Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Martin Luther King Day was clear and relatively warm, with a fresh snow. Early that morning a  flight of snow bunitngs flitted past, and there were flocks of blue birds and robins in the forest edges around the fields.  We were off to the local coasting hill to do some sledding around midday..

 The snow was perfect, and two of the children had constructed a low jump and were skidding over the top and launching themselves wildly into the air before crashing into the snow on their backs   --   only to get up again and do it all over. The sun was warm,  and below the hill the woods had taken on that grey green cast of early winter, a perfect day, a  timeless New England winter scene, with all the cliches of health and home and a fire crackling in the hearth. 

And yet.

In spite of the fact that this was a school holiday, out of however many children there are in this town there were but six on the hill that day, including two in my own family, which means that there were in fact only four children out on what was the easily finest outing day this season, and a holiday to boot..

What happened? Where are all the children?  Trapped by some electronic Pied Piper? Imprisoned in a sunless mall? Grounded by angry parents?  Depressed? Sick?

What hope can there be for such a people??


Thursday, January 16, 2014

A few years ago the ecologist E.O. Wilson developed a theory he called biophilia. His idea was that human beings are inherently drawn to nature and that furthermore, they appreciate above all a landscape that features a view over water, a cleared stretch of open land dotted with trees, and a forest or hills in the distance. He points out that throughout history, from the earliest palaces and villas to contemporary corporate structures, designers will create environments with these features, even if they have to remake the original terrain to do so.

In fact, landscapes of this sort are increasingly rare. Some of the finest natural vistas, which once inspired artists have been spoiled by commercial development. With this in mind, over the past few years, I have been traveling around seeking out areas that exhibit all the qualities that the painters of landscape have used as models. Long views of this sort can still be found even in sections of modernizing Europe. You find them in the Roman Campagne, where Salvator Rosa, who was among the first landscape painter worked, along with later artists such as J.M.W. Turner and Thomas Cole. You find them in southern France, especially around Provence, which inspired the French Impressionist painters. They still exist in sections of Holland, where the Dutch landscape painters worked in the 17th century. And they can also be found in England, in the Fens, for example, the region favored by the landscape painter, John Constable.

You also can still find good views throughout North America, where painters were the first to recognize the elements of the sublime in wilderness sites and subsequently popularize them. The first of these wild vistas, much despoiled now or at least reduced, were the views over the Hudson River to the Catskill Mountains, painted by Thomas Cole in the mid 1800s. Cole was joined by other artists, such as Frederick Church and Asher B. Durand who were grouped together to create what is known as the Hudson River School.

  Some of the artists in this same group moved west later in the 19th century and began to portray views of wilderness, the Rockies in particular. In fact it has been theorized that it was the work of these landscape painters that softened the generally blind, commercial, winner take all American public for an appreciation of wilderness. The end result was the creation of the National Park System, the first such preservation project in the world.

Inspiring  landscapes can be found on a smaller scale in New England, the view of the great Oxbow of the Connecticut River, for example, which was painted by Thomas Cole in 1830. Coastal New England also has some good viewscapes, such as the Newburyport marshes, which were painted over and over again by the Luminist artist Martin Johnson Heade. On an even smaller scale, you can find inviting views around Old Lyme, Connecticut, an area characterized by small fields, low hills patterned with laurels, the Connecicut River to the west, and salt marshes along the Long Island Sound coast to the south. This was the region favored by a small group of early twentieth century American Impressionists known as the Lyme School.

Ironically, considering the density of its population, New England has hundreds of lesser-known vistas, such as the view across Lake Champlain from western Vermont to the often clouded Adirondacks, or the small farms and villages of the Hill Towns in central Massachusetts.

  After years of poking around searching for places of this sort, I found another one of these scenic landscapes not half a mile from my house in Littleton, Massachusetts. Coming into town from the east, along the Great Road, you pass through the so-called Gateway to the town, which offers a fine rural idyll of hayfields and pumpkin fields, with low hills to the north and south. Approaching the town center from the west, once you clear a small, unappealing strip mall, you break out into the rolling fields of the area known traditionally as Scratch Flat. The land here stretches across the cultivated fields of two working farms and sweeps up to a forested ridge on the east, a view that might have been a subject for someone like Camille Pissarro, who favored rural aspects and country scenes.

The other good view can be found on the town beach at Long Lake, especially at sunset. This small body of water is much appreciated for its recreational opportunities, swimming and boating and the like, and is made all the better by town regulations passed back in the 1950s, which discourage the use of high powered motor boats. But the other feature is the view across the lake to the forested banks and the low glacial ridges. Unlike most of the small lakes and ponds all across New England, the shores of Long Lake are generally unhoused and wild. Three quarters of the banks are now protected from development, either by the town, or by the New England Forestry Foundation, which owns property on the western banks. The small town beach lies on the eastern shore, and the few houses that dot the northern shore actually add to the view by offering a few understated focal points.

I daresay any of the landscape painters of the past would appreciate the vistas here. John Constable would love the roiling cloudscape that sometimes churns up over the green hills beyond the lake in late afternoon. The Hudson River School painter Jasper Cropsey would appreciate the fiery colors of the trees on the western banks in autumn. Any of the water-loving French Impressionists, including Monet or Renoir, would love the stillness of the lake on summer evenings, and would also no doubt appreciate the colorful little moth-like sails of the boats that tack here and there on sunny days, not to mention the coves of florid water lilies on the southern banks. The fact is, if you look around with a sharpened eye for such things, one can find the elemental and even mythic landscapes that E.O Wilson and art historians have written about right here at home in the town in which I live --- you don’t have to travel the world to find such views.

The question is, how many other people who live here, or in any other forgotten little corners of New England small towns, actually see landscape? There are those who look out over fields and forests and see only commercial possibilities. Henry Thoreau wrote, with only a hint of irony, that he had traveled much in his life --- in Concord. With a little luck and help from the various town boards, if these viewscapes are saved, I might be able to say the same.

Monday, January 13, 2014

All the World in a Vernal Pool

On a warming afternoon toward the end of March last spring, I heard the first calls from a population of wood frogs that collect in a series of vernal pools on the northwest side of my property.  Their duck-like quacking, along with the appearance of the mourning cloak butterflies, and the spearing heads of skunk cabbage in the local swamps, is a reliable indication of advent of true spring. But the last few years have been uncertain. Dry spells have become more common even in spring, and for whatever reason, the pools have been drying out earlier than usual, threatening the year’s crop of frogs. Last spring was the worst of these of these years.

   The season started well enough; the snows melted, the ice went out of the pools and the wood frogs arrived on schedule and began calling. By April I could see the little clouds of jellied eggs floating freely or attached to submerged twigs and branches.  But around mid April the rains ceased and we entered into a dry spell, coupled with some strange unseasonably high temperatures. The pond edges began to shrink. The heat and drought continued into May and soon enough, it looked like the pools would dry out even before the eggs hatched.

 I’m not sure of the legality, or even the wisdom of what followed, but I set out on a campaign to rescue at least a segment of the population. I have three different ornamental pools in my garden, two of them heavily vegetated, and one deep enough to maintain cool waters.  So little by little I began collecting eggs from the vernal pools and moving them to my own pools. I had help in this from a willing five year old.  Three or four times a week we would carry a net and buckets to the vernal pools, scoop up a mass of eggs and carry them back to the garden. We continued this rescue operation all through M

   And all the while the heat and the drought, wore on and the pools dimished day by day, foot by foot, leaving a surround of wet vegetation.  Nonetheless at some point during that month some of the eggs hatched; I could see the little tadpoles in the deeper water, the boy and I would wait and watch for wriggling ripples in the still waters, and scoop them out with the nets.  These too we carried back to the garden pools.
 As the vernal pools dried, our rescue operation began to take on a bit of a desperate maneuver.  By June, with still no significant rain, the center of the pools were no more than mud puddles, teeming with wriggling tadpoles. Beyond these pools in the drying leaves we could find multitudes of dead tadpoles..
 Finally as far as we could tell, there were no more struggling tadpoles in the former pools the mass of some, they were all either saved by us, or dead.
 Meanwhile the ones we had rescued thrived. Slowly over the month of June and early July the tadpoles grew legs.    The only way to check their progress was to net them and watch the growth of their legs and the slow shrinking of their tails. Happily there seemed to be fewer and fewer in the nets when I scooped them out. --- presumably a good sign. They were making their way out into the wild world.
 In late summer, along with the usual adults that seem to appear at the end of summer each year. I began spotting tiny wood frogs, more than I usually would.  Presumably our rescue had worked.
 I see a metaphor in all this. Without our intervention, that season’s crop of local frogs would not have thrived, thereby decreasing, however slightly the number of wood frogs in the world.  The adults who originally laid the eggs, will  probably return to their native ponds this year, and the year after.  But in an increasingly warming planet, and the associated odd vagaries of the weather, who knows how long that population would last. So our efforts, for the time being, were justified.
 But  in a sense, the world is a vernal pool. The climate is warming, habitats are disappearing worldwide,  populations of wild things are shrinking, and there are no god-like giants roaming the earth to scoop us up and carry us to a better, more sustainable planet. 
 In effect we are the only ones who can protect ourselves.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Excerpt from the Preface for An Eden of Sorts: The Natural History of My Feral Garden

Excerpt from the Preface for An Eden of Sorts: The Natural History of My Feral Garden

The Vicarage Garden

Some years ago I inherited an acre and a half plot of earth in a region of low, rolling hills dotted with extensive forests, a few farms and orchards,  and a developing suburban area to the east, towards the city. This was by no means a spectacular piece of property.  It was originally an apple orchard that stretched from the marshes of a brook to the east, westward over a low hill to a level agricultural area known locally as Scratch Flat, a tract of land that had been in cultivation for over a thousand years, if you include Native American history.   The apple orchard was cut down in the 1920s to make a horse pasture, and after the horses died and the family moved West, the property had grown up to white pines.

On the west side of the hill, beyond the forest,  there were two working farms, and just across the road to the east there was another farm, this one abandoned and characterized by a series of overgrown pastures that dropped down to the slow,  north-running stream with a  wide floodplain of cattail marshes.

The pine forest was a dark, foreboding place...read more in my book, An Eden of Sorts.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

An Excerpt from my new novel: The Last of the Bird People

This is the story of a tribe of peaceful hunter gatherers, but after they are uprooted from their valley, where they had lived quiety for generations, they become more wild and violent. This incident occurs during their exodus.  The story is related by an old man.

Book is available on Amazon, etc.

One day we came to a large pond surrounded by grasses and the curving trees Tracker called cabbage palms.  Lying on the banks we saw five or six animals that looked like huge salamanders, some the size of a man or woman.  I recognized them as members of the same species of demon I had encountered on the trail by the big river.

 For a variety of reasons, mainly because I did not want the people to know that death was even then stalking me, I had not mentioned this to anyone, not even Chanterelle. 

Randall took a few of the dogs and led Watson, Chanterelle, and some of the women through the brush with the spears and bows ready to hunt these animals.  I wanted to tell him to hold off. I wanted to announce that I had made a pact with one of these creatures, and perhaps they knew of this agreement .  But I said nothing. 

Randall was becoming a good hunter by then, and moved very slowly as he approached. When the hunters were close they all sat down and watched for a while, and then crept forward, holding back the dogs and making sure those immense salamanders stayed asleep.  When the hunting party was no more than a few paces away, Randall indicated through sign that each of the hunters should pick one salamander.  Then they and the hunting dogs charged out from the brush and speared those hideous looking beasts. 

The spear throws and arrow flights were true, and the spearheads entered the chests of those creatures just behind the forelegs.  The dogs grabbed the meaty fat legs and tails and refused to let go even though they were swung left to right by the twists and turns of the speared beasts.  The monsters thrashed and lashed with their dense fat tails and attempted to flee to the pond waters but the people were wild now in a hunting frenzy.  Randall himself was the wildest among them.  He charged from one monster to the other, heaving them back onto the shore by their tails, and yelling at us to do the same.  But, unlike the deer or the woodchucks of our valley, these vicious slashers refused to give themselves up to us willingly.  They twisted around in their pain, taking on more and more spear jabs, and attempting to bite us or knock us back with their tails, even though they were gravely wounded. They had huge long jaws with row upon row of sharp teeth, the fore teeth long and spear like, and one of them caught the hunter Tuttle and tore her calf.  Others thrashed their tails madly in defense and one of them tripped Watson, who fell into the melee and began slashing left and right with his brush spear, laying great bloody gashes in the struggling beasts, while they attempted to bite him. Randall saved him.  He charged in among them and speared the closest of them and kicked the others away, or grabbed their huge tails and heaved them off. 

Those hunters were all mad with the kill now. We had never experienced such a hunt, and there was a violence among the women I had never seen before.  Chanterelle, my own granddaughter was growling and barking with the dogs, yipping and jabbing left to right at the eyes of the fighting beasts and kicking them to keep them from the waters.

At one point, the largest of the beasts struggled into the pond water and having lost her judgment in the wildness of the hunt, Chanterelle snatched out her skinning knife and plunged in after him. She caught his snout under the jaw, drew back his head and began slashing at his throat, even as he rolled and twisted in the reddening, blooded waters.  Randall dove in after her without any weapons at all.  He waded up to that great thrashing beast and with his bare hands held its snout shut.  It continued to thrash wildly and beat the waters with its tail, but it could no longer bite, and little by little under the repeated strikes and slashes of Chanterelle’s knife it succumbed, rolling upward to reveal its yellow-white scaled belly. 

Back on shore the other beasts were losing ground.  Of the six we had seen on the shore, two made it back into the depths of the pond. But slowly, one by one, the others died there on the banks, although it took a long time for them to give up.

The hunters sat down then, shaking and dazed.  The dogs panted and lay watching their kill, as if to make sure they had finished their work.  The hunters whistled for us, and everyone came down to the shore to see this slaughter. 

We never in all out history of hunting and food gathering had had such a struggle with any animal.  The wrath of these creatures, the violence and defense that they put up was heroic, and it was only then, as they lay dead around us on the bank that we thought to ask Randall what they were. 

“These,” he said, “are the alligators I told you about back in the valley.  From now on we will be seeing many of these animals and they are very good eating.  Worth the struggle,” he said.

That much was true.  We butchered those alligators, cut the meat into strips and roasted the strips over the fires. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Last of the Bird People

An excerpt from my forthcoming novel, published June 2012

The Last of the Bird People


by Terilla Brown

The Disappearance of Minor Randall

This book is an explanation of the abrupt and mysterious disappearance of the former Harvard anthropologist Minor Randall, an affair that caused a stir in academic circles in the late 1920s. It also recounts, among other things, what appears to have been a violent confrontation between a roving band of itinerant people and a local vigilante group in South Florida, an event. which, I believe, must have been covered up by authorities at the time.

The discovery of the evidence for all this came about quite by accident.

In the late 1990s, I was doing research for Dr. Lawrence Millman at Harvard’s Peabody Museum on the survival of an ancient ceremony involving a ritual “bear language” that had been used by the Innu of Labrador. While I was there, I ran across a file concerning an otherwise obscure associate professor named Minor Randall, who worked in the department of anthropology and had apparently gone missing in the late summer of 1928, shortly after he was dismissed from the university. Included in the file was a seemingly irrelevant typescript of a legal deposition given at a pre-trial hearing at the Everglades City Court House in Florida, during the last weeks of May in l929. It was not obvious, at first, why this document should have been associated with Professor Randall.

The hearing was connected to some sort of conflict that had occurred earlier in the month on the Tamiami Trail involving a posse or a vigilante group and a band of people, possibly gypsies, whom the posse had been searching for. Exactly what had happened was unclear, but it was obvious that there had been an armed encounter between the posse and the purported “tribe”, which had been moving southward through the interior of the Florida Everglades, apparently living off the land.

The story was implausible, containing as it did, several incongruous situations and events, and I began searching through other records in the file to see if I could find out why the deposition was included in the folder. After a little more digging I discovered other papers — mainly internal memos from people in the department —that indicated that Minor Randall may have been involved in the Florida incident.

One of the most interesting — and unlikely — leads came from a series of news stories concerning a primitive “tribe” of people in the Swift River Valley in central Massachusetts. In the late winter of 1856, newspapers all across southern New England were reporting the presence of a traveling band of people described in some accounts as gypsies. The group first appeared around Bourne, at the western end of Cape Cod. They were seen again north of Kingston, Rhode Island and they spent a week or two around the Great Swamp, within the town of Easton, in Massachusetts. By late spring, they turned north and entered the Swift River Valley, which, before it was flooded in the 1940s to create the Quabbin Reservoir, was a vast empty quarter of wooded hills, streams, and swampy bottom lands.

The most complete accounts of this so-called band of gypsies appeared in the Daily Eagle, the paper of the now extinct town of Greenwich, which was dismantled to make way for the reservoir. According the story, which appeared in the 1857 August 27th edition, two different local farmers happened upon the group in two different locations.

There were about twenty people of all ages in the band, including babies, children, and old people. One family had a horse and wagon, but most were on foot and were accompanied by a large pack of mongrel dogs. Many of the people, men and women alike, had shoulder-length hair and were dressed in motley, the women in long skirts and blouses, the men in patched trousers and collarless shirts. The children were barefooted and wore loose smocks, “much soiled” as the article reported. There were said to be four or five “colored” families, and there was also, the newspaper said, a mix of Indians and whites — a blond woman with a group of tow-headed children, a few red-haired Irish, Azorean Portuguese, and couple of Yankee farmers and their families. The group was led by a gypsy “queen”, a large woman in a florid turban who answered most of the questions put to her in broken English. The others held back and pretended not to understand the questions.

One of the local land owners had discovered the band camped in his woodlot and asked them to move on, which they did without argument or explanation. Who they were, where they had come from and where they were going, was never detailed in any of the official records or newspaper accounts, and by the autumn, all reports ceased.

The last shred of evidence of the wandering band appeared nearly seventy-five years later, in 1905, also in the Daily Eagle. A short notice in the November 16th edition claimed that two hunters had discovered a young girl, a “wild child”, sleeping in a rock cranny on Soapstone Hill, far from any human habitation. The family of one of the hunters took her in and was feeding her, the story said. No further information appeared in the records.

Then suddenly, starting in September 19287, evidence of the band reappeared. Clipped together in a separate sheaf, I found more stories that threw light on the situation, including the critical piece of verification — the transcript of the deposition, which contained the curious story related by the deposed, the man who called himself Jon Barking Fox.

Once I pieced together all these documents, I determined that Randall must have allowed himself to be “captured” by this roving mixed-race band, which by that time — the late 1920s — had been living incognito for generations in the Swift River Valley.

Situations of this sort were actually not an uncommon phenomenon, even in the mid twentieth century. Similar social groups, such as the Jackson Whites in the valleys of the Ramapo Mountains, New York, or the so-called “Raggies”, who lived on Mount Riga in Connecticut were also surviving in isolated, self-contained situations. Most noteworthy as far as this story is concerned, was a renegade band of Seminole Indians who had cut off all contact with white society in the early 1900s and had moved into the inaccessible regions of the southern Everglades, supporting themselves by hunting and plant gathering.

The Swift River Valley people had also reverted to an earlier tradition and were also surviving by hunting and plant gathering, which is what originally interested the anthropologist, Minor Randall. They had also reversed traditional sexual roles. The women hunted, and the men were responsible for food preparation and child care, even going so far as to suffer birth pangs while their wives were delivering.

Although there appears to have been some conflict within the tribe, the Bird People, as they called themselves, were peaceable, retiring, and non-violent. Their main objective was to remain unnoticed by settled American society. In fact, they believed that the “Wasichu” — their name for anyone not of their band — could not see what did not move. They thought they were invisible. Had it not been for the development of the massive reservoir project in their valley, they might have gone unnoticed for several more generations, although eventually modernization would have caught up with them.

Or maybe not. Unlike the other isolated societies, the Bird People were nomadic, they moved — silently, stealthily, and constantly — destroying all evidence of their existence before leaving one hunting camp for another.


I learned that Minor Randall was a former student and protégé of the pioneering American anthropologist Franz Boas at Columbia University, who was a bit of a maverick in the field of cultural anthropology. Randall was also an associate of other luminaries, such as Margaret Meade and Ruth Benedict, and the Eastern Woodland Indian specialist Frank Speck, who was also a student of Boas at Columbia. After graduation, Randall worked as an assistant for Boas doing field studies on extant Woodland cultures, mainly a band of Seminoles in south Florida that had cut off contact with the local whites.

Randall apparently fell into a controversy with his department head at Harvard because of his involvement with events surrounding the construction of the Quabbin Reservoir in the Swift River Valley.

The area around the valley was one of the last extant wild tracts of land in the Northeast, dotted with isolated farms, a few towns, and thick, unpeopled forests in between.

It was partly because of the sparse human occupation in the area that the Boston water companies selected the site for construction of the reservoir. In May of 19287, the town of Prescott was disbanded and officially struck from the records of cities and towns of Massachusetts in order to begin the work of clearing the region for the reservoir. Over the next five years, all seven towns in the Swift River Valley were abandoned and razed; 7,500 bodies were disinterred from the local graveyards; trees were cleared from the valley floor, and the Swift River and three other streams in the valley were dammed to back up the waters to create the reservoir.

In the early autumn of 1928, a project surveyor working in the Rattlesnake Brook area in the northern valley found a homemade arrow with a chipped quartz point not far from a hemlock grove on the north-facing slope near the brook. He turned the arrowhead over to his crew boss, who passed it up the chain of command. After some delays in the upper echelon, it was delivered to Minor Randall for analysis.

The Rattlesnake Brook Point, as it came to be called, was a mystifying object. For one thing it was related to projectile points used by Pokanoket tribe in the Cape Cod region during the Contact Period, in the seventeenth century. But it had a number of anomalies which confused Randall, not the least of which was the fact that it was attached to a freshly-stripped hickorywood arrow shaft and was fletched with the feathers of a red-tailed hawk. It was clearly the work of some contemporary individual who had made a lot of arrowheads and knew how to knap stone.

Randall was sufficiently inspired by the workmanship in the arrowhead to do more research. He spent several weeks hiking in the remote, as yet unsurveyed sections of the valley, searching for more artifacts. At the end of this period, he discovered a deerskin cap decorated with grouse feathers. Later that fall, in the mud beside Rattlesnake Brook, he found the barefooted print of a child. He subsequently came to believe that there was a group of aboriginal people living somewhere in the valley.

It was at this point that Randallhe got himself into trouble.

He took the information to his department head and asked his superior to join him in a campaign to have the area declared a sanctuary, or at least declared off limits, until they could find out who it was who was living in the valley. Randall's superior not only refused his request, he covered up the evidence and, after some further squabbling — much of which appears to have been related to the recalcitrant nature of Minor Randall himself — began proceedings to have Randall taken off the project. Ultimately he was removed from his teaching position.

This act only served to encourage the ambitious young anthropologist. There appears to have been some more wrangling between Randall and the Harvard officials, and then, in the summer of 1928, without telling anyone where he was headed, and armed with notebooks, trinkets, and enough food and gear for the next three months, Randall set up camp in one of the wildest as yet unsurveyed sections in the northern end of the valley. In the autumn, most of his gear was found by construction workers on the Quabbin project.

He himself was not seen again.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Lost in The Stars

On warm summer nights when the smell of the river marshes below the house would fill the air and dusk had long since faded out, we would sit on the front porch, watching the fireflies flashing in the hayfields to the west. My family—uncles, aunties, distant cousins, friends of cousins, cousins of friends of cousins—would sit and rock and talk about crops and dogs, horses, and hot weather. The air was thick then, and summer had its grip on us, and sometimes, it seemed to me, the very house would lift from its foundation at these hours and float suspended above the drying grasses and the fields to the north where the corn rustled in the evening wind.

On nights such as this, as the fireflies ascended, my old father would often reminisce about his years in the Orient, and as winking stars of light rose in the fields below us he would retell yet again the old Japanese folktale of Princess Firefly and recount stories of the traditional firefly festivals that took place all over Japan in his time.

I was lost in the mystery of all this and would be swept into some vague, almost timeless suspension of disbelief. It all seemed so real, even though my father was telling the story of a firefly that was in fact a princess in a kingdom inhabited by insects. I was too young to know it was not true.

And often on those hot nights, as children have done for a thousands year, my cousins and I would descend from the porch with kitchen jars and sweep the grasses, catching the flashers and carrying them around in the jars like mystic lanterns.

Timing seemed everything to me, even then. Why did the fireflies flash at certain intervals? Why did they quit flashing periodically, and why did some of them never take to the air and perch low in the grasses, emitting a long, sustained light?

It was only later that I learned that there was a dark side to the luminous display taking place in the fields below the house, and that all the bright poetic legends and folktales had an element of truth. Out there in the real world of the grassroot jungle, the lights that so inspired the folktales and festivals were in fact all about sex and death.

Fireflies flash to attract mates, and it is for the most part the males that we see on summer nights. Shortly after they reach adulthood, usually around late June in New England, as dusk falls, the males launch themselves in the air and patrol to-and-fro across open areas, flashing a semaphoric signal to female fireflies, who lie below, watching. There are as many as thirty different species of firefly in New England, and the males of each species have a set pattern of flashes, which the female can recognize.

Below in the grasses, females spotting a potential mate light up with a sustained flash. The male blazes back, the female lights up again, and, after a series of exchanges, the male descends to locate his mate. Sometimes more than one suitor will fly down and the firefly princess will be surrounded by a company of suitors, each flashing handsome signals. But fireflies, it appears, are discreet denizens of this untamed complex world. Once the couple has found each other the lights go out and they mate.

All is not love in the world of fireflies, however; there is also the question of sustenance. There is one species of firefly that makes use of the flashing repertoire of males to attain a meal. These carnivorous femmes fatales lie low in the grass and watch plays for the signals of other species of males flashing above. They imitate the flash pattern, and thereby draw the unsuspecting male down to his demise.

But all that is science. When you are ten years old, and it is night, and the sparking stars of fireflies drift over the hay fields, and the wind is in the corn, it is all a half-lit poetic mystery.