Synchronized Fireflies and Smoky Mountain Dreams

If you want to experience one of the most enchanted nature exhibits on the earth, come to the Smoky Mountains in June, where a significantly rare phenomenon comes to life right in front of your eyes.   When you witness the wonder of the synchronized firefly mating ritual, you will be forever changed. 

I have lived here all of my life and did not know about the synchronized fireflies until a few years ago.  We had seen many "regular" fireflies, but none that displayed synchronized blinking patterns.   Of course, no one "officially" knew about them being here until 1992 when amateur biologist, Lynn Faust, read an article in a national science magazine written by a Cornell mathematician, Steven Strogatz, who specialized in the study of "sync" in mathematics and science.  He was researching synchronous patterns in nature, and the article sited rare Southeast Asian fireflies but referred to them as the only synchronous species known, at that time.  The article did not mention anything about the fireflies also existing in the Smoky Mountains. 

Before their homestead lease with the National Park expired in 1992, Lynn's family had owned one of the historic cabins in "Elkmont."  One of their favorite family gatherings was to sit on the porch of the cabin in the evenings in June every year and view the spectacular firefly exhibition.  After seeing the article, Lynn wrote to National Geographic to let them know that her family had been watching a similar "synchronous firefly" display from their cabin in the mountains of East Tennessee for as long as she could remember. 

This announcement letter about the fireflies existing in the Smoky Mountains was passed on from Strogratz to two scientists who were specializing in the study of the synchronized fireflies in Southeast Asia.  Jonathan Copeland, a behavioral neurophysiologist at Georgia Southern University along with Andrew Moiseff of the University of Connecticut were intrigued with Lynn's breakthrough discovery of the possibility that there may be another location for the special fireflies.  Lynn allowed the gentlemen to invite themselves over for a visit to see the spectacular event first hand.   Since then, the scientists return annually to further their study of this unusual creature. 

This particular group of fireflies, the "Photinus carolinus" (a bioluminescent cold-fusion beetle bug) became the first species of synchronous fireflies to ever be identified outside of Southeast Asia.  As far as I know, they are found only in a very small area of the Smokies at a specific altitude.  Since the discovery was confirmed and announced in 1992, many people have been able to witness this unique wonder of the universe.  To think that this happens practically in my backyard was incredible to know. 

The window of opportunity to see the event is only about 3 weeks in June each year when the fireflies are engaging in their mating ritual where the female fireflies blink from the ground, because they cannot fly, which signals their location to the male fireflies.  The male fireflies fly around and signal to the females that they are "on their way" and to keep blinking until they can figure out where they are on the ground.  Their blink signaling to each other is the most enchanting dance I have ever seen.  The communication between them is enticing because their blinking is in rhythm and is synchronized and coordinated to a pattern and is not just random blinking.  How do they know when to blink with each other ?  Many theories are suggested as to why they blink in unison, with the leading accepted reason being that the females are most likely to mate with the males who blink the earliest.  This competition makes it inevitable that the males will all flash very quickly to try to be "first" and end up actually all flashing together simultaneously.  I have not heard an explanation for the long pause between sets of blinking which to me, is the part that makes this ritual so different and unique.  It's not that they all flash together at the same time that intrigues me so much as that they all stop flashing at the same time. 

I feel as if this description is like trying to write down Fred Astaire's dance steps, but I will do my best to describe the firefly's ritual.  After one of the fireflies flashes, the others follow the leader and they all blink together for four to eight times with a short pause between flashes.   Then they all stop together for a period of complete darkness while they wait for six to ten seconds before the cycle starts all over again.   

We found that after a few hours of blinking there were some groups of fireflies that actually synchronized their blinking to happen at the exact same time with in between blinks also matching and then all stopping together.  That was the best of all of the blinking !  But, it seemed to take a little while of just general blinking and stopping before this totally simultaneous flashing occurred.  When it did though, your imagination was engaged and the idea of fairies in the forest seemed to be a real concept more than just an illusion.  The blinking and stopping was hypnotic and if you allow yourself to relax, it was easy to feel as if you had fallen into a trance. 

Now that I know about the synchronized mating dance of the fireflies, and since my home is here near them, I try to take advantage of my good fortune of living in such a beautiful part of our country and I make an effort to go as many times as I can during those limited 3 weeks.  I also try to introduce people to this display of "fireflies in the forest" because I have discovered that most folks are like me and have never even heard of, let alone viewed, this event.   It is true that some of the best things in life are "free."  To me, this experience is in the top of the list of "best things" for a lifetime. 

On my very first night to view this display, I went on the excursion with my entire family.  My Mom had heard about the fireflies and decided that we all needed to go see the event as a family.  We agree that this seemed like a really good idea with a lot of merit because my father was born and raised here in the Great Smoky Mountains.  Although he was raised in the mountains, he had never heard about this phenomenon either and we felt it would be especially fun to share our initial experience of this mystical event with him, a real native of the mountains.  This particular family get together was extra special for us, because of his historical connection to the mountains by way of birthright.  As his descendants, we therefore also had a special and revered connection with the mountains.  To say the least, we were very excited. 

The Great Smoky Mountains are special in many ways, but to me it is the feeling of absolute peace I feel whenever I spend time in the woods or by the river.  There is no place on earth more reverent than here in the cathedral of the mountains.  I don't believe there is any conceivable way that any person could stand on the soil in this ancient ground on some of the oldest mountains on the earth and not feel the miracle of life alive deep within their soul.  There is no man-made building or place on earth, in my opinion, where you can experience the message of "life" more vividly or clearly as you can here in the Smoky Mountains.  For me, I embrace the grace of God when I am in the mountains.

There are more documented species of flora and fauna located here in the Smoky Mountains than anywhere in the United States, and as you quietly absorb the surroundings of the environment you can hear the angelic choir of nature singing psalms to your senses.  This is the only place I have experienced where I feel complete and totally at peace.  I know that many people search their entire lives to find one moment of this feeling perhaps before they pass on, but I find that here in the Smokies, I live in that moment every day and even more so when I am in a few special places in the mountains where the river runs around and over some of the largest boulders I have ever seen.  The magnificence of the earth is boldly apparent in those locations.  As I sit on one of those rocks, the clear mountain water seems to wash away whatever heartache I came there to let go of.  In that place I can easily allow the rushing water to wash away the pain I am feeling from my injured spirit to be carried to the far beyond -- away from my memory.  This leaves a cleansed spirit where I can find "forgiveness", either for the person who hurt me or for myself for whatever mistake in judgment that I made.  I find that the very essence of who I am becomes renewed when I simply sit back in my mountain sanctuary and let nature surround me with the miracle of the life force of the earth – of the universe – of the far beyond what I can conceive, understand or explain. 

When you visit the Smokies, you will find that there are many opportunities in the area to find a quiet place in the mountains or near a creek to take a quiet moment to close your eyes, listen to the sounds of the earth and feel "at one" with the universe.  I feel honored to have the added connection of being descended from the noble people who courageously settled this land and who generously gave it back to the United States when the National Park was established so that other's would always be offered the opportunity to come here to experience heaven on earth.  I hope you can find your own special place here in the mountains where you can feel the passion of your own life as I have.  Your heart can claim your special place here because it belongs to all of us. 

We found it to be amazing that my Dad did not know anything about the synchronized fireflies.  He grew up here in the hills of the Smoky Mountains, and he knows a lot of the other interesting things about being a member of the unique people who survived the struggle to exist in this beautiful but, in a way almost forsaken from civilization, place on the planet.  The fact that he did not know about the fireflies made them even more interesting to me.  I have always found it to be incredible that people, my ancestors, somehow had the fortitude to actually be able to eek out a meager living as they did here in the mountains.  And to now discover that they subsisted side-by-side with such an unusual phenomenon of nature as the fireflies were presenting, and to discover that my Dad was not aware of the existence of the firefly event, made it all the more intriguing.  I kept wondering how the secret was kept hidden for so many years and was just recently revealed to the world.   

My father has quite an interesting claim to his history from this mountain haven, because he has the distinction of being the very first baby in the rural settlement community of Pittman Center to be delivered into this world by Dr. Robert F. Thomas, the area's first medical doctor.   

In 1927, Dr. Robert F. Thomas, a Methodist missionary doctor came to the mountains to help care for the primitive mountain people in Pittman Center, a rural mountain settlement in Tennessee.  A few missionaries volunteered to come to the mountains of Appalachia much as they volunteer to go to other places on the earth that we think of as "foreign".  But, in a way, this secluded and backward place compared to the rest of the US was still an uncivilized existence.  This community was just as "foreign" to most people in the rest of the United States as a location in Africa because of the fact that modern times seemed to have just passed it by.  The Smoky Mountain community was almost as hidden as Shangri-La ~ and was every bit as beautiful. 

The man who felt drawn by his compassion and by God to go to the mountains to help these people in need of assistance was the beloved Dr. Robert F. Thomas.   He was both a medical doctor and a Methodist Minister.  "Doc Thomas" is distinguished as being the doctor that delivered country music's star of entertainment and fame, Dolly Parton, into the world and she immortalized his name in a song that she wrote about him.  But before Dolly arrived, Dr. Thomas was there to see that my dad took his first breath.  On April 22, 1927, before the National Park was established in 1934, Dr. Thomas delivered my father into the world on a quiet Smoky Mountain spring night.    

Before my father's birth, most "Mountain" babies were delivered to the world in the arms of a midwife.  Most survived without incident, as did the pioneers in the Western prairie, with no complications.   But if there were problems with the births, there was no professionally educated medical person available to save the baby or the mother.   The only help at hand before Dr. Thomas came to the area were "Mid-wives" and some folks relied on mystical superstitions and primitive conjuring of the spirits.  There were some people believing and trusting in the magic of the supernatural folklore more than in modern medicine and were reluctant to trust a doctor.  As a minister, Dr. Thomas also relied on divine prayer, but there are times that prayer is not enough and medical marvels are needed to assist the situation.  

Most of the people in the mountains were suspicious of allowing a doctor to watch over the delivery of a baby.  But, my grandfather was a school teacher and was one of the few formally educated people in the area, and was in the very first graduating class from the new settlement school of Pittman Center.  Most people in that time did not have any real "book learning" and they were skeptical of "outsiders".  But, because my grandfather had an education he was able to knowledgeably give his "permission" for Dr. Thomas to deliver his baby, and with this trust bestowed upon the good doctor, the door was opened with the other mountain folks for medical services to be allowed to be accepted by the proud people of the community.  My grandparents honored the doctor by naming my father's first name after Dr. Robert F. Thomas and his middle name is after my grandfather's.  Robert Wilford Morris (nicknamed "Junior") was known in the community as "Dr. Thomas' first baby" and later became one of the first mountaineers from this rural area to venture out of the mountains and into the "real world" when he joined the US Army. 

There were many superstitions, old wives tales and belief in "signs" held by the people of the hills and while it is hard to believe in these old tales, one was assigned to my dad on his birth.  He was born with his amniotic sack still intact over his face and Dr. Thomas had to break it away for him to be able to take his first breath.  My grandmother explained to me that the "old wive's tales" say that a baby born with the "film" over his face will grow up to be a "gifted genius."  My Dad, born to a teacher/tobacco farmer and his wife in the hills of Tennessee, became the youngest officer in the US Army.  At the time of his military enlistment in 1944, he excelled at the entrance and placement exams.   He was only 17 years old when he joined and was not actually eligible until he turned 18.  So, the army offered him the opportunity of Officer's Training School and he attended classes while he waited to become "of age".  After placing "first" in his class, he was then awarded the title of "First Lieutenant" at the age of 19 years old.  The Army then paid his way through medical school and he became one of the finest and most highly regarded surgeons in the Southeast.  He retired from the Army as a Major, went into private practice and continued his education to earn his FACS degree (Fellow American College of Surgeons), a distinguished medical degree/honor (earned AFTER receiving a Ph.D.)  I do believe that the old wives tale indeed came true for him.  

Dr. Thomas became a close friend and mentored my father through medical school.  He helped the best he could and sent $5 each month out of the Methodist Church fund to help my Dad pay for his medical books.  While everyone was proud of my father's achievements, none were more proud of him than Dr. Thomas. 

So, you see now why it was important to us that the first viewing of the fireflies had to be with the entire Morris clan in attendance.  We are descended directly from the people who settled this area and felt that we should experience this unique nature event together in the place where we have been so closely tied in our family tree.  Over 11 million people visit the Smoky Mountains each year and very few have the opportunity to witness the synchronized fireflies.  How lucky we are to live in such a unique and beautiful place on this earth.   I treasure every breath I take here, even more so now that I have lived in the big cities away from the mountains for a while and found my way back home.  Dorothy discovered the essence of life in her journey to OZ, "there's no place like home." 

Fireflies (the regular ones we knew about) had always been a great joy for all of us.  Many a summer evening was spent sitting on my grandfather's porch waiting for dusk to turn the evening to dark enough to coax the fireflies out to "blink".  We couldn't wait for them to start their nightly dance of hide-and-seek.  We anticipated the evenings of playing with the fireflies with the same enthusiasm that we waited for Santa to arrive.  We just loved to chase them and catch them and gather them in a jar so that we could physically hold on to their magic for a little while.  We did let them go, but there are not many childhood memories that are more precious than chasing and catching fireflies.  

When you catch your first firefly of the night, your child-mind believes that you are holding Tinkerbell herself.  After you gather a few more "blinkers" for the jar, you feel that you are holding a magic lantern and can actually light your way back to the front porch.  I can remember thinking that my jar full of captured fireflies was absolutely the coolest thing I had ever seen in my life, because when I took it with me to the out house, I could actually see in the dark enough to not fall in the hole.   Now that is about as cool as it gets when you are a kid !!! 

While watching the fireflies in the front yard from the porch, you learn that life must indeed be a miracle if it can produce something as mesmerizingly mysterious as a firefly.  As you watch them blink-blink-blinking, you seem to drift off to dream about things.  That is what children are supposed to do, discover their dreams.   Because, you then have the rest of your life to try to make them all come true.  But, to have a dream-come-true, you first need to have the dream.  And so it goes.  A mountain home, a dream beyond … and a lifetime to make it all come true. 

I couldn't wait to experience this mystery of the universe with my own eyes and with my family.  I was not disappointed.  The synchronized fireflies performed magnificently ! 

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To see the Smokies' famous fireflies for yourself, take the right fork in the road from the National Park Headquarters at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and follow the signs to the "Elkmont Campground."  Immediately to the left of the campground is a small sign for "Little Jake's Creek Road" and "Little River Road."  Park your vehicle along the road at this point and walk along the "Little River Trail" about 300 yards until you come to the first clearing in the woods on the right.  Some people like to walk a short path just before this clearing over to a field at the base of the mountain to view the fireflies special show in that location.  Their blinking seems to "waterfall" down the side of the mountain and it is truly breathtaking to watch.  Personally, I prefer to just sit along the first part of the road before this path because the fireflies seem to be more "all around" me from that vantage point.  But, just walk around and view them from all angles.  I guarantee that you will be mesmerized in a way that you have never experienced before in your life.

Copyright  2005 by Terry Nell Morris