Last week at my friend Wendy’s house, her 17-year-old former student, Mackie, suddenly stood up from the dinner we were enjoying, went out from the screen porch and walked slowly along the edge of the woods that border the yard. What was she doing? Wendy, her roommate and I were momentarily unsure. “Fireflies,” her father Mitch said. “She has never seen fireflies.”
Mackie was like a young woman entranced. She stepped softly this way and that toward every firefly that lit up, following as if obedient to a silent call. She said nothing, just followed. We watched, smiling. I didn’t know that fireflies are not commonplace in California, where Mackie and Mitch live. I didn’t know that it’s extremely unusual to see one west of Kansas. I tried to imagine never having seen a firefly.
Several years ago, one of my first Airbnb guests was from San Diego. The same thing happened. This time I didn’t witness the discovery. I read about it the next day. He left me a note that could have described how Mackie felt:
In the middle of the night, I awoke to a ballet of light. Four fireflies were shining bright, darting back and forth. It was a magic and wondrous moment. I’ve never seen real fireflies before.
Mitch and Mackie needed a place to stay for two weeks and, lucky for me, decided to stay at my cottage. One of the first days, a storm was in the forecast. “I’m hoping for it,” Mitch said. “Mackie has never seen lightning either.” Never seen lightning? Surely there is lightning in California, I said. “Heat lightning in the mountains,” he said, “Not the bolts that come in a rainstorm.”
We really should be careful about what we take for granted. I have many times marveled at both fireflies and lightning. But they have always been a part of my world, whether my childhood in New Jersey, my early adulthood in Vermont, or the last 13 years in Virginia. Now that I think of it though, we didn’t have 100-foot-tall oak trees in Vermont. When I first came here, I thought How can oak trees be that tall? I stared at them the way Mackie stared at the fireflies. I still do, especially when the moon is full and the sky is sparkling with stars. The way the trees frame out the celestial map on a clear night never ceases to enthrall me.
Wherever you are, you can find something beautiful and amazing. In Vermont it gets so cold that the snow that squeaks under your boots as you walk through it. We had moose that walked through the backyard, maple trees a breathtaking red in the fall such as you don’t see anywhere else, summers so pleasant you think about air conditioning maybe twice.
I once walked on the dunes of Lake Michigan and was surprised to hear them “singing” under my feet. I’ve seen a field full of bluebells in Texas, loons on a lake in Maine, seals in the water of the San Francisco Bay. An alligator walked across the road in front of us in South Carolina. A huge alligator! In the woods of Pennsylvania, a black bear crossed the path not 50 feet from where we hiked. The waterfalls in Yosemite and its magnificent sequoias (!) are spectacular beyond words. I’ve seen a white deer not half a mile from my house. He ran off as soon as my camera clicked:
There are lots of marvels in this world that I have not seen in person. The cliffs of the British coast come to mind, the mountains of New Zealand, the expanse of Wyoming, the crashing waves of Australia. Someday I’d like to go see those places (and just get close to the big waves, not go in them!). I want to see for myself, to have all my senses involved in 3D, real time – sight, sound, smell, even tasting the salt in the air. The way a loon laughs or a bear lumbers or a salmon jumps – you can see these things on TV and it’s far better than not seeing them at all, but oh, for the real thing. What will please me more though, if I ever get to any of those faraway places, and what I love every day at my home in Virginia, is to encounter the things that I don’t already know about, the things I didn’t expect. I want my wonder and delight to always be just like Mackie with the fireflies.
By the way, the storm last week passed us by, and I’m guessing Mackie was disappointed. But today, as the rain poured down, the sky gave her a large and wonderful lightning show, followed by sunshine sparkling on the wet leaves….