Happy Valentine’s Day!

happy valentine's day couple 1870sIt is about this time of year when we begin to sense that spring is coming. We’ve forgotten July’s heat. Black oaks are still hanging on to a few remaining leaves. Most trees are stark and bare, and there’s little movement on the ground, save the plastic shopping bags that no one has had the heart to pluck from the brittle limbs. Ah, what a lovely time for Valentine’s Day.

I began to wonder whether the timing of the holiday was devised specifically for this heartless, cold, bare time of year or was simply the work of the Hallmark Company.

According to Wikimedia, Valentine’s Day was once a pagan festival named after two Christian martyrs named Valentine. In fact, there were so many religious martyrs named Valentine that, until 1969, the Catholic Church recognized 11 different Valentine’s Days. (more…)

Some things about fireflies

Behold the Photinus Pyralis, also known as a lightning bug

Maybe I like the name “lightning bugs” more. Not sure. But in my never-ending quest to learn about things I’ve long forgotten, here are some things about fireflies.

They’re beetles, actually. And they use bioluminescence to attract mates and prey. Their light is considered a “cold” light, according to Wikipedia, with no infrared or ultraviolet frequencies. A firefly’s light can be yellow, green, or pale red.

And this I swear I never knew (like a lot of things these days) — firefly larvae are often called “glowworms.” Like the song. When fireflies are infants, though, the glowing warns away predators, apparently, as many firefly larvae contain chemicals that don’t taste so good or are actually toxic.

It was once thought that fireflies were warning off predators even as adults, but this is no longer the case. Most scientists believe that they’re selecting and attracting mates. Their abdominal light actually communicates something to their mates.

This is way too high-level description, of course, because we know that in some species only males light up. The females stay home, I’m not sure why. They can’t fly. Some species don’t light up at all, but do use pheromones. In these cases, scientists say that lightning bugs don’t even have to see where they’re going! Males can find females blindfolded. I don’t know how scientists figured this out, exactly, but I believe them.

Regardless of all that, the first lightning bugs of the year signal the real first day of summer for me.

I saw my first firefly of the year Monday night, May 31st. And in Virginia, where I am sometimes, they’re sporadic and surprising. I had a home in Ohio for a while, and at night, on the big great hill where my house was, I could look down on thousands of fireflies. I don’t count so well anymore, either, so maybe it’s even millions.

Nonetheless, lightning bugs communicate with me. I was so excited about seeing my first ones the other night that I went to sleep and dreamt that I was catching them in a jar and lighting up my bedroom.

About the Big Dipper

Star map of constellation Ursa Major. User:SAE...

Image via Wikipedia

I look at the Big Dipper nearly every evening. The BD is comforting somehow. But I’d forgotten that it has been a symbol for people for nearly ever. In the 1800s, according to Wikimedia, runaway slaves used the Big Dipper (which they referred to as the “drinking gourd”) to find their way to the north.

More about the Big Dipper

In American Indian lore, the Big Dipper with the North Star represented three cubs following their mother. This configuration appears on some tribal flags and on the Alaskan state flag.

The Bible refers to the Big Dipper as “the seven stars,” although there sometimes are said to be nine stars (the extra two might be Messier objects).

In Ireland and Great Britain, the Big Dipper is known as The Plough.

No matter the origin, these seven stars (septentriones) mean “north” in many languages.

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