By Tom Poland
Among sedges and along tree lines, across lawns and fields they’ll soon cease blinking. Maybe they’ve already ended their nights of miraculous lights. The experts say they left in August. They being lantern bugs, lightning bugs, or fireflies. I call them fireflies and lightning bugs. I suspect you do too.
They’re beetles, these tiny purveyors of cold light. Flashing like passing ships in the night, they mean more to me than you might think. The first magazine feature I wrote was “Mysteries of the Fireflies Light.” I wrote it for South Carolina Wildlife magazine’s July-August issue in 1979. You don’t forget your first kiss and a writer never forgets that first feature. That was long ago but writing it remains clear in memory. I wrote it in longhand on a yellow legal pad on the screen porch of a Pawley’s Island beach house. I took great care to rewrite it seven times, and later, back in my office, typed it with great care. Multiple times, changing it always. The computer and its ability to create ongoing, infinite drafts waited some six or seven years off. I wrote the old way, perhaps the best way—pen against paper.
I worked for what is now the South Carolina Department of Natural Resource’s film unit back then. I wrote scripts for documentaries about the eastern brown pelican, sand dunes, black water rivers, loggerhead sea turtles, and more. I had never written a feature but my lightning bug assignment was about to change that. It excited and worried me. Failure was not an option.
A staff artist, the late Joe Byrne, illustrated my feature. The gloaming is coming on strong. Six winged stars brighten an indigo sky. A female on a blade of grass signals to a male close by. A constellation of five males hovers in the intensifying indigo. One male hovers near her. He seems to have won out over the other males. Joe rendered a gorgeous work of art.
Writing that feature meant a lot to me. First, I have always loved lightning bugs. I cannot separate memories of my homeplace without seeing the little beetles flash at dusk. Mystery is right. As a boy their light fascinated me. Sure, science can explain their cool light but what magic to see them twinkling along the edge of woods, flying in their J-shaped configurations.
Second, being a Journalism graduate from the University of Georgia I wanted to break into print. Here was my chance. I loved film and print equally well when I worked at what is today’s South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, but print is reader accessible—columns, features, and books come to mind.
That first feature on lightning bugs led to the editorship of three magazines and multitudes of features. So many I’ve lost count. In many ways feature writing has taken me on a journey to unforgettable people and places. It changed my life.
Hard to believe it was fourty-four years ago when I wrote my first feature. Even harder to believe is the fact that South Carolina Wildlife magazine will commemorate its 70th anniversary in 2024. A lot of the people I worked with are no longer among us, Joe Byrne included. Many scattered like a covey of South Georgia quail. Memories and the work endure.
Little Tommy had no clue where life would take him back when he imprisoned lightning bugs in Mason jars. Not good, my breaking their life cycle, my killing them. My path to atonement, Redemption Way you could say, lay in the future. My feature would teach others a bit about the phenomenal little bugs that light up the night and something more. They light up our life.
Georgia native Tom Poland writes a weekly column about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and culture and speaks frequently to groups in the South. Governor Henry McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon Tom, South Carolina’s highest civilian honor, stating, “His work is exceptional to the state.” Poland’s work appears in books, magazines, journals, and newspapers throughout the South.
Visit Tom’s website at www.tompoland.net
Email him at [email protected]