ELKMONT, Tenn. — One spectator likened it to Aunt Melba’s Christmas lights.
Another described the trek through the darkness to see the show as a Halloween for adults without candy and the annoying trips up steps to knock on doors.
“Woo,” said a third. “This is SOOO cool.”
This magnificent display of nature is known as Elkmont’s synchronized lightning bugs. Photinus carolinus, one of 14 species of fireflies that inhabit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, pick a two-week window each June to do their thing.
Accounts differ when people are asked to describe this eerie explosion of fluorescence. From watching individual fireflies among thousands, it appeared to me that they light six consecutive times within about six seconds. Then darkness prevails for a like period before the cycle begins anew. Some felt the glow swept through the woods in a right to left wave.
The phenomena appears to be limited to a relatively small area near the Elkmont campground about seven miles from Gatlinburg, at an elevation of about 2,200 feet. Many think the elevation is relevant since the light show is not seen at higher or lower altitudes.
Similar lightning bug flash outs also reportedly occur in Southeast Asia and the West Indies. The English admiral and explorer Sir Francis Drake is on record as having witnessed such a display in Asia in the late 1500s.
But synched fireflies in the Western Hemisphere appear limited to this small area of the Smokies.
Elkmont is a unique place for reasons other than blinking beetles. Once a thriving logging community, Elkmont later evolved into a mountain hideaway for the elite of Knoxville. Scores of cabins, some originally erected by the loggers, were built along the banks of the Little River. When the national park was established in the 1930s, the residents moved out and the cabins began a long and steady decline into disrepair. Today, some have been stabilized, apparently in the hopes they will one day be restored and rented to park visitors. Just a short hike from the Smokies’ most scenic campground, the deserted village of condemned cabins is the best place to watch the light show.
I confess a lifetime attachment to lightning bugs. Most children of the South spent summer evenings in pursuit of the slow-moving insects, catching them with their hands and putting them into jars with holes poked in the metal lids.
The children of my era who grew up near Oak Ridge elevated the capture of fireflies into a profit center. During the 1960s, scientists at Oak Ridge wanted to know more about fireflies and apparently needed a huge supply. So, for years, they paid children to catch them. We were paid 35 cents per 100 bugs, which wasn’t bad money in those days.
A coat hanger and a pillowcase could quickly be converted into a bug net by mothers handy with a needle and thread. Young capitalists moved about at dusk, scooping the blinking insects into their nets. A gentle shaking kept the bugs inside too disoriented to escape. I often caught more than 200 in an evening before darkness made the task too difficult.
The next step sounds cruel, but we were instructed to freeze the bugs and package them for collection. It isn’t nearly as inhumane as it sounds, because many times I witnessed the bugs’ miraculous resurrection as they thawed. As for what the scientists did with them, we never asked and they never told.
No one is working to capture Photinus carolinus in Elkmont every June, but hundreds of people come into the park to catch the show. It has become so popular that the city of Gatlinburg runs shuttle buses from the Sugarlands Visitors Center to Elkmont to witness the explosion of light, which begins like clockwork about 10 p.m. each night.
Most experts believe that the display is a mating ritual, though no one seems to know why the synching is so rare and isolated. Just as quickly as they appear each year, the timed twinklers disappear, just like the permanent human residents of Depression-era Elkmont.