Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Summertime Poetry

I was down in Champaign-Urbana last weekend, playing a jazz gig - oh yes, Eyebrows is jazzy - which meant I was driving home in the black of night on I-74. Well, right up until the part where you can't get over the river on it, anyway.

The thing that has always confused and upset me about driving in the parts of Illinois that are not-Chicago is that in and around Chicago, where I grew up, most of the highways have street lights along them, or sufficient ambient light from traffic and buildings and bridges for local roads (with street lights) that the highways are always well-lit, even in the darkest of the dark nights. Whereas in not-Chicago, highways are black at night. Black black black. You can't see a gosh-darned thing, and there aren't nearly enough cars on them to provide continuous illumination. You can't see the gentle curves coming at you, and sometimes this can be a little disorienting when there's only one other car in your field of vision, and it's two miles in front of you and off at a 25 degree angle. It provides an optical illusion wherein it seems that the highway is just about to curve when indeed the highway has no intention of doing so. For all I know, that car is on a local access road, not the highway at all. I live in constant terror that I will lose sight of the road or get trapped by an optical illusion in the dark and end up in a cow pasture watching my car commune with cows.

Which is patently ridiculous: There aren't that many dairy farms in Illinois. Clearly I have a far greater chance of ending up in a cornfield, where all I have to worry about is nematodes, not cow patties ruining my shoes and irate bovines trying to make friends with me and/or my car.

So as I drove back from Chambana the other night, my attention was entirely on the tiny spot of road illuminated by my headlights. And I noticed the strangest thing as I drove: Little flecks of light, flying past my car at high speed, there for an instant and then gone again. Some above me, some to the side, some right in front of me, like miniature shooting stars come down to earth.

It was fireflies. Thousands of fireflies in the late June summer night. Fireflies who happened to be flying along the highway when I was driving it, lighting up for an instant as I drove past, surrounding my car with tiny fairy lights that flickered in the coal-black night, an ethereal escort for my late-night drive, leaving me all bemused and enchanted.

These are the little magics of summer in the midwest, these beetles with glowing butts who look for all the world like starlight come to earth: The simple and small magics of nature.

It doesn't matter how you travel, the fireflies say. On foot, on horseback, encased in steel on the Eisenhower Expressway System, in futuristic Jetson flying cars. We will-o'-the-wisps have enchanted travellers since before time began, and we'll be here lighting their way long after you're gone, tiny specks of joy in the gentle summer night.

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