What do fireflies think?


Here come real stars to fill the upper skies, and here on Earth C come emulating flies.

-- Robert Frost THIS evening I am wondering about the consciousness of fireflies. My wife and 5-year-old son have gone off to bed, and I sit alone on the back porch to do the thinking. I can hear the bedsprings responding to their fitful sleep. In separate rooms, they turn this way and that, captured in a heat wave that envelopes the metropolis like an enormous plastic bag.

I mop my brow and search for a flashlight to read the ancient thermometer tacked to the frame of the back door: 85 degrees at midnight. Excessive heat has a way of instantly turning homo sapiens into a thermal statistician. The skinny wire coil attached to the screen door yawns, and I catch the door from popping my family awake. Then I remember them: the fireflies.

The heat must have hoodwinked them into believing that summer is half over -- that the Orioles have made their climb from the cellar, that all the Desert Storm homecoming parades are finally over, that Democrats and Republicans have come to some mutual understanding on a civil rights bill -- and now it is time for the tiny bugs to make their mysterious yellow-green light.

The luminescent creatures first appeared in the high grass shortly after nightfall. By now, they have risen to the height of two ancient oaks that share the backyard with adolescent hemlocks and struggling wisteria. But this evening, the yard is the property of the fireflies, and I am left to wonder what they are thinking.

Do they know how they transform the night? Who turns their magic on and off and on again? Do they will the light, or is it a genetic accident? How long do they live, and where do they go in the day? What can the consciousness be like of these creatures whose brains are not much larger than the punctuation marks on this page? And yet, they, unlike homo sapiens, seem to prefer lighting their own candle to cursing our collective darkness.

A few moments later, I'm at the encyclopedia. I find "firefly" on Page 791, between "firecrest" and "Firenze." I find no satisfactory answers to why these small creatures have started tiny fires in my backyard.

Feeling my way to the back porch, I decide to count between the bugs' flashes of light. I speculate then that perhaps the firefly does not measure time the way homo sapiens does. Perhaps for the firefly the intervals that separate darkness from darkness are exactly the same.

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame. His most M recent collection of essays, "Ordinary Mysteries," was published this month.


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