A non-fiction short story from the collection Don’t Take My Word for It by Matthew Bennett
In May 2012 while Janelle was planning her summer around a weekly commute to IUP to take classes for her doctorate, she asked me if I would like to go on a writing trip. Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, with no distractions, she said. We had been talking more and more about writing, and doing less and less of it. The new house project, the new wildly unkempt yard, and the myriad other responsibilities in all of our various endeavors had been taking up so much time that neither of us were working toward our goals.
So it was decided. The first week in July, during IUP’s break between summer classes, we would go. The planning was left to me, and I knew that if we went into the middle of the woods in a cabin somewhere the distractions would be immeasurable. Spiders, bears, poison ivy, and all that the simple life entails would not free us up to write. So I went with Plan B. Amish country. Sugarcreek, Ohio. And the adventure began.
Our first stop was IUP. Monday was the last day of classes, and we were booked in Millersburg, OH Tuesday through Friday. (Incidentally, the distance between Indiana, Pennsylvania and Millersburg, Ohio is 175 miles – the same distance as the Journey from Millersburg back to our house in Erie, PA. I looked up the distance again from Erie back to Indiana, in hopes that I would be able to write that our path created an equilateral triangle. Alas, you the reader will have to settle for an isosceles.) (Also incidentally, my iPhone Mapquest app was unable to find the B&B in Millersburg, to any degree of accuracy. This led to it’s deletion off my iPhone. Life if confusing enough without scrambling up my phone with apps that are useless, but neat.)
But I must continue, because this section is about fireflies.
After Janelle got out of class at 4pm, we met at the library to get a couple hours of work done before we left for Ohio. We argued a little bit, got angry, made up, and then worked. We do this all the time, although I must admit that it is difficult to accomplish in the library. We planned on working from 4-8, but at around 6, some medical students at a nearby table ordered a pizza, and the amazing smell precipitated our hasty departure to walk somewhere and get food and drink. As our typical walks go, we argued a little bit, got angry, made up, and then kept walking. It’s almost a comforting pattern. Almost.
We had rented an apartment very close to the IUP campus so that she didn’t have to drive everyday. Across from the apartment was a memorial park/cemetery. After eating, and drinking a few beers and margaritas, we walked towards the apartment, but stopped in the park. The sun was just going down, and the park was immersed in shadow.
It is no big secret that Janelle loves fireflies. She is a highly educated woman, most likely smarter than me (though she has the grace to never compare – to me this proves that I’m right, she’s smarter), but when dusk comes in mid-summer, and the fireflies start to light up, she turns into a six-year-old girl, one burst of adrenalin shy of jumping up and down and clapping her hands.
“How do fireflies work?” she asked me, as we watched their glowing antics in the park. In and of itself, the question seemed innocent enough. However, I suspect that she looks to me for guidance, not because she thinks I have the answer, but because she knows that I will Google EVERYTHING, immediately upon being asked, if I don’t know the answer. I am a walking research tool. Plus, I found the odd phrasing adorable: of a firefly as if it were an object. Fireflies – how do they work?
So I read to her the facts of life, as they relate to photuris lucicrescens. Fireflies, it seems, glow specifically in order to mate. The male will fly around showing off his glowing butt to the females on the ground (who are unable to fly as far). When a female sees a male that she likes, she glows back in a similar pattern to that male, and he flies down, touches her antennae, and if he likes her, they go at it. (This whole scene is not at all unlike some dance clubs that I have been to, and very close to the mating rituals of humans.) One site in particular stated that an “eager female firefly” would produce a longer series of flashes, instead of just a simple flash from the ground.
Janelle and I first talked about how cool it was that the beetles could produce chemical light. Bioluminescence, it’s called. As I read about the mating habits however, our discourse transformed beyond academic. She began criticizing the tactics of some of the males, and making fun of them, and also pointing out the females, and which ones were more eager to have a mate. I began to have the feeling that we were spectators at the metaphorical dance club, and that everything we were saying was just like a couple at that club gossiping about the happenings. This was anthropomorphication on a grand scale.
It was quite enlightening for me to see that for the two of us, it wouldn’t matter if we were watching a group of people, or a group of insects, we were still the peanut gallery, the critical observers.