Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Summer in the Heartsick Mountains

Art by Angelica Alzona
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

On a nearly moonless night in late May, as I stumbled down a wide, smooth path near a large campground in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it suddenly occurred to me that I can’t see in the dark anymore. I’m not sure when I lost this ability, since I hardly ever get to test it these days; most of my life has been overrun by screens, chargers, street lamps, track lighting, exit signs, the reddish-orange skyglow that muddles city nights. I walked for a bit with my head perpendicular to the ground, eyes straining, before remembering that I was supposed to be looking up, towards the sparse, rhythmic lights dancing in my peripheral vision.

I’d traveled to Gatlinburg, Tennessee to visit Lynn Faust, 62, a naturalist and firefly researcher who is considered a leading expert on fireflies in the Smoky Mountain region. Since fireflies aren’t pests or pollinators—making research funding limited—relatively few people study them, and those who do seem to recognize some vital thing about them that the rest of us haven’t noticed. Most famous among Faust’s research subjects is the Smoky Mountain Synchronous Firefly, or Photinus carolinus, whose males flash simultaneously in a seemingly miraculous, alien rhythm. The carolinus adults had begun to emerge, and I wanted to be there as Faust discovered what had become of them.

At the time of my visit, Gatlinburg and the surrounding area were still recovering from a catastrophic and deadly firestorm, the biggest Tennessee had seen in over a hundred years. Faust’s family lost one-and-a-half of their businesses; the mayor lost his house. The fire hadn’t hit the Elkmont campground in the Smoky Mountains, where the carolinus live, but the preceding drought certainly had, and she wasn’t sure what we would find.

When I first spoke to Faust and decided I wanted to travel to meet her, I learned that fireflies are an “indicator species,” a group of animals that help communicate the general well-being of the surrounding habitat to scientists. They are, Faust told me, “the canaries in the coal mine.” When fireflies disappear from an area, it’s a visual note that something has gone wrong in that habitat. And a lot has gone wrong.

“Everybody remembers more [fireflies] when they were little,” Faust said. “There’s so much more light pollution, so much more environmental pollution, so much more fragmentation of habitat”—that is, the dissolution of large habitats into smaller, detached chunks. “And everything’s having trouble with that, it’s not just the fireflies.”

I was looking for something else in the Smokies, too, some way of making concrete a sad, slow pull of alienation I’d been feeling nearly every time I walked outside. Watching disasters unfold from behind a laptop every day, as my profession requires, seems to have that effect. What will this be like in 30 years? I would think to myself, relentlessly, as the guilt mounted over the main choices in my adult life: of occupation (too much computer time), of city (too few trees), and of the fact that I haven’t really been around the part of the country where I grew up to say goodbye.

This feeling isn’t unique to me, or even to this century. Zadie Smith, in a 2014 essay on climate change, called it “the intimate loss of the things we loved,” especially “the seemingly small things.” The landscape painter Thomas Cole, writing from the Catskills in 1836, seethed about “the ravages of the axe” he was witnessing, the “road” we’d built for ourselves “with so many unnecessary windings.” I followed the fireflies to Tennessee because to me, they seemed like lights marking a guardrail that’s slowly coming down, blurring the boundaries of a world we thought would always be there, just as it was.

Fireflies, also called lightning bugs or glow worms, are a uniquely charismatic insect. They live on every continent except for Antarctica, and although not everyone grew up around fireflies or cares about them, they’re still unusually well-loved around the world for their beauty and their innocuousness.

“Few insects in our climes vie in popular fame with the Glow-worm, that curious little animal which, to celebrate the little joys of life, kindles a beacon at its tail end,” French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre wrote in 1913. They don’t bite, they don’t sting, they don’t spread disease, or make disconcerting noises. They’re just pretty lights in the background, as though conjured solely for our own aesthetic enjoyment, or as a comforting reminder of some ancient visual pitter-patter outside of human control. I don’t like most bugs, to put it politely, but I have a reel of early memories of myself standing somewhere in the dark, a firefly glowing green in the soft space between my thumb and forefinger.

Strong anecdotal evidence indicates that at least some firefly species are beginning to disappear, a piecemeal discovery that gained momentum around 2008 after researchers began comparing notes at the second annual International Firefly Symposium in Thailand. Light pollution is believed to be a major factor, and one Faust emphasized in our first conversation. Although she didn’t put it quite so dramatically, it seemed to me that their lights are dimming as our own, both figuratively and literally, become brighter; blinding, even. (Faust has spent a good deal of time trying to convince her neighbors to turn off their floodlights.)

“We all know it, particularly people my age, when there were so many fewer people and so much less light,” she told me. “I mean, a lot of Tennessee wasn’t even electrified when I was little.” Today, 80 percent of the world’s population lives under what’s known as “skyglow”—99 percent, in the U.S. and Europe—and artificial light pollution undermines the natural rhythms of all sorts of creatures, such as sea turtles, and plankton, and human beings.

The remaining culprit is thought by researchers to be some combination of habitat destruction and the proliferation of pesticides and other pollutants—typical hallmarks of human encroachment. There are simply fewer safe places for fireflies—for anything, really—to live. High temperatures aren’t necessarily a problem for fireflies (it’s possible that they could even benefit from it, extending their geographic range), but they need moist environments, especially in their larval state, so drought, too, poses a risk, particularly as climate change increases those droughts’ intensity and range.

We are, in fact, barreling into what scientists are arguing is the planet’s sixth mass extinction—or “a biological annihilation,” as Rodolfo Dirzo, a Stanford biology professor and researcher, recently put it. And in that context, it’s hard to see how the anecdotal evidence about fireflies could be wrong; in 2014, another study co-authored by Dirzo found that 67 percent of the world’s invertebrates had declined by 45 percent over the last four decades.

Thankfully, the situation with fireflies is more nuanced. Some firefly species seem to be doing quite well, in fact—the “Big Dipper” fireflies, for example, who come out at dusk and are the most common North American species, were seen in unusual quantities in New York City this summer. Some of the threats to vulnerable firefly species, like light pollution, are a result of ongoing actions that we, theoretically, could choose to stop taking at any time, if we followed the lead of places like Taiwan by collectively opting to change the way we interact with fireflies. And in comparison to, say, ecosystem engineers (coral reefs, beavers) or pollinators (bees, bats, butterflies), even if every firefly species managed to go extinct, it wouldn’t necessarily be a catastrophe for any other species.

But fireflies, for a long time, have helped humans tell ourselves the knotty, paradoxical story of who we think we are. Quechua speakers in the Andes call fireflies añañahui, or “ghost eyes.” One Japanese legend contends that two common Japanese species, the Genji-hotaru and Heike-hotaru, are the spirits of warriors from opposing sides of the 12th century Genpei War. There is no shortage of bad poetry and sentimental children’s stories about fireflies in American women’s magazines from the 20th century, many connected to ideas about childhood, nostalgia, possibility, and leisure—fireflies seem to be firmly placed inside the white picket fence of the traditional American dream. In Western culture alone, they carry “a vast network of associations including such distinct and even contradictory significances as childhood, crop, doom, elves, fear, habitat change, idyll, love, luck, mortality, prostitution, solstice, stars and fleetingness of words and cognition,” wrote Stefan Ineichen, a firefly researcher in Switzerland, in a 2016 paper published in Advances in Zoology and Botany.

“For children in the past, fireflies were familiar and reassuring,” Dr. Nobuyoshi Ohba, a famed Japanese firefly researcher, recalled in the 2015 short documentary Brilliant Darkness: Hotaru in the Night. “Japanese fireflies like the Genji and Heike live close to us, in rice fields and rivers,” he said. “Our relationship with fireflies developed into a spiritual culture over a very long time. We need to think about what happens to this spiritual culture when the fireflies disappear.”

On the rainy drive to Gatlinburg from the airport, I passed the bright lights of Pigeon Forge, a tourist town tucked in a valley that used to be Cherokee hunting ground. I’d been to Pigeon Forge before—I grew up a few hours away—but it seemed more frantic than I remembered. A glowing ferris wheel spun behind cowboy boot stores and a Paula Deen restaurant, the thick surrounding forest bearing down on both sides. A few minutes drive away, Gatlinburg, plunked down right at the edge of the 520,000 acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is less garish, although the main drag still functions as a kind of quaint-ified theme park. As I drove through, the sidewalks were packed with families happily milling in and out of candy shops and arcades.

The lush, humid Smoky Mountains are considered a temperate rainforest at certain elevations, but a drought categorized as “exceptional” had swept the region hard last year. By the time the fire hit Gatlinburg on November 28, firefighters had already been battling blazes across seven states in the southeast, a region that isn’t used to fighting fires. A flawed evacuation process took place, and not everyone got out in time.

Initially believed to be started by a pair of teenagers at the Chimney Tops trail inside the national park (prosecutors dropped all charges in June, citing “unprecedented, unexpected and unforeseeable wind” as the reason the fire made it all way into Gatlinburg), the “Chimney Tops 2 Fire” eventually killed 14 people, injured nearly 200 and destroyed around 1700 homes and businesses in Sevier County.

Six months later, things were getting back to normal in Gatlinburg, although the terrible shock of this had not quite lifted. When I asked around about it, one vendor launched into a tirade against local Gatlinburg officials, and an arcade manager said simply, “It was weird,” then paused, seemingly at a loss for words.

As I turned off the strip, signs of the fire became more noticeable, though a loud reconstruction effort was well underway. Surviving trees lined the road, wet leaves resting defiantly over blackened roots. Scorched cinderblocks marked the spot where a small house once stood. The hotel where I was staying had escaped the fire mostly intact, although guests had been trapped inside for a while, staring out at the approaching inferno while smoke filled the building. My room had a view of the deep green cushiony mountains, scarred here and there with slashes of prickly dead trees.

I met Faust not far from here, at her campsite in the Elkmont campground, a thirty minute drive from the park’s entrance at the far end of the town. The campground was broken up into a sprawling array of orderly blocks, packed with cars and RVs and kids shrieking down the rapids of the Little River. When the sun went down we’d have to go elsewhere to watch the fireflies; it was too bright here.

I found her sitting at a picnic table, munching on cherries and carefully copying figures into a notebook. Faust is easygoing and generous, with a short no-nonsense bob and a trunk packed with leftovers. She speaks in a familiar, excitable twang. We spent a lot of time talking about the fire.

“We had a lot of people die, and lose their livelihoods, lose their jobs, their homes,” she told me wearily, as the light began to fade overhead. “It’s a tourist town, so [there are] people in rental cabins that aren’t familiar with the mountain roads. The thing hit in the dark, some of ‘em went to lock their door that night or close their curtains and looked out and just saw flames.”

Faust, who recently published Fireflies, Glow-Worms, and Lightning Bugs, the first major field guide to North American fireflies, is laser-focused on understanding the specific life habits of her subjects, but her research doesn’t involve the global forces that are impacting them. “Just ask me about fireflies,” she pleaded, when I brought up climate change. In a later conversation, Faust told me that she doesn’t expect to see a drought or a fire that big in her area again, a belief I found surprising. She isn’t convinced that humans are fully responsible for climate change, though she does think we have “a huge ability to mess things up.”

“I get so much joy outside, it gives my soul peace,” she explained in a phone call in August. She knows we can change the natural world for the worse—she’s seen it—but believes, as many people still do (though not many scientists), that we can’t alter nature’s underlying course.

Faust, who was originally a forensic anthropologist, bases her expertise in 25 years of field work and dozens of published studies, which has earned her a place as a consultant with BBC Nature, the Discovery Channel, and National Geographic. Her career as a firefly expert began in a rather unusual way, after she was credited with the revelation that synchronous fireflies exist in the Western hemisphere. They’d previously been believed to only exist in Southeast Asia, but Faust had watched them from her crib in rural Tennessee. She’d belatedly realized something very unusual was in her backyard. Today, thousands of visitors from all 50 states—the lucky winners of a competitive lottery system—gather annually at Elkmont to see the carolinus at their peak.

“You start noticing things in a different way when you know you’re going to lose ‘em,” Faust recalled, as we gazed at the desolate, glass-strewn patch of cleared forest where she’d grown up. She had spent her summers a short walk away from the campground in the Elkmont Historic District, a former logging town that in 1934 suddenly found itself inside the newly-designated Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Elkmont’s remaining tenants, including Faust’s family, were finally evicted from their storybook cabins in 1992. As it became clear that they’d lose the cabin and its accompanying fireflies, she says, she began to study them in earnest. To a more extreme degree than most, for Faust, fireflies are entirely wrapped up in her concept of home.

We spent part of the day walking through the remnants of the little village, whose close-knit community had clung onto their land and their traditions as the forest sprung up around them. Former inhabitants, including Faust, say that Elkmont served as inspiration for Walt Disney’s Snow White. I could almost see her memories of this place; she spoke about it as though she’d been thrust from Eden. Decades after the eviction itself, and half a year after her family lost their motel and about half of their timber business to the fire, the Faust cabin was finally torn down by the park.

“It was like losing a loved one,” she told me later in a phone conversation. “My son went up and said, ‘Mom, I can’t even tell where anything is.’ It’s very disorienting. I spent every year of my life up there. ”

As we walked, smelling the familiar trees, my own memories surfaced of the times I’d been here before, and how orderly everything had seemed then. I remembered a pair of teenage girls fussing over me in a shallow river, a streak of silver on my hand from a smooth gray river rock, and a class trip I took years later, the fall light reflected in the glint of a classmate’s blonde bowl cut as we marched single-file through the amber leaves.

There’s still so much we don’t know about fireflies, but Faust, along with a small coterie of other researchers from around the world, has dedicated her life to figuring them out.

The firefly is actually a beetle, part of the insect order Coleoptera, and there are a mind-boggling 2,000 or so known species that one could reasonably call “firefly.” Not all fireflies emit light as adults, but to be a part of the firefly family, Lampyridae, they must have the ability to glow at the larval stage. Not all fireflies can fly, either. About a quarter of firefly species have females without functioning wings, and these “glow worms,” as they’re called, are the only type of firefly that lives in Northern Europe (the glow worm and her “uneffectual fire” was a favorite trope of Shakespeare’s). A firefly, like all beetles, goes through complete metamorphosis—from egg to larva to pupa and on to adulthood—and its life is divided, with a few exceptions, into two dramatic phases: food, then sex, an existence “full of contradictions,” as biologist and Tufts ecology professor Sara Lewis writes in her 2016 book Silent Sparks.

The flashing adult male we picture when we think of a firefly is “just the tip of the firefly iceberg,” Lewis, who has collaborated with Faust on several studies, explained excitedly in a phone call. “These adults are only active for two weeks, but in most of North America, an individual firefly will live for about two years. They spend most of that time in juvenile stages that occupy a completely different habitat than adults, and they have a whole different lifestyle.”

For up to two years, firefly larva will wiggle around hunting snails and other soft-bodied insects, paralyzing their much-larger prey with venom and slurping them up alive. By the time they transform into adults, their appetite has disappeared, replaced entirely with a frantic need for sex—hence, the flashing. While Faust and I walked back toward the Elkmont cabins, near where the carolinus were supposed to emerge, she cheerfully explained to me why firefly sex lasts such a long time.

“Well, it’s a form of mate-guarding,” Faust said as we made our way onto a wide dirt path. “We think the actual transfer of the sperm takes about 45 minutes, but the male stays with her to make sure no one else’s sperm gets inside.” The more competitors there are lurking around, the longer the sex can last; the most extended coitus she’d seen was a stunning eight days, though it often lasts around 12-14 hours, depending on the species of firefly. (That particular relationship only ended when the male died, still hooked to his long-suffering mate.)

Species’ flashes also range in color from greenish to yellow to deep amber, although they mostly look white to me. Based on her own observations, Faust contends that the younger you are, the better you can see their colors.

Around 9:30 p.m., the forest around us began to softly transform. The air was starting to blink, or glitch, almost, like wiggling code on an old computer screen. Each firefly species emerges on a strict schedule, and at roughly 30 minutes past sunset, the carolinus were right on time. The signature carolinus flash pattern is technically “discontinuous”—it’s comprised of six flashes total and then an equivalent period of darkness. As we walked further, unobtrusive pinpoint flashlights aimed at our feet, the forest surrounding us was becoming a kind of spinning universe, soft, sparse stars twinkling in not-quite-perfect unison. It was reassuring, like a silent lullaby. Our voices lowered, in deference to the spectacle, I think, more than anything, because there’s no evidence that they can hear.

It was a slow night, comparatively, although I’d never seen anything like it. Faust determined that only about 30 percent of the carolinus population was out, and since the females, not yet adults, hadn’t emerged yet to provide their brief double-flash reply, the males were alone, uselessly broadcasting their romantic yearnings into the cold, empty night. Faust’s calculations had indicated that more synchronous fireflies, if not all, should have been visible at that point. And as it turns out, the carolinus population that night was the biggest it ever got. By now, Faust and other experts have concluded that the drought conditions that previous fall, during their larval stage, must have led to this year’s population crash—along with the demolition of her childhood village, which is right in the middle of their habitat.

“I’m heartsick,” she told me during a phone call in August. She wasn’t sure if the “light show,” as her mother had named it, would ever return to its original glory.

As we watched, we continually moved further back into the forest in an effort to dodge other firefly watchers who’d come to catch the early show, armed with giant lanterns and flashlights. Every time they caught up with us, the fireflies seemed to disappear, reemerging only when darkness was restored. Unsurprisingly, since they use their flashes to communicate, studies suggest that artificial light disturbs firefly courtship behavior. Faust said she sometimes regrets giving up the secret of the Elkmont fireflies, who now have to contend with onlookers waving bright lights around, disrupting the performance they came to see. It would be much worse soon after I left, when the annual shuttles started rolling in with thousands of tourists (destined, at least this year, for disappointment).

“Ecotourism for fireflies is picking up,” Tufts professor Sara Lewis told me during our phone conversation. “It’s a double-edged sword. It’s great, because it’s an opportunity for people to really connect to these insects, but it also means that there’s a lot of people who are trampling into firefly habitat.”

There was something really sad about this, that so many of us still feel the pull of nature but increasingly don’t know what to do with it, or even how to be near it. Until the ashes start falling from a strange yellow sky, or a pair of overgrown hurricanes wash everything away, modern life doesn’t require that intimacy of everyone.

“There are 38 children on my road, and I’m outside every single day,” Faust told me of the area around her home, a farm in the Knoxville area. “And I never, ever see children anymore. They’re just not outside. That, I think, frightens me more than anything.”

The late scholar Svetlana Boym argued that nostalgia, as a concept, was amplified by industrialization, as people began to long for “the slower rhythms of the past.” Nostalgia, Boym wrote, “offers a comforting collective script for individual longing,” though it generally deals with a simplified, idealized version of the past. As I walked around Elkmont with Faust, I felt like I was drowning in it—her nostalgia for her beloved summer home, and the predictable way things used to be; mine, for a time when I spent significant parts of my life outside, and it didn’t feel like things were falling apart.

During that first phone conversation with Faust, I became captivated by something I hadn’t given much thought since childhood, as though fireflies are some exotic marvel and not a beetle I used to chase around my backyard. One that captured my attention in particular is called the Blue Ghost. The Blue Ghost, or Phausis reticulata, is about the size of a grain of rice. The males emit an eerie, continuous bluish-green glow, floating low above the forest floor in an effort to scan for their wingless mates. I watched them with Faust in the Smokies, transfixed. From a short distance, they look as much like fairies as anything could.

The exposed, largely immobile Blue Ghost females, Faust told me, live out their short lives with remarkable fortitude.“If you threaten her—we use a feather—she’ll very reluctantly abandon the clutch of eggs, and she’ll scuttle away and hide under a leaf,” she said. “Within seconds she peeks back out, comes back. And she will cradle those eggs until she dies.”

It struck me as possible, as I stared at these tiny blue lights hugging an invisible hillside, that someday the firefly will grow to symbolize a different kind of nostalgia: a collective longing for a more innocent time, when we lived with magic and failed to consider its fragility. After spending time with Faust, I came to see fireflies not just as a symbol of my own youth, but of the entire landscape that hosted it, and a future that had seemed, at the time, guaranteed. I found myself visualizing my childhood home, with its familiar smells and scratched-up furniture and a million memories tucked in the walls. What would happen if the house came down?