This Thing Called Courage

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


I MEANT TO WRITE ABOUT THEM two weeks ago when I first saw them this year, but tonight I saw them again and this jogged my memory-- as well as delighted my soul. The funny thing is, fifty yards away there lies-- although roars would be the more appropriate word-- Route 28, a four-lane state highway on which I, presumably, live, otherwise known by the unlovely name of Main Street; but some years ago I decided that my true address could be found at the back of the house-- which faces an old red and white barn and four acres of woods-- and that my correct address was Joe Hayes, Squirly Tree House, Stoneham Massachusetts, and forget about the Main Street already. Many of the Native Americans tribes had and hopefully still have the habit of having a common name for each member of their tribe; but in addition to that, everyone also has/had a real name that was secret and known only to themselves. In the same way, I have a secret address-- well, I guess it isn't that secret anymore!

Anyway you wouldn't believe, barrelling down (or up) Main Street that such a world exists just fifty yards away-- but it does, and what a delight. It really keeps me here I would say (well, that and the fireplace and the attic and the grandfather clock and the way the setting moon spills like icy milk onto my kitchen floor late at night during the winter). This world consists of maturing trees (mostly sugar maples and wild cherries); a falling, then a rising, of the land; two brooks, one very slow and sluggish, one rather rapid; some exposed ledge; a 'Holy Well' (or at least I like to think it is, although, unlike the ones in Ireland (some 2000 of them!) no pilgrims come to heal themselves at this one, save myself) as well as downy and hairy woodpeckers, tufted titmice, cardinals, finches, white breasted nuthatches, juncos, black-capped chickadees (our state bird, by the by) mourning doves, wild turkeys, raccoons, garden snakes, and fireflies. As a kid I always loved and was enthralled by those stories containing secret passages, where, say, in the city, in the very heart of the city, one could enter a building, go down to the basement, pass along a winding, shadowy, cobwebbed corridor, and unbolt a secret door and find oneself at the edge of endless and primevel woods. In a way I have found that here-- very few folks roaring along Main Street, possibly saddened (if they have a sensitive pair of eyes and a soul to match, and three seconds of time to spare from the rush-rush world in which many of us live) by the suburban blight they see, would ever guess that fifty yards away, each clement afternoon, there is someone taking a mental health break in bird-drenched woods, alternatively reading poetry and staring up at the clouds; or, at night, sitting on the back steps, watching the fireflies as I did tonight.

How numinous they are!!!! I've always been drawn to fireflies-- I can remember back in college, when I wrote for the Suffolk Journal, my last year I was given a column in which I could-- and did-- write about anything and everything. One week I wrote a piece detailing an alleged conversation two fireflies were having, bitching about humanity's lack of appreciation for them, and their loss of habitat and loss of numbers because of pesticides and herbicides. One of the two critters proposed that all the fireflies in the country (I wasn't thinking globally then apparently) withdraw into a certain area of woods somewhere out west, and thereby blackmail Americans into creating 'Firefly National Park.' The other condemned this idea, envisioning the fat ladies in the Vanagons and the tacky T-shirts, the trash and the theme parks. I wish I could find that column! But I never saved those things then-- even though my mother told me to-- still hardly do now. In fact don't even have a copy of my first book, if you can believe it-- I went looking for it the other day and no dice!

Here's the good news: many of us can create our own Firefly National Park in our own backyards just by planting native species of things, letting a portion of our lawns grow out (lawns are a massive drain on the environment and are totally unnatural) and halting our use of chemicals outdoors. If you do this, they will come-- as will the birds, butterflies, and other critters with whom we share this lovely web of life. You can even get your backyard certified as wildlife friendly! Find out how at

Okay, back to the fireflies. I've read that there are two places in the world where fireflies flash in synchronization-- one such place is in North Carolina, and the other is in Vietnam-- they don't know why, (or, I dunno, maybe they do at this point: this recalls the story of the old African chief sitting by the side of the road 100 years ago when Africa was being colonized by the European powers; a British officer stopped and asked him why he was crying. He answered, "The new teacher in our village knows everything!" --but, remarkably and tellingly, both places are at 2200 feet above sea level. Tonight on my back steps-- at an elevation of 172 feet above sea level, according to Google Earth (if you go there and punch in my address, by the way, you can see my house and my woods-- kind of scary!) they took my breath away-- it's like winning something whenever I see them. There seemed to be two species-- one had a whiter light, and the other a warmer, yellowish-orange one. A few years back, when I became reacquainted with fireflies when I moved here, I stumbled upon a very wonderful website about them, where people from all over the world can write in, reporting firefly sightings. This site was started by a wonderful man, a lawyer from Houston, Texas, who noticed there weren't fireflies in the Houston area anymore, and he wondered why, and decided to do something about it. As the Irish say, God bless the work. Anyway, I emailed-in my report tonight to this website, and then, scanning previous reports that other folks had sent in, I came across another report I had filed, in the summer of 2000, and forgoten about!!! Here it is:

June 29, 2000: Joe Hayes writes: Tonight I had a longing for some reason to see fireflies, so I went down to a 5000 acre conservation area just down the street from my house in Stoneham, MA, with my dog Biscuit. I walked about 200 yards into the woods (there were still bright lights from an abutting lumber yard) and saw my first one. It took my breath away. This was along a trail bordered on either side by tall grasses receding into bushes, then taller trees. As I went a little farther in I saw four or five more. I was going to keep going- the trail goes on for miles and miles- but it was pitch black further in and I kept thinking of Blair Witch Project and Friday the 13th movies and decided discretion was the better part of valor. I believe I saw two different species, as the first one I saw had a definite quick FLASH then off then FLASH then off etc, while the others I saw, their light was more a longer, sputtering, drawn out flash. Or maybe this is male and female difference? Every Thursday night during the summer me and a group of friends meet at my house for pizza and beer, then we go mini-golfing. Tomorrow night (after everyone's had at least one beer) I'm going to suggest that instead of mini-golfing we go and count fireflies in the conservation area. These are all guys, between the ages of 20 and 63. We'll have to vote on it...wish me luck! I will report back!

That was six years ago and it brought a smile to my face-- and a wince to my heart, remarking precious Bisky. But I never did report back to the website as promised, so here's an exclsuive AVAILABLE ONLY HERE! I DID in fact browbeat my buddies into going to 'Happy Land' (as I call the Middlesex Fells Reservation) the following night instead of mini-golfing. Or perhaps I pulled a Harris-Blackwell Maneuver and rigged the vote-- but in any case we went. I can tell you, we sure caused quite a bit of curiosity in Stoneham among the housecoat set (Stoneham's an okay place I suppose, but one in which the sympathies of the locals will never be known for being anything other than limited), in that ten (or so) (gay, if you must know) men were seen walking down the sidewalks of Stoneham on their way to Happy Land. ("Harry! Harry, come 'ere! Look at these men walking down the street! Where are they going? Do you know them? Why are they WALKING? They must be weirdoes! Do you think we should call the police????") Truly though, a good number of the homes we walked by on our way sported the faces, and sometimnes only the partial faces, of nosey folks staring out their windows and doors at us-- of course everytime I noticed someone doing this, I waved briskly-- which, of course, made them all withdraw toot sweet-- except for one old man who waved back-- I think he wanted to come with-- and why wouldn't he for heaven's sakes? Anyone could tell our company was fraught with bonhommie!) What the anarchist in me really longed to do (at the houses where nosey people were staring at us) was to suddenly and quickly turn and face their house and then march quite briskly and martially up their front walks and bang on the door-- that would've given them something to get nosey about!) But now that i think about it, it proibably would have been more interesting to knock on various doors on our way to Happy Land (or perhaps we could have played instruments and carried placards as we went along), telling people exactly what we were about to do and if they wanted to come along. I bet some of them would have loved to.

And when we finally got to Happy Land we walked quite a few miles, as I recall, told ghost stories ("They never found her body, you know, and she was standing right there where you are now when she vanished!") and, if memory serves me correctly, we counted 52 fireflies that night. Yes, 52-- I remember. As Virginia Wolf noted, what is astonishing is not the things we've forgotten, but the things we remember. ) That was a fun night. I'm trying to remmeber who came that firefly-hunting night-- perhaps Dermot (although I may be confusing the crowd that night with the folks whom, I dragged into Happy Land to see the Perseids one year) and probably Robbie M., and my roommate Steve, and Sean and Hans (the gold-dust twins) and Mark Wilson (who later worked for my landscaping company before running off to Mexico when his south-of-the-border boyfriend developed green card iussues) and some others whom I can't remember-- though I loved them all. Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan? Where indeed...

Go visit the nice man in Houston's firefly site, here:

That's all folks!!!!


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