Once Upon A Time: The Blue Darkness.

Fireflies 5
Fireflies 5 (Photo credit: ShutterSparks)

Sometimes when I walk at twilight between the pine trees, it seems like the darkness is creeping up behind me.  Sort of like water oozing under a door, or mists rising off the water.  But heavier than mist.

It doesn’t bother me, the dark.  A lot of folks live in fear of the dark, putting up candles in every corner and huddling near the fireplace as evening comes on.  But the dark is safe, like a blanket.  I do my best work in the dark.

I’m a firefly counter.  That’s right.  When I was a little boy, my daddy never said to me:  “Jed, someday you’ll grow up and count fireflies.  That’s right, my boy, you’ll be a firefly counter, and that’ll be your living.”

Now, if you’d asked me what classes I took in school to get ready to be firefly counter, I’d just laugh.  I didn’t really go to school, and I never thought I’d be a science guy out in the woods.

So how’d I end up with firefly counting.  If you want to know, it was from my time serving my country.  I was into poisons.  Did my time working with the chemicals of war, as they say.  I got really interested in poison toads, those little tree critters that the native tribes used to tip their blowgun darts.  I figured there was some use to those native poisons, at least from a homeland security standpoint.

Turns out, those little frogs aren’t the only ones with a little poison to keep ’em safe.  Our little fireflies keep poison on hand, just like the frogs.  It’s got its own classification, and there are some science boys thinking about using the poison to help people.

So they hired me to go out and look for fireflies.  I’m supposed to count the number of males and report back to them.  We’ve got an issue with one species of firefly edging out another species.  The new fireflies don’t have the poison, but they like to have lunch on the ones that do.  We call ’em the “femme fatale” fireflies, and I’m supposed to figure out how to take care of the problem.

How do you fix a problem like that?  Well, it turns out the fireflies we want to keep get lured into a trap by the others when the females blink seductively at them.  The poor male fireflies think they’ve got a match, and instead they’ve got trouble.  But we’ve got a secret weapon.

If I can figure out how to get all the fireflies blinking at once, they’ll overpower the tricky ones.  It happens all the time, and they call the blinking in unison “phase synchronization” and write long papers about “spontaneous order.”

All I know is that I’m the one guy anyone knows who can get the fireflies to do it.  When I was stationed in southeast Asia and the Philipines I used to do it all the time for laughs.  The other boys would bet me I couldn’t do it, and I’d go out into the dark and pretty soon the whole night would be blinking together like Christmas lights.

Do you want to know the secret?  I think it’s because I start with the larvae blinking.  You just find a patch of glow worm larvae, and then you get a tiny little flashlight and start chatting with the larvae.  If you can get the larvae to start going together, then pretty soon the adults pick it up and the whole night is full of silent singing.

It’s quiet out, but I’ve got the smell of the damp in my nose and the blue darkness coming up behind.  I know from the smell that I’ll be coming in a bog pretty soon.  That’s where the larva hang out, and we’re going to start us a light jam session.

Moral:  When we limit our horizons, we limit only ourselves.


Once Upon A Time: The Gnat

Swarm of bees in the air shortly before landin...
Swarm of bees in the air shortly before landing on a tree (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once upon a time there was a gnat. Unlike most of his family, he didn’t really enjoy annoying hikers or swarming around people in canoes, or even swarming at all.

Life was hard for a loner gnat. He went about his day, flitting from place to place, about as noticeable as a speck of dust or a bit of leaf.

It was an OK life. He survived. He got enough food, and actually had more than he needed, because the plants he found were way more than one gnat could eat. Some gnats are carnivorous, which means they eat animals, but the very idea made Marty gnat shudder.

That’s what we’ll call him, Marty gnat, because we’re about to meet another gnat.  We’ll call this one Sally.  She would be called something in latin by someone who studies gnats, but that’s a whole boring business that involves a lot of gnats on pins, and the less said about that the better.

So Marty gnat was sitting on his leaf, enjoying dinner, and wondering what it would be like to join a swarm.  Even a macho swarm like an evening swarm of male gnats, which is called a ghost and sounds romantic.  But on a gnat level a big macho swarm of male gnats is more like an insect frat party with every gnat showing off his flying, his strong antennae, and the glitter of his wings.  So Marty had never liked that sort of gathering.

And along came Sally gnat.  She landed right next to Marty, and asked politely if he minded if she shared his leaf.  Marty was speechless, but waggled his antennae in a sort of my leaf is your leaf sort of way.  So Sally crunched away for a few minutes until Marty got up his courage to ask whether she’d be joining the swarm over the puddle later.

“No,” said Sally.  “I really don’t like that sort of thing.  I just got away from the most horrendous ghost swarm a few minutes ago.  Honestly, all that testosterone in one place.  You’d think those guys only had a few hours to find a mate or something.”

Marty nodded.  Then Sally asked him why he wasn’t in a swarm.  Marty opened up about how he never really felt comfortable in a swarm.  You just sort of flew around aimlessly and didn’t really get to know anybody.

Sally smiled and nodded.  “We should start our own swarm,” she said with a laugh.  And for once Marty wasn’t tongue tied.  He said yeah, they should.

When Sally finished eating, she and Marty circled above the puddle for a bit before settling down for the night.

Over the next day or so, Marty and Sally formed a tiny swarm of their own.  As older members went their way, they introduced their offspring and the swarm continued to grow bit by bit.  All the members of the swarm looked out for each other, and took care of the little ones.  Eventually, the swarm was so successful it formed other branch swarms to keep the size manageable.

Now if the people who study gnats looked at Marty and Sally’s swarms, they would classify them as a new species.  This one displays communal protection and the nurturing of the young.  And rather than flying aimlessly, the Marty and Sally swarms form complex and beautiful aerial dances.

Moral:  Follow the music of your heart, because others may want to hear it.

Once Upon A Time: The Bear

To learn more about Alaska, visit my my Alaska...
To learn more about Alaska, visit my my Alaskan website. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There was a bear. He lived at the top of a hill and ventured down into the valley very rarely. But when the winter got cold, but when he wasn’t quite sleepy for his long winter nap, the bear would go down into the valley and look at the glowing embers of the village fires and think slow bear thoughts about fires and stars.

One day a foolish man was out getting more firewood in the dark and left the door half open. The bear, who had been sitting out in the dark looking in, nudged the door all the way open and went into the room. It was dark and warm, and he stretched out near the fire. When the foolish man came back in, he was troubled by all the snow that seemed to have blown into the house. He pushed aside the big furry blanket that seemed to have gotten thrown in front of the fire, and built up the fire so it would be stronger. The bear grunted in his sleep and the foolish man froze.

The foolish man tiptoed out of the house and ran down to the tavern, but the the bear, who had been warmed too much by the fire, went out and down into the man’s vegetable storage cellar. There he curled up and kept sleeping.

Having roused all his neighbors, the foolish man led them all to his house, where they found no bear and nothing but a bit of snow to “prove” he had every been there. They patted the foolish man and told him not to bother them again. The next day the foolish man found the bear in his vegetable cellar, but no one came to look. He tiptoed around the bear all winter, even when he was nearly out of vegetables.

In the spring the bear wandered out of the cellar and knocked the man’s door open to go back up into the hills. But when winter came, the foolish man found the bear waiting at his back door. So his cellar became a bear’s den.

Moral: What is good for some may be bad for others.