Fireflies

KATHLEEN McCARTY

July 02, 1993|By KATHLEEN McCARTY

The lights blinked out suddenly about 10 one recent evening. Left standing at my kitchen sink in complete blackness, I felt a moment of panic. Where were the matches, the candles? Why had we lost power?

The darkness enveloped not just our Baltimore home, but also all the neighboring homes and the streets. There was no obvious reason for the blackout. It was a cool, clear evening in early summer. Power-hungry home air conditioners had not been in use.

Within seconds, the outlines of objects began to emerge from the darkness as my eyes adjusted. I felt for the candle that I remembered was right on the kitchen counter and for the box of wooden matches that was in a nearby cabinet.

His video game interrupted, my 13-year-old son clunked up from the basement. We lighted the candle and found others. The candles shed a surprising amount of light, but it was a soft light whose limited range encouraged intimacy. The brief silence had been succeeded by the hoots and laughter of teen-agers and young adults who were outdoors enjoying the summer evening. In the candle glow, all fear vanished.

Leaving the candles burning inside, my son and I sat out on the back steps to watch the night. Within five minutes or so, the hooting stopped. At first, the unaccustomed darkness seemed eerie, but as we sat there companionably, it turned peaceful.

Without the glare of the street lights, the stars shone brighter. Then my son noticed something we had never seen before: Lightning bugs by the dozens swarmed in the treetops, twinkling brighter than the stars. It seemed magical. I had never noticed lightning bugs more than 10 or 15 feet off the ground. We wondered whether this was an everyday phenomenon or whether the fireflies were, like us, confused and disoriented by the blackout.

I suppose they seemed brighter because the darkness was blacker than the dusk, when we normally saw them. Their diamondlike brightness 60 to 80 feet above in the huge oaks that overspread our yard reminded my son of a fireworks display. We sat watching for a while and then went to look out the front door just in time to witness a startingly large crescent moon sink toward the horizon behind the trees. Both sets of neighbors in the duplex next door sat chatting in candlelight on their porches.

We talked for a moment, then returned indoors, where I began puttering with a sputtering candle and my son read by candlelight. With a rush and whir of the fan in my dining room, the power returned. I gave a small cry of dismay. The blackout of a little more than an hour had been exotic fun. It had brought mother and son together in companionship and neighbors together for a friendly talk.

Surely, much is gained by the technologies of electric power and modern communications. But surely much is lost as well -- enjoyment of the natural world and of human intimacy. Without ** the power outage, my son would have continued to interact with animated figures on a video screen and I would have continued listening to a radio as I finished my nightly kitchen routine. We would have missed the miracle of the lightning bugs and the startling closeness of the crescent moon.

One of the latest socio-technological wrinkles is a computerized telephone service that calls elderly loved ones for their harried offspring. Wouldn't we all be better off if we could be unplugged from our modern way of life and be tuned into ourselves, our fellows and the real world of nature for at least an hour a day?

Kathleen McCarty writes from Baltimore.

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