Sunday, June 15, 2014

26. 腐草為蛍: "Rotten Grass Becomes Fireflies"

(BGM: "Hotaru" by Matsubara Nobue)

Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing
 仲夏, Chuuka: "Mid-summer"
Season No. 9: 芒種, Boushu: 
"Grain In Ear" 

The rice paddies are filled with water and streaked with seedlings. Taue (田植え rice planting) in southern Japan is about half completed. A thick mist hangs over the land, now, hiding the sun and keeping the evenings cool. The conditions are perfect for the most mystifying of Japan's insects to enjoy their time in the limelight.

Climate No. 26: 腐草為蛍
Kusaretarukusa Hotaru To Naru
"Rotten Grass Becomes Fireflies"
(June 10 -June 15) 

The light trails of 2 fireflies flying through the air and landing on my arm.
The Japanese names for every season of the Shichijuni-kou calendar have made sense so far. Yet here we are at a title that sounds rather odd. Rotten grass becoming fireflies? Huh?

Section of a glass art panel depicting fireflies (Toho Glass-no-Sato Park, Hiroshima).
The expression comes from the old Japanese proverb: "fusou hotaru to naru," (腐草蛍と為る) which can be translated to mean "the impossible happens."
We children of the Information Age tend to take our knowledge of the natural world for granted. We know that an insect makes these lights and that contractions in the firefly's abdomen create the proper mixing of chemicals neeeded to make her butt glow (his butt in the case of American fireflies, explained here).

A retired firefly in the final hours of its luminescent life. (Nagahama, Shiga)
But what about the wonderment? Surely, twinkling green lights slowly rising up from river grass and suddenly streaking through the air like electricity must easily seem like an impossibility if one never saw such phenomena before. The expression "rotten grasses become fireflies" is good food for thought that keeps me humble. I don't need to know everything. Sometimes, knowing too much can be a killjoy for not only myself, but for others around me.

I had an experience several years ago that helped me learn how to turn off my over-analytical mind and just enjoy not knowing things for a change:

My husband had never seen fireflies before moving to Japan. One night, while walking down the Seri River in Hikone, Shiga, I noticed an ethereal flash of bioluminescence over the water and recognized it as a firefly (I'd chased them once in the US Mid-West area). Immediately, I tried to get my husband's eyes to lock onto it in the darkness. At first he thought I'd seen a snake and was already tensing up in defense mode. But the bug flashed again and he was hypnotized! "What is that?" he asked.

The farther we walked on towards Sainenji Temple, the more fireflies came into view. They glowed like strings of Christmas LED lights in the camellia bushes and up in the lower cherry trees that drooped gracefully over the rushing river below. While my husband lost himself in a daze, rotating slowly like a planet with stars moving all around him, I sneaked off in to the darkness, gently scooped up a firefly from a nearby bush, and carefully carried it to him.

"Open your hand," I whispered. As I uncupped my hands, the glow from the insect radiated outward, spreading over my fingers like the light inside an old candle. I noticed a familiar childlike fascination flickering over my husband's face, settling into a smile of delight. Instead of telling him all the juicy science behind what he was seeing, I decided to just keep quiet and let him experience the moment for himself, in his own way.

The firefly was in no state of panic. It simply meandered curiously from my hands to my husband's, checking out the curves and texture of his skin, glow pulsing and diminishing. I was worried that my husband, normally an insect-hater, would freak out and try to fling the creature off his hand. Instead, he held it tenderly, with one hand under the other should the firefly accidentally lose its footing and fall. Not wanting her to fly away, he tried to shield her whenever her gossamer wings peeked out from underneath their sleek, black shields. (We always want a beautiful moment to last).

In my quest to learn about the natural world, I now make it a point to leave some room for the unknown. The fascination and wonder of it all makes it worthwhile.

Curious firefly checking out her first human hand (Shiga Prefecture).
"Watching fireflies
   The boatman is drunk
     And we worry."   -Matsuo Basho 

Fireflies (Jpn: 蛍 hotaru) in Japan are a bit picky; they don't live just anywhere. They prefer areas with low light pollution, fresh clean water with lots of long, wispy grasses and silty banks writhing with mud snails for food, among other requirements. This short list alone pretty much guarantees that you won't find them flying around the concrete-lined creeks of downtown Tokyo or Nagoya (unless someone released them from a nearby firefly raising operation). But you can check here for a list of locations (in Japanese) where you can spot fireflies. The later in the summer you wait, the further north you'll have to journey in order to see them.

The sight of fireflies keeps one young, I'm certain of it. 

Flower Of The Season: 蛍袋, Hotarubukuro, Spotted Bellflower  
(Campanula punctata)

Spotted bellflower hugging a garden stone wall in Moriya, Ibaraki.
These flowers grow in tall bundles along hillsides and rocky outcrops, right in time with the fireflies hatching. In fact, the Japanese name hotarubukuro means "bag with fireflies inside."

A richly-colored purple variety of spotted bellflower atop Mt. Noro in Kure, Hiroshima.
Again this sounds strange, but a teacher friend once told me that in olden days, people would catch fireflies, tie up one inside each blossom of the stalk and carry their new fireless lanterns home with them. (Not very humane, but creative, I'll give them that). 

Copyright 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.

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