Rising for Another Day: The Firefly Ballet

At nine o’clock on a warm, calm and fragrant summer night, I am alone at the edge of our pasture, set deep in the fold between steep ridges on the eastern flank of Floyd County.

The whites of fleabane, chrysanthemum and Queen Anne’s lace glow faintly at that hour among the bowed heads and angled stems of orchard grass and foxtail.

A monochrome, crepuscular landscape is spattered with pastels of wild pink and golden aster. Soft radiance washes the field fading under sky-glow from somewhere beyond the curve of earth-horizon we never see down in this cleft of valley.

The pure observer that night would only have noted that fireflies are synchronized in the beginning of their day. I was that detached, objective observer–at first–as must come at the beginning when we encounter art new to us.

We assess physical qualities of a painting before moving in ways we do not understand to the higher awareness of message and meaning.

And when that moment of comprehension finally reaches our mind and heart, when we grasp the full impact of the creation before us, we know the AH of appreciation, the AHA of genius discovered, and finally, the complex mix of emotion that may leave us smiling through tears.

Some combination of light and heat stirs the performers from their sleep. The fireflies respond, waking and setting about to mate. They rise, one by one through a ten minute reveille for a long night of love.

Few and scattered at first, across the length and breadth of the field they lift–every one uniformly rising in a perfect vertical line of light, lanterns briefly tracing a thin, upward brush stroke of yellow-green just below the tops of the tallest grasses.

For minutes thereafter, they go dark–each insect having pulsed a single modest on-duty wink as their day begins.

Astonished, I watch this ascension of souls–an ineffable beauty of uplifting dance, a choreography of nature’s art. I watch in awe, these performers, hardwired to follow an ancient dance, born in each, lifted into the air each summer night by all together, a performance for my sake alone. And I am smitten, speechless and smile through tears.

In their ultimate hundreds, the full multitude of them wink and awake, the souls of all who have gone before us here, their cold lights lift to preside over this peaceful place in silence for yet another summer’s night while I sleep–and over all the nights I have slept for a decade of summers here, not knowing of this brief movement in the ballet of beetle-spirits just beyond my window. There’s comfort knowing I’ll never not know again.


I’d hoped to record this piece, with an intro musical bullet from All Through The Night, and outro of crickets and creek I’d recorded some time ago. But then some other stuff happened…

So here are the lyrics to that lullaby that seem a fit accompaniment to the memory of that evening at the Pasture Ballet of Light.

All Through the Night

Sleep my child and peace attend thee,
All through the night
Guardian angels God will send thee,
All through the night;
Soft the drowsy hours are creeping,
Hill and vale in slumber sleeping,
I my loved ones’ watch am keeping,
All through the night.

Angels watching, e’er around thee,
All through the night
Midnight slumber close surround thee,
All through the night
Soft the drowsy hours are creeping,
Hill and vale in slumber sleeping
I my loved ones’ watch am keeping,
All through the night

While the moon her watch is keeping,
All through the night
While the weary world is sleeping,
All through the night
O’er thy spirit gently stealing,
Visions of delight revealing
Breathes a pure and holy feeling,
All through the night.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Very nice post on fireflies. Reminds me being a child, collecting them in a glass mason jar, and watching the jar light up before releasing them after only a few minutes.

    Certainly one of summer’s best night events. And it sure beats fireworks!


  2. I am with Jackie……… Beautiful.

    Something else beautiful. I came into my office this morning and turned the Fred First calendar to the First (no pun intended) day of July 2010, and whose face should greet me???? Tsuga !!!!!!!!
    Yes sir, give that dog a bone!! Outstanding in his field indeed!!!

    Have a Great Independence Weekend Everyone!!!


  3. The lightning bugs in June~a magical sight.
    I would have missed seeing them, around June 18, in Callaway, had not our young Great Pyrenees started barking at a pasture full of blinking lights.
    Am so glad to have come home, after 20 years on the Gulf Coast, to the misty land of my mother’s people.

  4. This is some of your most lyrical writing ever. It begs to be read for your radio gig. Sheer poetry. And the subject matter is so beloved to any and all who have been there, done that at some time in their lives. For me, it was in the 50’s in my backyard in Knoxville, TN. That’s a long time ago, but the memories burn brightly.