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Seeking Enlightenment

Jun 13, 2011

I love people, I really do. Sometimes, however, I get my fill of mankind and crave a day or two without speaking to or even seeing another human. My refuge at those times is 200 acres of mixed wetland and upland in Chariton County.

On my most recent retreat from humanity, I arrived there well after sunset. Standing in the dark, I found there wasn’t much to see in the marsh. Then I turned and looked down the lane formed by trees overhanging the levee where I stood. Without warning, I found myself in an alternate universe bearing no resemblance to the one where I had stood in instant earlier.

The black-velvet vault of tree branches receding in the distance was extravagantly laced with flickering lightning bugs numerous beyond imagination, much less description. The nearest trees smoldered with thousands of yellow-green sparks. At increasing distance, the individual sparks merged into a glowing tunnel that blazed through the greenery without consuming it.

I allowed my brain to simmer a good long while in that ethereal fire before walking back to my truck. But before I got there, I was arrested by another staggering spectacle. Before me was a 5-acre field of foxtail and other moist-soil plants, in and above which floated a multitude of fireflies no less numerous than the one I had just witnessed.

Instead of forming a tunnel, this insect throng created a glimmering blanket that hovered just above ground level. The nearest thing I can compare it to is looking at the Milky Way edge-on, as it appears from Earth. This winged galaxy pulsated with light and seethed like a restless sea. I floated on it awhile before driving up out of the sea and climbing in my sleeping bag to dream of earthly lightscapes.

I can’t explain how experiences like these affect our brains, but I know that nature, in all its manifestations has the power to “knit up the raveled sleeve of care,” as Shakespeare put it. I had intended to stay at my retreat for two days, but 24 hours after seeing those fireflies, I was back at home, taking pleasure in my wife’s company, checking e-mail and seeing what my kids were up to on Facebook.

I can’t imagine how I would get along without fireflies and all the rest of nature. I hope I never find out.

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