Like many Bay Area residents, I grew up in New York (coming west for grad school in 1975), and like many NYC kids my parents shipped me out of the City’s heat for summer camp in the country: Camp Kinder-Ring, to be specific, a Jewish sleepaway up in the Hudson Valley. Considering the constituency it’s no surprise I was far from the only nerdy non-athletic camper but I was towards the extreme. Assigned to right field in softball, a safe spot since none on the opposing team could smack a ball that far to the right, my best memories of camp are happily traipsing unnoticed off into the adjacent woods to wander about, wondering and happy in the presence of a natural world so unlike my pre-hip Brooklyn neighborhood.
A tree perhaps did grow in Brooklyn although not on my street, but the upstate forests were rich and largely untouched. The first dark sky I ever saw was outside of our cabins at night, and the bioluminescent fireflies were a revelation. It’s only recently that I learned that these self-lit bugs can be found here in California as well, although I’ve yet to spot one (they are relatively rare), and a report of a new species discovered only a few years ago, in Los Angeles County of all places, led to a bit of research.
Bioluminescence is light produced by living organisms, and the winged beetles we call fireflies or lightening bugs are just a few of those capable of this miracle, along with various centipedes, millipedes, snails, fungi, coral, jellyfish, octopus and squid, clams and plankton. Once so common that easily collected jarfuls of fireflies could serve as kids’ flashlights, habitat loss and insecticides have dramatically reduced the populations. Light pollution (street lights, houselights, car lights, etc.) has also contributed to the decline, disrupting the bugs’ real reason for glowing tails – that is, to attract mates. How is that light produced? Fireflies control the amount of oxygen entering their body in order to create a chemical reaction which produces light, although other explanations include an ancient Chinese belief that lightening bugs are created by burning gasses and the Japanese legend that they are the spirits of warriors fallen nobly in battle. You choose your favorite.