Nature’s small surprises and big changes

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“Long as I remember, the rain’s been coming down; clouds of mystery pourin’ confusion on the ground,”

— John Fogerty

I’m not sure exactly what time it was, but it was late at night or early in the morning. I had fallen asleep watching television and I got up to head to bed.

When I passed the bedroom window, I pulled back the curtain to look outside. This is something I do on a regular basis a couple times each day, to see if there is anything nature might have to show me at a given instant.

On this occasion, I opened the curtains on a glorious scene. The night was warm, but the sky was clear, with a phenomenal starfield that I could see lying just above the high tops of the maples, birches and spruces at the edge of the yard.

Then, below those treetops, in the blackness that shrouded the backyard, the tiny glowing lights from dozens of fireflies flicked on in amber and green-blue brilliance before just as quickly dying back into the night.

It seems as though the rhythm of the display was not in any timed interval that I could detect, but rather, the magnificent beauty of the display was the randomness with which a tiny light would appear here, and then over there, and then down and then up in the canopy.

It was absolutely dazzling, the shining of these insectivorous lights and those shining through the Milky Way from the heavens above.

For me, this is the type of scene I could watch for hours, silently.

There’s nothing to say at a time like this.

I am humbled and feeling great gratitude for having had the opportunity to be here at the right time to see this — a feeling I sense often while observing the wonders of the natural world.

I am also in awe of the scene unfolded in front of me. So beautiful, so peaceful.

I have seen firefly displays at night before, but thankfully, never often enough to consider them commonplace, where I might have the human tendency to pass over them casually as the usual thing.

Those firefly occurrences, like a steamy night I recall in Indiana from a couple years back, a Michigan night years ago when a curtain of lightning-bug magic flapped back and forth over a tiny stream, or another night similar to this one, a year or so ago, seen from this same late night windowsill.

When I see these displays, I often am reminded that there are people in the world who have never seen this before, nor will they ever.

That is a tremendously powerful notion.

We can lose interest or fascination with something once it becomes commonplace — “been there, done that.” I think it’s human nature, but I try to resist it.

For everything I have ever seen or ever done, there is another whole world, maybe two or three, of things I have never experienced before and never will. What is commonplace to me may be complete magic to someone else, and vice-versa.

In this part of the world, it may be hard to remain mystified and amazed with seeing snowflakes tumble out of the sky and drift in swirls of wind to the ground — but that’s only if I accept that wonderful occurrence as commonplace and therefore, ordinary and unworthy of greater appreciation.

I try to remember each time I see the snow that there are countless people all over the Earth who have never once seen this phenomenon — not at any time in their lives seen the varying, intricate snowflake-pattern masterpieces collecting on an old wooden fence rail or on outstretched fingers.

On my recent trip to Washington, D.C., I was mesmerized by the sound of some type of summer cicadas whirring and buzzing in the trees. Like the fireflies, their sound would start and stop without any immediately understood pattern.

They would, however, with prediction stop their entrancing noisemaking any time I approached close enough to their trees to investigate further, hoping to perhaps steal a look at these natural wonders.

The sound they make leads me to presume they are large creatures, perhaps about as thick as my thumb, with a length of 3 or 4 inches, but this is pure speculation based on their auditory displays.

I know the trout in Upper Peninsula waters would be quite content to have even one of these creatures fall onto the surface of the water, twitching and sputtering. Gulp.

There is another reason not to accept the sights I see commonly as mundane, even if I see them every day. That reason is something of my college geomorphology professors used to teach us all the time — the one constant in the universe is change.

Nature is constantly changing, in ways observable to us if we pay attention, along with a universe of alterations taking place in a fashion largely undetectable or understandable.

Some places I knew as cold-water trout havens when I was a kid have now changed their river or creek dynamics, slowing down, widening and warming up. In some cases, the trout have disappeared from these waters.

In similar fashion, some bird species have declined, or shifted their geographic range distributions, to the point where they are now virtually non-existent in places where I used to watch them every day.

A sad example of this for me is purple martins. The two- or three-tiered metal birdhouses, condominium-styled, are still a relatively common sight around backyards and open areas across the region.

These birds, which feed on insects and are members of the family of birds that includes swallows, were nesters in my neighbor’s martin mansion when I was growing up.

It has now been a few years since I’ve seen even one purple martin, and that one was along the Lake Michigan shoreline in Escanaba where efforts have been ongoing to try to attract spring scouts back to nesting houses there.

Their range has diminished to the point where they are now rare in my local experience — and these were birds I used to watch every single day as a boy.

Disease and invasive species can also have tremendous effects on changing our natural world, decreasing, perhaps forever, what once was commonplace. The plight of the little brown bats of our region comes to mind.

White-nose syndrome has caused mortality rates nearing 100 percent in some places where thousands upon thousands of bats from various parts of the Midwest would spend their winters in old mine shafts or caves.

Like the fireflies, I have precious memories of seeing bats as they flew, gathering up mosquitoes and other bugs along the riverbanks as I fished or in my backyard, since my earliest childhood days.

My mom, insisting, “They’re going to get caught in my hair.”

In a way, all these fascinating avian, fish and animal citizens of the natural world, are kind of like people, at least in one sense. They can disappear from our lives permanently, leaving big holes we spend a lot of time trying to fill up with our memories.

But on a sunny summer afternoon, with the green grass growing beneath the blue skies and the delightful sounds of children playing and birds singing on the breezes, we are seldom assuming further losses.

However, behind those lazy summer day scenes lay the realities, perceptible or unseen, that quietly instruct us — if we are listening and hearing — to not take for granted the scenes around us.

Change is afoot. We remain unaware necessarily of what the future may hold.

With the sleep numbing my senses, I rub my eyes and fold the curtain back over the window, leaving the glorious nighttime scene to the fireflies and the fascination whirring like an electric current in the starlight.

I’ve got to get some sleep.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today