11 August 2009

Of Fireflies and Freedom

A while ago I asked a group of friends what they most remember about the season of summer. Most of them remembered people, places, or activities from childhood -- no matter that person's current chronological age. There appears to be something about summer that brings a feeling of nostalgia. For me, it is no different.

Summertime for me draws a picture of the long days of summer camps, like the one held by my parent's church deep in the hills of Kentucky called Cathedral Domain. Many summers of my youth included a week spent in the companionship of the green hills and limestone boulders of the gorge near the Kentucky River. My favorite activity of the whole week was always when the counselors --who seemed so much older and wiser although they were teenagers and twenty-somethings -- would wake us up in the predawn hours and call for us to get dressed, leave our cabins, and bring our flashlights.

They led us on a wild trek up into the hills to the high point above our camp grounds. We stumbled through the darkness slowly, relying on flashlights to avoid tree roots. Finally we noticed a hint of lightness to the air as we hiked to the trail's high point.

There, on the rocky outcropping known as Wolf's Pen, we sat huddled in our coats against the damp chill as the Sun began to creep over the mountain.

When the Sun made its grand appearance, I would look out at the vista in front of me and see a Serpent in the shape of mist in the river valley below. As the Sun began to soar in the heavens, the Serpent cloud rolled and woke, twisting and meandering along the river like a great beast of legend.

The whole performance from the dark foothills to the sunrise probably lasted no more than 90 minutes or two hours, but for me the time was Magic. It was a land of enchantment so removed from the normal life I knew that I can vividly recall it now more than thirty years later.

Other summertime memories come to me on a much less mythic scale. They consist of roaming around in the twilight in the alleyway behind my house with a specially-prepared glass jar. The jar would have holes punched in its lid and often a stick or some grass inside. My Quest was to seek the illusive Fireflies and capture one or, maybe, two in my jar.

Once captured, these little fairy creatures continued to glow on and off, calling to mates and kin. I felt compelled to place my jar on the window sill and stare at them until I became too sleepy to remain awake.

I enjoyed the company of my phosphorescent friends until bedtime. Normal procedure was to release the captives the next morning when I awoke, although I always bid them farewell a bit sadly.

I can also remember humid, dreamy summer nights during my teenage years when I went to family picnics at the home of aunts and uncles, or when I visited the "chalet" maintained by the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History in Adams County, Ohio. The Chalet was nothing more than a little house with half-timbered exterior where the members of the Junior Society and their adult leaders bunked down following a day of trail maintenance, day hikes, or explorations with our Nature Conservancy biologist-friend Duke. (I actually don't know Duke's last name. He was simply "Duke" and if you had known him then you would realize the moniker suited him nicely.)

The area is known as The Edge of Appalachia Preserve, and I am relieved to learn that the Nature Conservancy still conserves that land today. I have so many powerful memories about that land, and so many stories to tell that I could fill quite a few blog posts. The Junior Society visited this preserve and stayed at the chalet year-around, so some memories are from different seasons.

On summer evenings, we commonly took a stroll after a team of us washed and put away the dinner dishes. Often the stroll turned into a long hike down the main road into the place. I can remember that the twilight fell on our way back and our favorite thing to do was comment on what we could see as the darkness fell. Our leader, Norma, had taught us to "develop our night vision." We would watch the birds scurry and bats begin their nightly hunt as we returned up the road. At the end of it, Jimmy or one of the other adult leaders would have already lit the fireplace and a warm glow emanated from the Chalet as we approached. We could always see the firelight from a long way off, up ahead of us in the trees. Fireflies happily provided the only light on our way, unless the moon was near to full, and the crickets' chorus filled the air.

My deepest memories of summer related to the edges of twilight: dusk and dawn. These hinges of the day remain the most magical times for me.

I no longer seek to capture fireflies, but I do crave spending time in nature at moments that are like crossroads of time and space.

My adult brain knows the concept of liminality, the state of being at a threshold or of two places at once either in your physical body or in your mind and spirit. I think my truest summer memories are not of the heat, humidity, and cruelty of that season, but of liminal place where reality met dream. In my adult life, I try and recapture that state as often as I can and cherish those moments -- of being in the moment -- much like I used to hold the fireflies in a jar just for one night.

If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended,

That you have but slumber'd here

While these visions did appear.

And this weak and idle theme,

No more yielding but a dream . . .

--from A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare

1 comment:

  1. My friend Jack graciously allows me to quote his email here:
    "Delightful, as usual! Coincidentally, we saw a fine production this summer of A Midsummer Night's Dream (plus one of Twelfth Night and two of Comedy of Errors). We're also in a group that's reading Antony and Cleopatra together. Outdoor theater, particularly Shakespeare, and music are some of my best and strongest Summer memories - I grew up with the Goldman Band in Central Park.
    As a nature lover, are you familiar with the writings of Edwin Waye Teale? His best known work is the American Seasons series: North with the Spring, Journey Into Summer, Autumn Across America, and Wandering Through Winter. Also, considering where you live, you would enjoy Louis Halle's Spring in Washington. Also, are you familiar with the poetry of Sidney Lanier, particularly "Song of the Chattahoochee" and "Marshes of Glynn?"
    How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
    Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
    Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
    Become the touches of sweet harmony.

    -Merchant of Venice Act 5, Scene 1"