Some of my most endearing and memorable childhood memories involve fireflies. I grew up in a suburban rural community next to a waterbody, where summer twilights were special. After sunset, hundreds of fireflies would blink their way into the forest and my imagination. Chasing them, holding them, and letting them fly away was a pure joy never to be attained in any other way. My childhood twinkles brightly, in many parts, because of these fireflies. When something is so special, my son must endow it from me.
One problem with that idea… California has no fireflies.
Solution… The Appalachian does!
Thus, the other week, Rishabh and I flew cross-country with the specific intent of seeing fireflies in Appalachian mountains and forests, where many firefly species exist and display their fiery mating rituals for a few summer weeks. Of all these species, Photinus carolinous is special; this species has attained popularity as synchronous fireflies of the Smoky Mountains. As males of this mysterious species synchronize their flashing, the entire forest blinks in unison – like an IMAX theater displaying a fluid form of Van Gogh's 'Starry night'. Thousands of flying fireflies flash about six times synchronously, and then after a brief period of total darkness, the cycle is repeated. This light show occurs only in a handful of places in the world and for a few scores of hours every year. If that is not exclusive enough, these fireflies do not flash if it rains, which it often does in these humid mountains around this time of the year. They also refuse to fly and fire if its too cold. Last but not the least, they are bothered significantly by any other light source and therefore are best viewed in secluded areas.
Because of such inbuilt rarity, synchronous fireflies have captured the public’s imagination. Thousands flock to trails near the Little River Valley in Elkmont, where the largest concentration of synchronous fireflies are reported within the Great Smoky Mountain national park. When we arrived at sunset, trails in Elkmont looked like a county fair without an admission fee; there were lots of people everywhere with their bug sprays, umbrellas, lawn chairs, kids and babies, and eagerness to experience something unique and uncapturable on video. While I appreciate everyone’s interest in nature, however, those crowded trails were a far cry from memories of my childhood, where I would often be the only one playing with fires of the darkness. Neverland can't be this crowded.
After diligent research, Rishabh and I found several alternative options. Over the next five consecutive nights, we saw, shot, and played with fireflies in several non-traditional locations spread across three national parks. The image presented above is of one such location by the Roaring Fork stream in the Great Smoky Mountains, where two kids – Rishabh and I – were the only witness to the firefly show. Standing within that mute orchestra of light and beauty, I realized why bluegrass music could have originated nowhere else, but only in this land of synchronous symphonies.
Technical information: The displayed EXIF data are for the background forest, which was shot at twilight before firefly flashing began. The image is a composite of several 20 second exposures (ISO 3200, f/2.8) shot later at the exact same location.