Peter Pierson’s writing has been featured in Zen Peacemakers’ Journal, Minnesota Monthly, 5enses, Voices for the Land (Minnesota State Historical Society Press), among other publications. His radio essay work with KAXE/KBXE-Northern Community Radio was recognized with a Minnesota Regional Arts/McKnight Fellowship and has also been produced for Stay Human (KAXE/KBXE and PRX) and CBC Radio One in Canada. A Prescott College M.A. graduate, he now makes home in the Kansas City area.
Photo credit: Radim Schreiber; FireflyExperience.org / CC BY-SA
Frogs discovered their national anthem again.
I didn’t know a ditch could hold so much joy.
Rain fell in a half-hearted pre-dawn light, leaving remnants of winter in spotty patches of gray, dirt and soot-encrusted snow on the drive down for a funeral for a shirttail relative-by-marriage in northwest Iowa. My dad and I got out of the last ring of Twin Cities suburbs and made Saint Peter enough ahead of schedule we could afford a stop for good coffee and fresh blueberry muffins. Back on the road, the landscape opened as we drove up and out of the Minnesota River valley. Steep, wooded hills were replaced by the ratty stubble of last year’s corn. The sun poked through a spring-like haze as we slowed through Bigelow, the last of Minnesota, and past a sign, “Iowa Welcomes You.” At the state line, the road got narrower and a little rougher. The shoulders turned to gravel. We drove on in silence past grain elevators that reappeared on the next horizon beyond every small town.
I must have dozed off. When I awoke, we had turned off the main north-south highway and were heading west on a rolling, even narrower piece of blacktop. We pulled into the small town and cleaned up and adjusted our ties in a gas station rest room. Family—close, distant, and reciprocal, were waiting on the steps of an old church. We gathered inside and listened as the minister asserted a promise of life, no matter, in this case, how short. We walked out of the church and drove slow, single file, through stop signs past the park, the school where my cousins had gone, to a slight, bare hill on the edge of town. We stood silently as family and friends carried the polished wood and brass casket to a stand over a hole in the ground, the soil as black and rich as any on this earth.
A breeze ruffled the awning over the immediate family. Crows called from a ragged oak along the cemetery’s edge, drawing my attention outward from the crowd. Cows milled in the field behind us, grazing, looking up and considering our gathering. I heard the minister’s voice muffled by the wind. “Ashes to ashes,” he simultaneously warned and assured us all. “Dust to dust.”
As my attention came back to the gathering around me, I remembered what I could of the person being laid to the Iowa soil: memories of a childhood where every one of our extended family lived within forty miles of each other; of freckled, gangly childhood bodies and laughter and play around the periphery of clanking bottles and adult conversation about corn and soybean prices.
The next summer I made the drive again, for another funeral. On that July day, I found my affinity with place again as I turned off the main highway, changed shirts at the same gas station, and parked behind the church.
After the service and black soil and requisite church basement ladies auxiliary coffee and egg-salad sandwiches where they still don’t remember me as being this tall, we moved to the home of my aunt’s brother-in-law who we had just laid to rest. Sipping a cold beer on a shaded deck overlooking a backyard that just went on and on, I watched children play a game without rules in the glow of a setting sun tinted a murky red from the smoke and dust of the dry summer in the west. At dusk, distracted by the glow of fireflies along the edge of the wood, the game stopped.
In northern Minnesota, I would watch for the fireflies on evenings in early July, after the first two or three consecutive nights of genuine summer heat, the kind that keeps you out after sunset on a porch or deck past the onset of the evening’s mosquitoes. In the brief time the fireflies have in the North, they came in numbers I have never seen elsewhere. They seem to make up for the short time they, and we, have to spend in those summer twilights with a simple intensity.
As dusk gave way to dark on those first rightful summer nights, I would walk out the wooded drive to my home. American toads trilled from the open areas. A saw-whet owl called from across the stream down the hill from the house. I would see the first glows along the edge of the balsam, aspen, and spruce, flashes of light above the tips of the new grass. At the end of the drive I looked west along the blacktop road, then east. The ditches were filled with light.
Just down the road, forty acres of field opened up by some optimistic homesteader, then abandoned and left to wildflowers and deer, came alive on those first nights of summer. What seemed to be thousands of fireflies sparkled across that field. From the narrow gravel shoulder, I could look down on the dazzling show. Stars glittered above. The fireflies below gave the impression that I was gazing at the reflections of those stars on rippled water at my feet.
My eyes moved from the stage to the dance, from backdrop to detail. I noticed different layers of lights—some high, some low, some down in the grasses and weeds. Some flashed once, a long quivering glow. Some flashed twice, others three times.
I have listened to the amateur entomologist and have been told that to attract a mate or a meal, such differences in flash patterns indicate species and gender. Watching as the evening cooled, though, engrossed by the show before, below, and above me, there seemed to be no need, nor time, for such order.
On another July night, I camped amidst majestic old-growth white pines along the St. Croix River in west central Wisconsin. Pulling our canoes off the water late in the day, we cooked and ate our supper in twilight, listening to barred owls calling along the river bottoms and watching lightning flash in the west. As we finished cleaning up, the storms hit, and hit hard, pinning us in our tents as trees fell and lightning cracked above and around us.
When it passed, we poked our heads out and crawled from our tents. Broken limbs were scattered across the campsite. One tree had fallen on the lone electrical line running near the campsite, arcing at each point of contact. Showers of sparks streamed down to the ground illuminating the scene in an ethereal blue-white glow.
We then saw what looked like more sparks flowing through the trees above us. Untold numbers of fireflies moved in waves from every direction toward the arcing electrical line. They swarmed with the falling sparks in a manic spiraling dance, circling closer and closer to the blinding electrical light where the tree came in contact with the line, immolating themselves as they flew into the heat. Pulsating, flashing fireflies moved with the sparks and dropped from the arcing light drawing tails of smoke to the ground.
I watched in envy as the fireflies continued to come in endless waves. I could only imagine being born to be and do one single thing, to have your life lead to one single point, one single purpose, perhaps one single person, if just for one moment of one night, and to give yourself to it with such attention, such focus, such passion, oblivious, or, better yet, in utter disregard, to the risk.