Green Hills Literary Lantern

Luminosity


Maybe my husband and I bought a hundred-year-old home in Oak Park, Illinois to convince ourselves that our marriage was stable and permanent. Or maybe the house was a way to revive our marriage. It was June of 2001 when we moved in, and in the humidity-heavy Midwestern evenings, as we sat on our porch, the grass came alive with fireflies. I had never seen fireflies before. The neighbor kids buzzed around our yard trying to catch them in Mason jars, but I was focused only on the choreography of their ritual: the male fireflies soaring high off the ground and flashing wildly on and off to attract the females, who lounged in the grass, sparkling responses. My husband, an engineer with a scientific interest in nature, told me that the insect’s glow is as close to perfect light as you can get, because they emit almost no heat. Their fire is all light. Cold light. Still, maybe the fireflies sparked some heat in us that night under white bed sheets in our air-conditioned room. Or maybe that energy came from the kids jumping around with jars.


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Glowworms. King scorpions. Phytoplankton. Biofluorescent coral. Lanternfish. Foxfire. Sundogs. St. Elmo’s fire. Why do we vividly remember times when we have seen the glow of the natural world?


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In the 1980s I drove from the high desert of Washington state through the mountains of British Columbia to the prairies of Saskatchewan, where I was in college. The ten-hour journey took me through the towns of Bonners Ferry, Hope, Golden, Banff, Drumheller, Rosetown, Medicine Hat, and Swift Current. I had never been on roads so lonely and long, especially the one from Calgary to Saskatoon. Sometimes, in the core of winter, when it was so cold that it wouldn’t snow, I drove in fear that if I slid into the ditch, I would freeze to death. But I was also fascinated by the North. I was reading Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and anything else about the Canadian north that I could get my hands on. Aretha van Herk’s The Tent Peg, the story of a woman who passes as a man and lives among men in the Yukon looking for uranium, crystalized the place for me. That, and the aurora borealis. Many times I made the winter car journey in darkness and on little sleep, and I would pull over on the shoulder to watch the auroras flash across the sky in ragged blues and greens. One night, when I was so tired that I couldn’t go any further, I stopped for gas, and the attendant told me that the light comes from the sun reflecting off the polar ice. I later discovered that this is not true. The auroras are produced by electrical currents and solar winds speeding through the atmosphere. Still, the idea of heat and cold making light kept me awake for a few more hours. The stale coffee helped, too.


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A poet friend once told me that bioluminescence and bio-reflection intrigue us because “we are all luminescent beings.” A neurologist I know confirmed this, saying that memory is created when tiny electrical and chemical charges move through our nerve cells. In some brain scans, he said, these memories glow like jellyfish.


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During my childhood in the 1960s, my mother took my three brothers and me to Mukilteo beach north of Seattle whenever we were restless and she had gas money. On top she dressed us in red wool caps and nylon jackets zipped to our necks, but on bottom we were in shorts and bare feet. She sat on a driftwood log, reading a paperback, while we caught tide-pool crabs and stared into their eyes, as marbly as those of baby dolls. With plastic buckets we built castles that collapsed under their own weight because the sand was so coarse. Sometimes our mother cried as she watched us, and we kept our distance because we didn’t understand adult regret, and even if we had, we didn’t know how to make her feel better. We loved the moon jellies the most, but they were the hardest to find. We had to wade deep into the kelp-dark water, and sometimes we scraped a shin or ankle against the barnacled rocks. The jellies looked formless and would have been invisible to us except for the fact that they glowed, as if their iridescence held them together, discs of heat in the icy waters of Puget Sound.


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Neurological flashes and bioluminescence emit meaning through light. They are natural metaphors for one another. In fact, the words we use to describe some of these natural phenomena—incandescence, luminosity—are the same ones we use to talk about emotional intensity. It isn’t so strange, then, that in the memory of the fireflies I can taste the passion of middle age, in the aurora borealis I can feel the fear of death, and in the moon jellies I can hear my mother crying.

 


 
 
D.J. Lee is a professor of literature and creative writing at Washington State University, with a BFA from Bennington College. She has published numerous articles and edited three collections focused on the literature and history of the nineteenth century. She is the author of Romantic Liars: Obscure Women Who Became Imposters and Challenged an Empire; Literature, Science and Exploration in the Romantic Era: Bodies of Knowledge and Slavery and the Romantic Imagination. She is currently editing a collection of essays called Personal Stories/Public Lands for Oxford University Press and working on a travelogue/memoir/history of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of Idaho and Montana. She has won the Suzanne M. Glasscock Humanities Book Prize for Interdisciplinary Scholarship, a National Endowment for the Humanities and a Charles A Ryskamp Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, as well as participating in a number of writing conferences. Creative work is forthcoming in Drum Literary Magazine, Paper Darts, Montreal Review and TINGE Magazine.