48 Hours of Darkness

Enlightenment

Literally, it means “into the light”; formed from “en-“ meaning in or into, and “light.”

Coming out of winter and emerging from its gloomy gray cast, we welcome the coming light of spring and summer. First, with the myriad greens of life and soft spring rain. Then, the brutal rays of the blinding summer sun and intense afternoon storms.

Hermann Hesse writes in Siddhartha that “When someone seeks, then it easily happens that his eyes see only the thing that he seeks, and he is able to find nothing…”

Similarly, Nikola Tesla wrote “… the more we know, the more ignorant we become in the absolute sense…”

It is during these summer months of intense light that in the dark, we see life the best.

In the 1970’s a seasonal interpretive ranger named Richard Hilton was working for Tennessee State Parks. It is said that he was known for his night wanderings, general child-like curiosity of the natural world, and overall eccentricity. One night while wandering Pickett State Park, he stopped in at Hazard Cave. After a steep and dark climb down to the entrance, he was met with a subtle, eerie, blue glow tucked between the ferns and lining the sandstone walls.

Photo Credit: Alan Cressler. Orfelia fultoni at Hazard Cave in Pickett State Park, Tennessee

Richard Hilton was unguarded in his curiosity and it brought him great reward. For most of us though, we need some hand-holding in the arena of enlightenment. We struggle with the paradox of how to seek it without seeking it, and so we look to our religious and political leaders, to science, to our philosophers and to our artists to interpret it for us.

I am just waking up from a long mid-day nap, having arrived home this morning at 1 AM from a whirlwind tour of some of our parks in East Tennessee. After a couple days of quick and brutal storms, the light seems particularly harsh today. Our focus these past two days has been on the natural phenomena of the night, and my body still wants to be there.

Just a few hours ago, I was standing in the near-total-darkness of Hazard Cave with four of my coworkers. In silence, we all experienced our own humbling child-like wonder. As our eyes adjusted, we found ourselves blissfully disoriented by the stars that appeared around us in the rock shelter. Ranger Martin had expertly lead us to the back of the shelter and prepared us for what we were about to see. He told us that these lights were emitted from the larvae of Orfelia fultoni (one of only three Genus in the world of Fungus Gnats. iNaturalist refers to it with the common name of “Foxfire Fly” – referring to the glowing fungus.) The larvae are predatory and they emit their soft blue light to collectively appear as stars. This tricks their prey to fly into their light of inverted night sky. Such an evil plan! Appropriate too, that the enzyme responsible for this reaction is named Luciferase.

The previous night, we had also found ourselves mouth-gaping in awe in the pitch black of night at another Luciferase-fueled show. I was giddy for the wonderful summer night in the dense humid forest of Rocky Fork State Park. The lack of light heightened the white noise produced by the rushing creek, full from the pop-up storm shortly before we arrived. The humidity meant we’d see a great display.

I wandered off from the reflective gravel of the parking lot and into the pitch black of the forest. As dusk light faded behind me, the sustained glow of the “Blue Ghosts” appear from the wet humus. They float just above the forest floor and give me the sense that I’m bobbing in a boat that’s sinking in their luminescence. They are the quiet beginning to the show; the dystopian and haunting sound of the string quartet warming up, the anticipatory buzz and glow of the tube amp flicked to “on.” My mind reacts like the sudden hush of an audience and my ears ache from the lack of associated noise.

Then the conductor appears on stage. I notice a bright slow light from high up in the trees. This is green and appears larger than the blue ghosts dancing in front of me and it comes and goes like a lighthouse beacon. She’s not there to save anyone, though. She’s the fatal attraction. In response, there’s suddenly a flash not far from my face. Then a whole echo of sudden flashing. A hoard of lustful males calling back to her, and calling to each other. They’re signing in the night, and I strain my eyes to read their writing on the blank dark canvas of the sweet mountain air. Though, for every word I make out I seem to miss the sentence, so I stop. The show has begun and the main act has arrived. I allow myself to get lost in the performance.

Puppeteered by their reproductive desperation, they flash more intensely with time. They exhaust themselves all together at once for a few seconds then shut off. A stray blue ghost wafts through my frame of vision, reminding me I am not blind. Then again – they all appear and flash desperately. This goes on magically until you feel the air is at capacity with their light. I think I see some come together. I notice some that float up to meet the conductors. It’s when I stop trying to notice just one that I can see them all.

Rocky Fork State Park Synchronous Fireflies

They begin to exhaust themselves in their hot frenzy and the tempo slows. The crowd seems to thin some. The blue ghosts have faded totally, and I struggle to remember the last time I saw one. I find my coworkers and we all pile into the car.

We’re surprisingly exhausted for having just stood around and observed in silence. In the car we find the smallest things hilarious in our delirium and outburst in giggles at nothing over the low volume of the radio. We let the reflective strips of the median on the winding back roads lead us to the cabin at Roan Mountain State Park. We don’t even stay up to socialize, but crash immediately to watch the fireflies dance behind our dreaming eyelids. I rest easy knowing that I am a child again.

I feel enlightened in my 48 hours of darkness. On our red-eye drive back to Nashville from Pickett, my coworker tells me about a quote:

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.’
– G.K. Chesterton

Let us congregate at the church of the natural world and be enlightened in the darkness. We will be led to it by the clergy who protect and preserve it and we will be overwhelmed by a Tao that cannot be spoken. It is our infant wonder, our child-like curiosity surfacing to quiet our aging minds. Let us ask “Do it again” and let us be responsible for making sure it can do it again.

Roan Mountain – Jane’s Bald with Rhododendron

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