The Dance of Lights

Is a picture worth a thousand words? 

Depends on the picture, and the quality of the words. 

I lack the picture, and am not confident that the words will be adequate.  Nevertheless, here goes.

My wife and I took a weekend getaway in the northeast corner of Georgia, nestled in a small rental in a cove framed on three sides by green-mantled mountains.  The little cabin shared a fenced-in field with a barn and a couple acres of unmowed grass. Beyond the fence were other fields and other houses, some abandoned but most with more permanent residents than the sort our getaway hosted.  It was a pleasure to hear chickens rather than sirens, and to let the dogs out into the yard without a leash, confident that the rabbits and whistlepigs (as my wife’s people called groundhogs) had the sense to clear out before the hounds noticed them.

The sun had dipped below the nearest hills when we sat on the patio and ruminated in the still, cooling air.  Turns out, we were waiting for a spectacle we weren’t even expecting. 

We spotted the first flash a few minutes after sundown – a silent greenish spark, twenty yards distant among the branches of a black walnut.   It was followed a minute or so later by another brief glow farther down the treeline.  I enjoy seeing lightning bugs on summer evenings, and noted these as a part of the background, along with distant treefrogs and the occasional flash of heat lightning. 

Why is it easy to dismiss such a natural wonder?  A beetle that mixes biochemicals to create visible light with almost no heat?  A beetle that uses this visible signal to alert potential mates?  A beetle which flashes its bioluminescent lantern in a particular pattern to distinguish itself from the dozens of other firefly species in Georgia? A beetle whose numbers, like those of many insects, have dwindled in recent decades?  Watching a biochemical flare popping over every five or ten seconds was notable back home, but it wouldn’t hold my attention long.

Yet fifteen minutes later, I noticed that these fireflies were uncommonly active.  As the treetop silhouettes faded against the dimming sky, the light show ramped up, drawing us into the field for a clearer look.  By full-dark, I could look in any direction and see ten to twenty flashes per second. In the trees and above the tall grass, a multitude greenish sparks floated in the darkness.

My wife was awed; she said she had not seen such an intense display since her childhood in western North Carolina, before developers transformed the fields and orchards.  We watched the green sparks, like embers from a faerie fire, appear and vanish the blink of an eye. From beside our heads to two hundred yards away, they flared silently.

For the next night – our final night at the cabin – we determined to make best use of the only cameras we had: our phones.  But despite fiddling with the exposures on photos and video, the devices let us down.  They just weren’t sensitive enough to register the brief pinpoints flaring in the otherwise complete darkness. Out of many attempts, the best I scored was one photo with a few blurred green spots.  There was also a video of the female lightning bug that I plucked from the grass at my feet.  It crawled across my arm to the top of my head, strobing like it was overcaffeinated, before dropping back on the ground.  But without a good way to visually document the spectacle, we were left no option but to capture the moment as we do so many of life’s stolen moments: with the mind’s eye.

After a long while bearing witness to the dance of lights, the promise of an early morning made us to reluctantly retreat indoors.  I wonder if anyone in that little valley was appreciating the natural spectacle.  How often did those spending nights at the cabin turn off the television long enough to notice the show outside their window? 

Looking back, I can confirm that my words were inadequate.  But perhaps they will be enough to encourage you to seek out this natural light show in your own forest, field, or back yard.

Additional Resources:

A firefly fact sheet (pdf) from the Georgia Extension Service.

Firefly.org: Conservation and research information.

Ghost Pipe

I learned something new! I love it when that happens.

In the last few months I moved from just below to Fall Line to deep in the Piedmont.  As a result the collection of counties I am responsible for have gotten hillier, wetter, and slightly cooler.  I’m seeing a different suite of flora and fauna than before, including some things that haven’t previously been on my radar.

A bowshot from National Forest land in the high hills of North Georgia, something caught my eye beneath the white pines, oaks, beeches, and maples.  Small white stalks rose from the leaf litter, curling over at the top with a petaled capsule like a lamp post for gnomes.  I snapped some photos so I could look up what kind of fungus this was when I got home. 

Monotropa uniflora is known by several common names, including ghost plant, Indian pipe, ghost pipe, or corpse plant. It was much more interesting than I gave it credit for.  For starters, it isn’t a fungus; it’s a plant in the heather family.  Instead of spraying spores to reproduce,  ghost pipe requires native bees to visit its flower and carry its pollen. Unlike heather (and most plants), ghost pipe doesn’t produce chlorophyll, so it can’t use sunlight to make energy.  So how does it live?

That’s the next interesting bit.  There are many fungi that engage in mutualistic association with plants.  These fungi, known as mycorrhizae, colonize the roots of plants. They assist the plant in collecting water or nutrients, and collect carbohydrates created in the plant’s chlorophyll factories above.  The ghost pipe is a parasite of certain mycorrhizal fungi.  This is a switch; usually a fungus parasitizes plants.  But we have a plant stealing sugar from a fungus that said fungus “traded” from a tree that produced that energy in the sunlit canopy 80 feet above. Thus, it can grow in the densest, darkest forests.  Ghost pipe pops quickly up after a rain, and flowers in early summer to autumn; I was fortunate to have wandered the woods at just the right time to see them.

Curiosity is an important trait for any aspiring naturalist.  Knowledge can be gained by seeking answers, but curiosity is the driver.