Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


To See or Not to See

Bill Meredith

Yesterday upon the stair
I saw a man who wasnít there.
He wasnít there again today;
I wish that man would go away!
   ÖNursery Rhyme, Anon.

June is here already, and Iím not prepared for it. May was wet and cool, and the first few days of June seemed just like a continuation of it, but then we got serious notice that summer was not going to wait for the solstice to arrive. Temperatures shot into the upper 90s, and humidity went even farther. I tried to explain to my wife that the relative humidity canít go more than a few points over 100%, but she looked at the puddle of sweat dripping off of me and spreading across the kitchen floor when I came in from the garden and declared that it had to be at least 200, maybe more. I didnít argue the point.

It was an awkward transition. We waited through April and May for the garden to get dry enough to plow; then it rained some more and we couldnít get the plants set out. When we finally got a dry day, just walking along the rows to set out the tomatoes and peppers packed the soil to the consistency of poorly cured concrete. As wet as it was, the new plants drooped miserably when the heat wave came. Nevertheless, I didnít have room in the worry compartment of my brain to be concerned about them. That space was fully occupied with lightning bugs.

Since retiring, I have used some of my spare time to keep records of when regular things occur, like the last killing frost or the first spring peepers. My wife sometimes questions the value of spending time this way, but actually it is what ecologists do; we call such records baseline data, and having them is the only way to be sure if something unusual has happened. So for several years I have sat on the porch on spring evenings and noted the date when the first lightning bugs appear. (It may seem like a boring job, but someone has to do it. A good cigar helps.) Usually they show up around the first week of June; but this year something unusual happened.

It was the last week of April, and I was weeding the flower bed in front of the house one evening when I saw a lightning bug rising out of the ground just in front of me. I was surprised to see it so early in the season, and was further confused because it hovered in one spot and kept its tail-light on; usually they flash on and off. I decided to catch it for closer study, but when I moved it disappeared. After a brief search I returned to the task of weeding, and then it appeared again. The whole sequence was repeated a couple of timesÖ stare, grab, disappear, searchÖ and I began to feel like the child who saw the man on the staircase. It was a puzzle, but eventually I realized that there was no lightning bug. The street light at the corner had just come on, and when I turned my head just right it cast a reflection on the corner of my glasses that was just the right size and color to look like a lightning bug.

When you get to my age, things like this happen often enough that you get used to feeling foolish, and you donít have to tell anyone if you donít want to. I should have taken that sage advice, but when I went in for the evening I told my wife about it. She immediately assumed that I was losing either my eyesight or my mind, or maybe both, and she stewed about it for the next several days. Actually, such things are fairly common. Most people my age have "floaters" in their eyesÖ congealed bits of material suspended in the vitreous humor which fills the eyeball and maintains its shapeÖ and incoming light sometimes is refracted by them and looks like moving objects. Also, the reflexes that enable us to focus our eyes on moving objects slow down as we age, making it harder to pick up and identify things quickly. This is especially annoying to aging bird watchers, who used to see things out of the corner of their eye and immediately lock onto them; now they are gone before you can focus, and you arenít sure if what you saw was a real bird or a shadow, or a flash of light off the mirror of a passing car, or maybe another floater.

You donít have to be superannuated for these things to happen. Nature can play optical tricks at any age; thatís why people in general are such lousy eyewitnesses. For example, I have never believed in flying saucers, but I saw one once. It was in late winter, probably 30 years ago; several inches of snow had fallen during the day, and as evening came it turned to rain and a thick fog developed. I had worked late that evening, and the windows of the car steamed up immediately when I started home. As I drove out of the parking lot a disc-shaped object appeared beside the car and hovered there; then it darted away and came back. It was gray in color, with a round cabin on top, and bright light was coming from it. I actually stopped and stared at it, and then realized that it was one of the new street lights the college had just installed; I had never seen them before at that time of the evening, especially through a steamed window against a foggy background. When I got home, my wife had the same reaction to the saucer as she did to the lightning bugs.

So itís June, and itís hot, and at the time I write this the lightning bugs still havenít showed up. I sit on the porch at dusk each evening and wait for them, in the hope that they will really be there when I see them. Meanwhile, it isnít all bad. It takes a long time for my eyes to adjust to dim light, and the other day I was out in the bright sunlight for a while and my glasses got blurred from sweat dripping on them; and when I came in, for a few seconds my wife looked just like she did when she was 15. Of course, it didnít last; but it wasnít at all bad.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith