning flashed and then faded and the foxfire glowfilled the tent. They alternated all night in a magical night we'll never forget.

As children, we loved to write our names with glowing sticks, toast marshmallows, sing, and tell stories. As older children, my father always challenged us to build and light a fire with a single match and we got so we could do it under even the most difficult situations. But as a wilderness camper, I rarely built fires, choosing instead to do what little cooking required on a small backpacking stove. Now, we usually build a cooking fire but do not sit around it after dinner. We don't have the extended family, just the two or three of us. I miss the camaraderie of all that.

While campfires are romantic, burning trash is not. We burned all our burnable trash when I was a child. We had a large barrel-shaped cage out back. One of our childhood chores was a daily turn burning trash--it was a chore we enjoyed. We had to be careful not to allow any of the burning pieces to blow away and if they did, put them out immediately. The neighbors had a similar burning basket, and one dry windy summer day, some of their trash blew out and set the neighborhood on fire. We kids watched out the back window as the adults beat on the fire with wet burlap bags. It was exciting and scary.

Friday, July 01, 2005


I hit a firefly coming east on the Thruway. It struck the windshield, flared like a match with green flame, and then faded, leaving only an ordinary bug spot on the windshield. I felt almost as if I had killed a fairy. I had taken some light from the world.

Fireflies seem magical to me because of their ability to create light. I've read scientific principles behind bioluminescence, but it doesn't erase the magic. Light is miraculous.

One night last summer, driving with Keith and Graham, I remembered having earlier seen fireflies along River Road, especially thick at the corner of the field by the hedgerow. Since they live in Detroit and I’ve never seen fireflies there, I suggested we stop. We pulled to the side of the road and Keith turned off the headlights. The fields, tall grass and hedgerows sparkled with fireflies. Above in the sky, the constellations moved too, but so slowly, we couldn't see the motion.

I held my breath and watched Graham’s face in the darkness. "Do you see the fireflies, Graham?" I asked, "Aren't they pretty?"

"Yeah," he said, but he didn't look or sound excited. Not like I was.

There seem to be fewer people enjoying and fewer fireflies than there used to be. One night a couple weeks ago, I saw one firefly in the cedar outside my house. One is not enough. If there aren't at least two, there won't be more.

But in the fields out in the countryside, there are still fireflies. Maybe I just don't get out in the summer’s night fields enough. Perhaps I need to go out and count the fireflies, see if there are as many as I remember.

Tonight, coming home through highway construction, I came upon a truck holding a huge globe of light. Beneath it, several men wearing masks were ripping apart the pavement. Dust and dirt filled the air. It cascaded away in a fountain, lit by the strange globe of light. I wished I could have set up a tripod and recorded the scene. But the line of traffic and the narrow rows of cones prevented it.

The strange light and night scene touched a deeper spot, and again, I wished I hadn't hit the firefly. Recently, Keith told me that Graham suddenly said he remembered stopping to see the fireflies. He’d sounded happy about it. I released an inner breath I didn’t know I was still holding. Maybe I passed the torch. Perhaps someday, cupped in his hands, Graham will show a winged and living light to another child.

Mary Stebbins

For Keith and Graham

050701b, 6-28/29-05 (Midnight in the hospital emergency room)

Note: This is a revision of the Fireflies piece first written and posted on 6/28. If you have any comments on the revsion (on the piece or the process), please let me know. Thanks, Mary