Friday, August 28, 2009

Things That Go "Blink" in the Night

As a kid growing up in Southern California, I was captivated by the idea of "lightning bugs". They seemed about as real to me as

dragons or unicorns. Whenever these fanciful fireflies ever came up during class in grade school, there was always some lucky kid who'd actually seen them, like on a family vacation or something. I was so envious! I even recall a teacher who'd grown up among them, regaling us with tales of their niftyness. And those children's stories of collecting fireflies in a jar and using them to light the way home―like how cool is that!

Imagine my delight at witnessing a winged flash in the flesh for the very first time. By then I was university educated and wise to the ways of bioluminescence. Yet I experienced the moment with my giddy inner child―a unicorn come to life! On passing more and more time in humid tropical climes, I've come to appreciate the diversity and ubiquity of "lighting bugs"―yet they never cease to thrill me!

There's one here on the Osa that glimmers with a faint luminous green gleam, then suddenly fires up to a glowing hot orange as it takes to wing, as though igniting a second stage booster rocket. Then there are those big ones with the pair of headlamp beacons that actually illuminate leaves, branches, walls, and ceilings as they fly by, like the landing lights on a 747. I still vividly recall walking down a dirt road one night on Nicaragua's Pacific coast.

There had been a hatch of fireflies; thousands of twinkling pinpricks of light. With the incessant blinking and constantly shifting visual frame of my walking pace, it was like watching a collage of images from the Hubble Telescope deep space view―far better than any laser light show from my rock 'n roll youth.

Last night I got up to pee and saw a lightning bug on the wing, its green navigation lamp bright enough to illuminate the floor of my open-air bedroom. It flew along, a slow pulsing glow, gradually homing in on the steady green blink - blink - blink of the solar charge controller at the opposite end of the room. My firefly

converged on the rhythmic LED, seemingly intent on fulfilling a timeless ritual, and then went dark, as if embarrassed to have been tricked by a winking mechanical counterfeit.

As I awakened early the next morning, my mind replayed the blinking ballet between my mythical firefly and the cold white metal circuit board box. I recall thinking at the time that I must get my flashlight and check this out, then remembered that my light was downstairs, so I just laid back to resume my slumbers. But as I roused myself in the dim light of dawn, I started to wonder; had I really witnessed a false mating play between insect and LED? Or had I imagined it all in a sleepy waking dream state?

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