Fireflies In July


Observing the lengths that humans will go these days in search of entertainment just totally blows my mind away. I recently learned that people by the thousands stand in line at an amusement park (Cedar Point on Lake Erie) for two hours to take a ride that lasts eight seconds. You go from zero to 120 miles per hour in two seconds and spend the other six slowing down. That of course is another way to have your mind totally blown away which I suppose is why people do it. Humans are trying to escape their environments, are trying to escape themselves. I can’t think of any other way to explain socially-agreed upon madness.

But I have a theory about it. Most of us have only a little knowledge of the awesome events going on in nature right around us all the time. That’s why we must ceaselessly travel in search of distraction far and wide. There are wonders at work right under our noses but we don’t notice. It is even more lamentable now that we have abandoned the real world for the electronic world. I have a hunch that being fascinated by the computer won’t last long either. But where else can you go after you have experienced the ecstasy of going from zero to 120 in eight seconds?

The amusing thing to me is that one of the most electrifying examples of the electronic world is also one of the most beautiful wonders of the real world and it comes to visit us free of charge every summer. You need travel no farther than your porch to enjoy it. Or sit at the edge of a wheat field at dusk in July. Fireflies. Lightning bugs. If you know the facts about these luminescent little starbursts blinking on and off in the night air, you know that they are signaling each other for, among other things, mating purposes. Not so much different than teenagers on their cell phones. The chemistry of the firefly’s luminescence is awesome, a kind of light without heat, or at least an extremely low amount of heat. I think scientists in their electronic labs have learned how to duplicate it by now, even it they don’t understand it. At least I hope so because for years there was a lively market selling fireflies to these labs. I know Amish farmers who made a little part time cash this way, the least known of all farm products.

I have been writing about Karl Kuerner, an up and coming artist whose paintings fascinate me. They almost always depict homey, everyday scenes, common to garden farm life, rendered in a quiet but vaguely troubling way, creations of a brooding but humorous man who sees the universality of all life in the smallest examples of it near at hand. Here is an artist who does not need to feel the artificial excitement of going from zero to 120 in eight seconds although he confesses a fascination for roller coasters— not to ride but to paint. He feeds the wild deer on his farm out of his hand. He and his wife nurtured a wounded buzzard back to health— he painted it in his wife’s lap. He also painted three baby coons clinging to her back. He knows, as all true farmers do, (he and his Dad just took in a cutting of hay last week) that his farm, the same one that Andrew Wyeth used for many of his most famous paintings, is a place of deep and wide and vast wonders. From his studio, he can look past his barn over the hill and see forever.

Recently he finished a painting titled “Fireflies” that just fixates me. What you see first in the painting is an old mason jar on a plain old farmhouse window sill, two of the most homely everyday objects of American life. But something about the way he painted them makes me think of a chalice on an altar. Around the mason jar out the window, fireflies light up the night (candles?), so real you think at any moment that they will start blinking if you stare at them hard enough. So I stare as hard as I can at these dancing lights, signaling for sex. When I do, I am jolted to see something else out beyond the window in the shadows of the night. Human figures are dancing out there. Naked human figures. I suddenly wish that I were one of them. Maybe in the universal sense, I am.
See also Gene’s Gardening In The Nude (or New Use For Rhubarb)
Read more about Karl Kuerner in Gene’s book, The Mother of All Arts



Your idea of naked dancing human figures isn’t so far off. In Judaism, there used to be a dance called the “Dancing of the Maidens.” The date was on the last full moon. On the Hebrew calendar it’s the 15th of Av.

Women would wear a white dress and dance among the grape vines. The men would go looking for a mate.

White is supposedly a symbol of chastity, but most men know you can see right through them if the woman has a bright full moon behind her, as she would not long after sunset on the day of the full moon.

This is one festival I wish they’d bring back. Maybe a computer version.

Teresa, I wonder if there are fireflies in any city, in Central Park in New York for example? The manure book, Holy Shit, will be out offically Sept. 1. Another book, a novel titled Pope Mary and the Church of Ammighty Good Food, in about two months. Gene

Hi Gene, Just sitting here taking a break from cleaning and catching up on some of your writings. I don’t know if I ever shared this “firefly” story with you. Our friends from East Detroit were visiting. Tom and Elaine were both born and raised in the city and are “afraid” of the country?! One night we were sitting outside and Elaine asked me what that light was. I didn’t know waht she was talking about until she said, “There it is again!” She had never seen a firefly. They must kill them in the city with all their spraying. Pretty sad to be 50 years old and seeing your first firefly. I am thankful for my country life! P.S. When is your new book available? Teresa

Gene, I bought your Mother of All Arts yesterday and just finished the chapter on the Kuerners. Simply delightful reading! Nice touch you have, letting them just talk about themselves, rather than you interjecting. Wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy the book, but now I’m fascinated by the insights into farming and how it relates to the arts.

I’m infected by the agrarian impulse and wish I owned 20-40 acres to really farm (we only have 7 acres, most of it wooded). But I’m probably too old anyway (67 yrs). I appreciated your comment in the Introduction about farming working with nature (to some extent, but it’s also about fighting back against nature as Michael Pollan talks about it in his book Second Nature) vs. the environmentalists’ desire to set large areas of nature aff bounds to human intrusion. Seems to me we could satisfy both urges with many small farms with connected woodlots (using wildlife corridors).

Anyway, it’s a truly enjoyable book. You’ve learned your craft, sir, for sure.

Jerry P, yes the lack of interest in nature among today’s young people worries me too. I sometimes think that people like us, like your Hannah, have a sort of vocation—something in their natures makes them feel more akin to nature than most people do. I would like for everyone to have a love of gardening, farming, nature watching, home life, but perhaps only some of us are so blessed. Gene

Gene, thank you for you kind words! I really enjoy and appreciate your work and can’t wait to read the new book.

I am thankful that we do have fireflies here. My kids used to try to catch them when they were young and I hope the grandkids will get the chance.
I think that people in general have taken more interest lately in man-made ‘wonders’ than in those of nature. So many kids haven’t a clue about nature, spending all of their free time with electronic gadgets. Some don’t even want to go outside. I have one 2 1/2 year old granddaughter who spends hours every day outside in her parents’ 5 acre yard and orchard. Hannah catches bugs, watches birds, calls the unripe fruit on the trees her ‘babies’, and loves the wind in her beautiful blonde hair. I fervently hope that today’s world never spoils her. We have 4 acres of Pennsylvania woods that are eagerly awaiting the day when she can begin exploring.
I plan on checking out the works of Karl Kuerner. It seems that he has an appreciation for the farm way of life that we hold so dear. Thanks for bringing this artist to our attention.

Excellent piece on fireflies, and I will someday see the painting….. I have to confess to being an adrenaline junkie, and roller coasters feed my habit, or have in the past. As I get older, I find more excitement in things I used to take for granted. I heard my first locust this summer on July 1, which is as early as I can remember, and I called a couple friends to ask them if they had heard them yet. I hope the old wives tale about six weeks until the first frost will not apply this year, or my garden will be toast! Where I live, it has been a banner year for deer flies; they are more prevalent than mosquitoes! It seems like the artist understands how much we have in common with most all of the animal kingdom.

The lightning bugs seem to be less and less each year, are all the paesticides we (farmers in general) spray these days killing them off? I know we can’t keep our bee hives going anymore, they just seem to die off every year. The past year I stood in a 5 acre field of bloomed out red clover and not a bee could be seen or heard.

Beth, I wrote a lot about Karl in The Mother of All Art. I wrote the words for his “All In A Day’s Work” which is a collection of his paintings (Cedar Tree Books, Wilmington, Delaware).What I’m writing now is a prospectus (I think that’s the right word) for an art show he is having this fall at Ursinus College near Philadelphia. I am also writing a piece for Farming magazine about raking hay. Karl just painted his father raking hay. A coincidence really, and I am making the most of it.
While I’m answering your question, I also want to thank you for your lively and most enjoyable comments on this website. Gene

Oh, I wish we had fireflies in California; I’ve heard so much about them and never seen one. And the painting sounds intriguing–will it be in the book you’re writing about Karl (I assume it’s going to be a book)?

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