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Finding Time for Life’s Tiny Blessings

A swarm of bright little bugs inspire a busy mom to remember what's important in life.

Jennie Ivey and her husband George are awed by fireflies

“You look stressed,” my husband, George, said, peering over my shoulder as I typed furiously on my laptop. The glare of the computer screen was hurting my eyes, but I had a newspaper column to finish, plus some changes in a book I was writing due to my editor soon.

I barely had the time for either between making health-care arrangements for my elderly mother and staying on top of our three teenagers’ jam-packed schedules. Stressed? I guess you could call it that.

“Well, I’ve got just the thing for you,” George said. “Firefly season is here, and guess what? Elkmont Campground had a cancellation. I nabbed the campsite for us. We can get away from it all.”

An impromptu camping trip to the Great Smoky Mountains? Really? “You actually want to load up all that stuff and head for the woods?” I asked.

There had been a time when I would have been psyched about a weekend in the Smokies. We live in middle Tennessee, just a couple of hours away from the nation’s most-visited national park, and had spent many happy weekends there when the kids were young.

We took wildflower hikes in the spring and basked in the beauty of the changing leaves in the fall. We waded through cold streams and hiked mountain trails, and encountered the occasional black bear. But we hadn’t been back to the park in years. Who had the time?

Firefly season was the one thing we’d never witnessed. Of the more than 170 species of fireflies in the United States, Photinus carolinus, the ones that appear in the Smoky Mountains in early June are unique.

They’re the only species in this hemisphere that synchronize their flashing light patterns. For two weeks every summer, the fireflies put on a show. Then they’re gone.

George persisted. “We’ve always wanted to see the fireflies. Now’s our chance.”

I turned away from the computer and rubbed my eyes. “Well, I suppose I can bring my laptop…”

The kids opted out. “I’ve got my summer job,” our 19-year-old reminded us. “I have plans with my friends,” our 18-year-old protested. “I can’t miss my baseball game,” said our 16-year-old.

George wasn’t having any of my excuses though. Thursday night we loaded our pickup truck with camping essentials. Groceries. Sleeping bags. Firewood. Raingear. Flashlights. The list went on and on.

Could this trip possibly be worth all the trouble it took to get ready for it? Please, Lord, I begged, my stress level is going through the roof! Make sure I have time on this trip for my e-mail, my work…the important things.

We arrived at the campground near Jakes Creek early on Friday morning and spent the next couple of hours hauling water and gathering kindling. The second we finished, I rifled through my purse for my cell phone.

It had been hours since I’d checked my messages. The illustrations for my book had been all wrong and I’d been going back and forth with my editor. I finally found the phone and flipped it open. No service!

Well, at least I could check my e-mail. No, I couldn’t. No Wi-Fi in the wilderness. It had been so long since I’d gone off the grid that I’d forgotten what getting away from it all really meant. I was marooned.

I opened my laptop to do some writing. It wouldn’t turn on. I forgot to charge it! Of course there were no outlets at the campsite. I put it away. So much for the important things I had to do.

It was a weird feeling, having nothing to keep me busy or even distracted. How was I going to fill the time until darkness fell?

Too bad I hadn’t brought my iPod. Or that stack of magazines I’d been meaning to read. Or at least brought the bank statement along so I could balance the checkbook.

I looked around. Where did George go? I wondered.

I found him not far from our campsite, sitting on a big flat rock in the middle of Jakes Creek, his feet dangling in the cold clear water. He patted the place beside him. “I saved you a spot.”

I waded out, sat down and followed George’s gaze. The fading sunlight peeked through the leaves of the towering trees that grew along the creek bank and threw shadows across the water. I felt a tickle at my feet and looked down. Brook trout were swimming within inches of our toes.

We watched other campers spread checkered cloths onto picnic tables and ready their cookfires. The aromas made my stomach rumble.

“Ready for dinner?” George asked. He grabbed my hand as we hopped off our rock and splashed ashore. My feet were numb and tingly from the icy water. It felt good, really good.

We roasted hot dogs and heated pork-and-beans over our fire, with toasted marshmallows for dessert. Then we tossed a Frisbee around and played some cards. Finally, a ranger came by, handing out rubber bands and small squares of red cellophane.

“Put these on your flashlights before you head to the woods tonight,” he said, “so you won’t disturb the fireflies.”

Twilight came and folks began making their way along the rutted road to the Jakes Creek trailhead, one of the prime spots for firefly viewing. George and I joined the parade. Some lugged folding chairs or carried quilts to spread on the rocky ground.

Even the youngest children spoke in hushed tones as we settled in under the canopy of trees and waited for the sky to deepen from gray to sapphire to black.

“Look,” George whispered.

In between the ancient trees, the fireflies lit up. Hundreds at first. Then thousands. Maybe even millions. It was impossible to count them all.

A giant cluster of fireflies would twinkle like tiny white Christmas lights for five or six seconds before vanishing in the dark. Five or six seconds later, they would twinkle again.

Up and down the steep mountain road for as far as I could see, a great rolling wave of soft white light. Like an Academy Award-winning special effects but completely real, completely natural. A perfect miracle.

I sat completely still. A peace seeped through me, from the top of my head to the soles of my hiking boots, as if my soul itself were aglow.

Lord, make sure I have time for the important things, I remembered praying. Now, it seemed, I had his answer: Make sure you have time for me.

What makes Photinus carolinus blink in sync when no other fireflies in the western hemisphere do? Most biologists think it involves competition among male fireflies to find a mate.

Other scientists postulate that nature yearns for order and that any living system will tend toward synchronous behavior.

I have a theory of my own. Perhaps when God formed the chain of rocks we know as the Great Smoky Mountains, he decided to add some sublime little insects that, for two brief weeks every summer, invite us to leave our cell phones, computers and other gadgets behind and to settle onto a quilt in the quiet darkness. To help us slow down and remember what life is all about.

These little lights didn’t hurt my eyes. They opened them, wide.

Watch a slideshow of beautiful images of fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains.

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