Lightning in a Bottle

Nature's lights. | Photography by Seth Dortch

Prior to his service as a Seabee during the Second World War, my uncle Jay was quite the prankster. I’ve oft envisioned him scouring the family farm fields on the Jefferson/Hamblen county line, glass jar in hand, filling it with any fluorescent capable insect trying to contain this lightning in a bottle for later in the evening. That is when he would enter White Pine’s only movie theater, position himself somewhere in the middle to back rows, and release all manner of hell upon the establishment.

Photography by Seth Dortch

We can only imagine to what audience his flickering spectacle was met. But their night was definitely “Gone With the Wind”. Jay’s lightning bug release remains the stuff of legend in our family and we miss him dearly. One thing is certain, he never called them anything but lightning bugs and neither did we.  As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until the park service began monetizing their viewing that any of us locals had ever heard this foreign “firefly” blasphemy.

Yesterday, I backpacked 1300 feet over a mountain and into our secret spot to meet my friend Myers Morton and the Hackenberg family, Tyson, Elizabeth and Henry. We have been congregating for years to receive our annual dispensation of Smokies goodness and they did not disappoint. Synchronous is misunderstood as we shared this with some newcomers who wandered into camp and astutely noted, “They all stop at the same time!” Myers was quick to note the pause typically adheres to seven second intervals.

The lightning bugs are a wave that moves through you as a school of fish for a diver. Averse to light and movement, they accept you only after your stillness is verified. The first Europeans to reach these hills noted this anomaly in divine terms, and I still do. We have been privately enjoying the show for decades, long before anyone ever had to pay to park, hike and view them. If you have never experienced this blessing, then go up and do so. They exist in multiple places along with the much trafficked Elkmont hordes. One thing is certain, I’m not giving up my honey hole and I’m lighting up anyone who calls them fireflies!

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