I have a vivid memory of seeing a lady slipper for the first time. I was probably five or six at the time, and my family was out at our camp, which to this day retains its rustic camp-ness, even as many of the other homes on the lake are being wired for electricity and satellite t.v. The flower was tucked up against the back wall of the dark red camp, a tiny, pale, fragile life bravely eking a living out of those swampy woods where my father and his brothers habitually broke limbs as boys proving they were manly men.
It struck me as a strangely delicate thing to exist in such a rugged place, even then, and I thought it was the loveliest thing I had ever seen. I reached out to pluck it, but fortunately my grandmother was with me. She stopped me and explained to me that it was an endangered flower, which meant that it was illegal to pick them. That only gave the little flower a more magical quality in my mind. We didn’t get them every year, and if we did, I never saw more than one or two hanging on tenaciously in the woods by the swamp. Every time I have found one since then, I’ve felt like I’ve been given a precious gift, like being granted a wish by a good fairy.
Fireflies are another thing that have an almost mystical quality in my mind. To see fireflies, you have to be willing to look into the dark woods at night, and generally speaking, I’m not. My imagination has always taken a little too much liberty with my uncles’ already gruesomely fictitious stories of Hatchet Harry, fisher cats, and orangutans. Everyone knows, of course, that the best way to not be eaten by such creatures emerging from the woods is to stare very intently at the campfire, avoiding eye contact with any potential threat in the trees beyond. Making sure that there are plenty of relatives between you and the woods is unnecessary…just a reasonable measure of caution that makes you feel better about not watching your back. The real trick is the not looking into the shadows beneath the trees.
So, spending all of my time focused on the warmth of the fire and avoiding eye contact with imaginary fiends, I never saw fireflies as a kid. In my mind, they were this piece of summer lore that was fascinating, but touched with a hint of sidhe impossibility. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I have a single memory of looking into the dark long enough to notice the sporadic signals of fireflies calling out to each other in the blackness. When I did see them, they touched something in me that lives in the same part of my brain that is still moved by lady slippers. The something that sees infinite beauty in the ways life can thrive in unlikely places.
I had the opportunity to go out to camp this weekend with John, with many of our friends and family members coming to join us for a few hours here and there, and it was one of those weekends that was rich with moments that give you reason to appreciate the loveliness of life. One of the first things my sister pointed out to me when we got to camp was a forest of lady slippers in the swamp. They’ve been coming up in more strength over the past few years, but never have I ever seen nearly two dozen growing together in one place in a single year. It was incredible.
The pleasure of decent weather, good food, and excellent company we enjoyed at camp this weekend was bracketed with another incredible moment. On Sunday evening, everyone but John and I had gone home, so we were enjoying one last lazy campfire together to cook our dinner and burn the remnants of earlier fires down to ash. John had thoroughly indulged my taste for campfire music by singing along with the Irish folk tunes I’ve been learning, and we were huddled close to the fire as it burned lower and lower when I noticed something flashing in the woods.
My first thought was “Aliens!” because, let’s face it, you can’t take the irrational dreamer out of the academic. I breathed deeply until the reaction passed, and as I continued watching the woods, I realized that I was just seeing fireflies. John was as surprised as I was—it was a cool weekend, and we thought fireflies wouldn’t be out so soon. We started looking more closely into the dark trees, and we realized quickly that there were dozens of fireflies going courting in the late May evening.
It really was one of those weekends that makes you wonder if there’s a good fairy drifting around, just out of sight.