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Archive for October, 2010

Last Saturday, with my nose contentedly buried in a gardening magazine and a cup of good coffee close at hand, I read something that flat out gave me the willies. Wondering if I was over-reacting, I showed it to my husband. “Yuck!” he said. My 11 year old wandered by, “Horrible!” she responded.

Elena Newmark, age 15

The fuss was about a paragraph in my magazine, an editor’s plug for a new garden-related product: artificial solar-powered firefly lights. You string them up in the trees and they blink on and off, masquerading as the real deal. (In the interests of journalistic integrity, I must report that my 9 year old thought they sounded very cool.)

The editor writes that she was sure the lights would be “cheap fakes” but was delighted to find out that they weren’t. They wink at just the right frequency, with just the right subtlety, and just the exact shade of greeny-yellow peculiar to bio-luminescent critters, to give your ho-hum backyard the shimmering ambience of a field of fireflies. The editor’s only gripe was that the lights didn’t move.

Well, I mused, if they’re not “cheap fakes” what are they then? Expensive fakes? Because fakes they most certainly are. Surely the magic of fireflies lies in their being fireflies, rather than light bulbs. Those are actual bugs out there making that wonderful light all on their own.

The fact that we had nothing to do with creating these flying night lights is an essential part of their charm. They are yet another of nature’s surprises, waiting for us unbidden on otherwise ordinary evenings: the twilight sky set loose, twinkling over our tall-grass fields. How curiously easy it is to replace these fantastic insects with Disney-like imitations, and still to reap similar pleasure.

Fireflies are among a small set of plants and animals, including a sprinkling of octopi, mushrooms, coral, deep-sea fish, and even the odd species of snail, that manufacture their own light. These so-called bioluminescent creatures contain light producing chemicals, fiendishly called luciferins, which are activated by enzymes known as luciferases. Light is a byproduct of this chemical reaction.

It’s not that I’m against all of our glittering intrusions into the night; given the right context, I like neon signs, bonfires, and fireworks, but I find it creepy to be building perfect replicas of the very creatures that we have pushed to the margins of existence. It’s the beckoning finger of a future in which nature has stepped aside, allowing us to jam our meadows, rivers and skies to overflowing with the frenzied production of our own hands.

Indeed, real fireflies are not doing so well. They favor the edges of woods and fields, near standing water. They like un-mowed meadows. They don’t like artificial lights, probably because such lights interfere with the sparkling signals they rely on to find mates. Where should they go, then, when we mow our fields, fill in our water holes, and blast light into every shadowed driveway?

In Thailand, the Mae Klong River had long been one of the best firefly watching places in the world. Once there were so many bugs that locals would navigate the waterways by the glow along the river banks. Today, these populations have declined by 70%, because of run of the mill development combined with the burst of light and activity brought to the region by firefly-watching tourists.

It all boils down to adaptation – for both animals and humans. Many animals simply can’t adapt to the changes in their habitats that come with human incursions.

Humans, on the other hand, excel at adaptation. That’s why we’re still here and the dinosaurs are not. I’ve decided, however, that adaptation has a dark side and I’m putting in a vote for a little less adaptation on our part.

Many environmental writers, I usually among them, believe that when things get bad enough, when climate change, shifting weather patterns, resource depletion and the like, have wreaked enough havoc, people will be ready to undertake the major changes needed to make things better.

But what if we just keep adapting? One would have thought, for example, that a two-week long traffic jam, as just occurred in China, might induce folks to rethink their use of motor vehicles. Drivers really did spend two weeks in their vehicles, dead still amidst the bustle of opportunistic business that arose to keep them fed and watered. The only thing that changed was that the Chinese government expedited plans for new roads.

If a two-week long traffic jam didn’t alter anyone’s behavior, it’s hard to imagine that a few missing fireflies, easily replaced by some light bulbs, the production of which can only contribute to the firefly’s demise, would get a reaction out of anyone.

I recognize that with the changes coming on, our adaptability may be the only thing that saves us. I simply suggest that we hold our ground, dig in our heels, and try not to adapt to everything, starting with imitation fireflies.

TS Eliot said the world would end “not with a bang, but a whimper.” Perhaps he should have said “not with a bang, but with a delicate twinkling of artificial lights.”

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