I've been complaining about being in the boonies, because despite what E. O. Wilson says about biophilia (i.e., that we are evolutionarily wired to need connection with nature as part of a happy life), I'm basically a city mouse, and could live quite happily taking the subway to the library and back, with occasional forays into the odd museum or planetarium. Sunlight is optional; I'm part troll. The subway, in fact, along with skyscrapers and the lights of Times Square, feel like all the magic my life needs. But if I had to live someplace truly rural, I now know about one definite spiritual advantage which my friend's country house has in abundance: fireflies.
When I took a class in The Sociology of Religion with Andrew Greeley, at one point he gave us a list of experiences that people are most likely to identify as "religious." These experiences included:
1.) being on a mountaintop
2.) looking out over the ocean
3.) staring into the night sky
4.) being present at a birth
5.) engaging in powerfully moving sex
6.) certain drug trips
Of course, many people would add their own favorites to the list (hearing a great concert, dancing with strangers, and of course some people have what you might call "pure" spiritual experiences that aren't mediated by anything in the world around them). To my own list, I would now add "watching fireflies at night." I grew up in Tucson, where fireflies don't exist, and when I lived in Kansas City and Tallahassee, I lived in urban environments and never saw them. But out in the country they're out in staggering force.
It's frustrating to talk about because even as I've seen them in the evenings around the house, I despair of communicating what it's like. Their lights are too dim to really be captured by an over-the-counter camera. So I have to rely on my own words, which are always weak in the presence of something so ineffable.
I think I can explain it, though. All the of items 1 through 6 are experiences of feeling suddenly very small, and in the presence of something profound--something huge and meaningful that would be even terrifying if it didn't also seem beautiful. The fireflies are like that: they come out for a few weeks in the summer and communicate in a dance of winking lights--a mating ritual. So there's something already beautiful in the fact that what we're watching is a conversation about sexual connection; it's predicated on what humans think of as love.
What's most startling is how they transform the landscape. The first night I walked out and noticed them, the sun was down, and the cornfield was flooded with them as far as I could see. They hung low over the footpath; they moved high in the trees. Literally everywhere you looked there seemed to be a potential spark--if not now, then maybe next second, or the next. It forces you to notice everything.
And when you see that many of them, blinking and floating, your eye naturally draws lines--just like when alternating lights blink in a circle it looks like the circle is moving, so in this field it looks like lights are streaking this way and that in riot of stuttering indecision. When it's dark, you can't even tell how far away any of the lights are, so your very perspective is thrown off balance. And the light you just saw blinking has moved a little the next time you see it--up or down, left or right. They wander hopefully. In a final moving touch, they are silent--utterly silent. So I stepped out of the car and simply saw the fields and trees quietly pulsating in some mysterious network, and when I strained my senses, all I could hear was the chirp of distant frogs. After staring at it for ten or fifteen minutes, I looked up and saw the moon--this fierce wedge of brightness that was so blunt and stationary it seemed almost obscene.
Two days later around noon I was walking near these same high stalks of corn and startled a deer, which bounded high and away, showing its head every few steps. That was startling, but it wasn't as moving as watching the fireflies hovering over that same cornfield. I think what was missing was the connection--this sense of being a witness at a fairy conversation that is both completely meaningful and completely unfathomable. Faced with that profundity, a stray thought like "Hey, look! A deer!" really can't compete.
I tried to find clips on YouTube, but the one I've just posted is is the best I could find: the fireflies are sparse, and I could do without the music, but you do get a sense of the flies' weird movements, and how they make the entire landscape look random and how they can baffle your perspective. It's funny--if you look at that list of religious experiences, humans have invented gods for every one of them: mountain gods, sky gods, ocean gods, and so on. And yet as far as I know, humans have never thought to worship fireflies. I don't know how we missed that opportunity.