The horizon marks the most radical division of our human existence–the border between earth and sky. We are people of the earth; our feet are planted here, we are comfortable with its profusion, secure in its solidity and familiarity. It is tangled and crowded and even messy with life, but we know that tangle and are thus not troubled by it.
We can raise our eyes above the horizon, but most comfortably when we can trace the line of a building jutting into the sky, or follow tree branches up, up, to the final tiniest twigs. But then the landscape changes: profusion is replaced with emptiness, clutter with blankness, intricacy with vastness. The sky is uninterrupted blankness. Even clouds are wisps of vapor only, and stars, which we try to connect in constellations, making of them familiar pictures of earthly things–people, bears, chairs–are almost infinitely far from us and from each other. Colossal in size, they are only specks to us, lighting little. Our head spins when we tilt our heads back that far. Our blood does not want to follow our brain to that dimension.
The sky is not our proper element. Many of us are afraid of heights even when we are grounded. In such cases, we instinctively hug the earth, get our bodies low, want to feel as much of its solidity on our skin as we can. We are afraid to fly: it is a groundless fear. Those of us who love it do so because it is an exhilarating difference from what we know–we feel the oddity and displacement just as strongly as those who fear it, though we convert it into excitement. But it is still Other, and alien.
The sky is unknown. It extends measurelessly beyond the range of our planet. We are baffled by the infinity it represents, especially when infinity seems so . . . empty. Space feels like unfinished creation, left over from the void God started with when he shaped the knowable world into form and substance. Space is the chaos that remained. Sky is space itself–the literal space between earth and heaven, known and unknown, tangible and intangible, solid and ephemeral, real and not even imaginable. We do not sense, I think, the true wholeness of creation, but only bifurcation.
Sometimes, then, sky bends to earth, shakes loose a piece of itself, and sends it, illuminated by its own light, into our awed and startled hands: a falling star. It is the journey that is the gift, the streaking light bridge that spans the gap. For what survives, if anything does survive that valiant, fiery offering, has sacrificed its celestial nature to become only a blackened cinder in our world.
For some reason, according to Edwin Way Teale, Kansas has especially been the chosen recipient of such grace: nearly one sixth of all fallen meteors in the world have fallen in Kansas, and a disproportionate number have landed on the farm land of Frank and Eliza Kimberly, who in 1885 moved to Kansas. What Frank regarded as only heavy black rocks, Eliza saw as strange treasure. For five years she gathered the rocks into a pile, carrying them in from the fields like precious stones. No one but she suspected their other worldly origin; no one but she saw them as gift, as night jewels rained down, until finally a geologist identified them as star fragments. Then what already had value to Eliza became valued by others, and she was able to pay off her mortgage and become wealthy besides by selling her star stack.
Every year, we mark the peak night of the Perseid meteor shower on our August calendar and drag blankets out onto the dewy grass to lie flat on our backs, facing the bursting heavens. During this time, the earth’s orbit drags us through a zone in which meteors continually streak. For one or two nights a year, the invisible is close enough to be visible, and we can see anywhere from ten million to four billion meteors slash across the sky. Each of us in our huddled group wants to be the first to glimpse the first whisking trail in the night sky. Though each meteor travels an incalculable distance through the vast expanse of space, it only enters our atmosphere at a height of sixty miles above the planet and burns out at a height of forty; it is therefore only visible in that twenty mile span of sky, a gap it hurtles through in one second. Our eyes must be quick, and we strain them to adjust to distance and speed and height, so accustomed are they to near sightedness and human pace. None of the white streaks is as spectacular as the puniest small town fireworks display, yet each yanks our heart, steals our breath, in a way fireworks never could. We are witnesses to another world, in a whirling trajectory that spins us through wonder, that closes the gap, a second at a time, between our solid, staid, and ordinary human existence and the eternal, infinite, wheeling cosmos of God. We lie on blankets parallel to the sky, our bodies exposed to this heavenly clamor, summer t shirts and shorts a thin defense against this fiery rain, each of us secretly wishing to be struck by a fragment that could somehow rush through the last forty miles with its flame still glowing, like Prometheus, bringing God’s fire to humans. And because we are waiting for it expectantly, with eyes wide open to follow its path, it comes. In the northeastern sky,
traces the curve of the earth. It moves slowly, a path our eyes can better track. It falls into the tall grasses at the edge of our lawn, blazes its light briefly, then winks out. And then, all across the wide universe before us, our eyes adjust to see hundreds of falling stars, criss-crossing in the night sky, their trails sparkling. Many of them touch earth, or nearly do, and their light lingers in the air, like lit candles. No longer streaking in such a rush that our minds can barely process their appearance before they are gone, now the stars float; buoyed by currents, they undulate in the sky, drifting. Their sparks of light punctuate darkness, then burn out. If our eyes seek them, our desire can re-kindle their flames.
While Perseid hurls his torches through the upper atmosphere, fireflies, beckoned by the warming days of June, complete the stars’ trajectories, carrying their light nearer, to where we are. As the days get even warmer, their flashing will increase in frequency, until the sky is filled with the rapid pulses of their fire. Nothing is random in the flashes–the frequency, quality, and color of each is an element of code, so a silent language floats nightly in the air. The fireflies signal each other, seeking connection, continuance through reproduction. No evidence exists that mature fireflies eat at all–their lives consist of daytime waiting and nighttime urgency.
Human engineers have attempted for centuries to generate what fireflies produce effortlessly: cold light. At least 98% of the energy produced by a firefly is converted into light; by contrast, only 30% of a light bulb’s energy creates light–the rest is dispelled in useless heat. Translucent membrane at the end of a firefly’s body allows the light–created by a chemical reaction within the cells–to shine through; a layer of reflectors below this, like a tiny lighthouse beam, magnifies the glow. Fireflies stir in the sky, flashing their species’ code. Females’ lights are not as bright as males’, so a male’s eyes are bigger, to catch their lesser light. Yet both male and female fireflies can see a longer wave length of light than any other insect can. Light is their language, so every sentence must be complete. Once a female has mated, she no longer signals–words are no longer needed, but only the quiet action of laying eggs. Even before birth, the larvae will sometimes glow, practicing their alphabet in anticipation of their later flights, their instinctive call.
I remember summer evenings when I was a child, playing in the growing density of dusk. Unaware of equinoxes or the seasonal orbits of my planet, I barely noticed the extended days, the later encroachment of night. With a child’s oblivion, I assumed every day would last as long as I willed it to. I sped in bare feet over the dew-chilled grass until my toes numbed and twilight had dropped like a bolt of velvet fabric from the sky. All around me were throbbing points of light, lazy and slow, easy to catch in cupped hands. Peering through the slats my fingers formed, I watched my palms turn pale blue, then darken, an eerie illumination of the cage of my hands. The firefly tickled a path over the ridges of my fingers, traversed the vaulted ceiling of its cell with its lantern held behind him. If I loosened the bars of my fingers, it nudged through, escaping to the outside. Spreading its wings, it launched softly into the sky, lingering nearby, flickering its pale light, before drifting higher than I could reach.
On nights when the lower skies were especially twinkling with fireflies, my sisters and I raced into the house to get Mason jars. Our faces uplifted to the sky, we ran in dizzying loops, chasing elusive glimmers. We stretched our arms to heaven, our hands empty and open, waving hallelujahs, hoping to grasp those airy spirits. When our leaps yielded a catch, we galloped to our Mason jar, nestled expectant in the grass, and scraped the insect from our sweaty palm into the jar. Clamping a scrap of hole-punched foil over the rim, we dashed away to capture more. Within minutes we could fill our jars with a dozen or more fireflies. Excited, we lifted the jars to our faces, waited for the glints against the glass, watched as they crawled, flightless, up and down the smooth walls.
We were always disappointed. What we hoped would be a globe of glowing light to set beside our beds, blinking us to sleep, was more often a darkened jar filled with black bugs, tracing the shape of their prison. No amount of shaking the jars in our clutched hands could ignite their light; instead, shaking only loosened their grip on the jar’s surfaces, sending them tumbling upon each other.
Partly out of disappointment in our foiled expectations, partly out of childish pity for their confused, darkened condition, we would almost always release them before our bedtimes. The fireflies, scrambled and disoriented, never rushed from captivity, soaring into flight, but could only stumble from the tilted jar and clamber into the grass, tasting oxygen again, before they lifted with heavy wings into the air. As they rose, no flash lit their way; not until they wafted, suspended, over our heads did their lanterns wink on, signaling again in the wide night sky.
What I only vaguely intuited as a child, I now know fully: light cannot be contained. Only light released has any value. Light hoarded becomes only another form of darkness. Light enlarges–it doesn’t dissipate–when you scatter it abroad with outstretched hands.