Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Worm

Creative Commons photo by Timo Newton-Syms

In her late fifties, Evelyn Searle Hess '66, MS '86, walked away from the world of modern conveniences to build a new life with her husband on twenty acres of wild land in the foothills of Oregon's Coast Range. She writes of living a simple, Thoreau-like existence for fifteen years in To the Woods, Sinking Roots, Living Lightly, and Finding True Home (Oregon State University Press, 2010), a section of which is excerpted below. Hess managed the UO greenhouses for ten years and was a finalist in Oregon Quarterly's 2009 Northwest Perspectives Essay Contest.

The moisture and coolness of fall bring other surprises as well. I like to walk at night on our property or up the road, and I prefer not to use a flashlight, whose big glowing circle limits my eyes and my mind to the confines of its halo. I want to see trees and night birds silhouetted against the sky. I want to see clouds and stars and moon. I want to see the night.

I have taken some spectacular spills, walking in the dark. Several times I’ve strayed from the path into brambles or the ditch. Once I slammed my toe into the butt end of a log and crashed down hard on the log pile. That convinced me to carry a flashlight, but I leave it tucked in my pocket, to use only in case of a dire emergency.

Before I began carrying an emergency light, I took a walk to the pond on a moonless fall night. As dark as it was, the gnarly oak branches and shaggy forms of Douglas firs were darker still against the night sky. Beyond them, the stars shone with an intense brilliance. I walked, gazing at the sky, marveling at the spectacle, until I had to drop my eyes to the ground to relax my cramped neck. Much to my astonishment, there on the ground I saw another star. I gasped at its radiance. Initially I thought this glittering object was reflecting light from another source, but there was no light anywhere to be reflected. It couldn’t be, of course, but to me it looked exactly like a tiny fallen star. And then I found another, and another. Surely Tinkerbell had floated through, scattering stardust along my path. As my excitement built, my curiosity swelled along with it. I couldn’t imagine what sort of wonderland I had stumbled into.

I was surrounded by minute dazzling dots, glimmering embers glowing not red, but silver. “White hot,” I remember from childhood, is much hotter than “red hot.” I was sure I would be burned if I touched one, but I had to discover the reality of these twinkling mysteries. Finally I screwed up the courage to pick one up, scooping up a good handful of forest duff beneath it to protect my hand. To my surprise I felt no heat, but the gleam remained constant. Having many times singed my fingers on incandescent light bulbs, I thought our engineers could learn a lot from whatever I was carrying: imagine such brilliance without energy being lost to heat!

Nearly hyperventilating, I rushed my treasure into the trailer. Once under the lantern light, the starlight was extinguished. I was amazed to see, cupped in my hand, a brownish half-inch worm. This had to be a glowworm, but in all the years I’d lived around here, I had never seen one. I always understood glowworms to be the larval form of fireflies (which are actually beetles, not flies), but we don’t have fireflies out here. So the mystery needed further solving.

With the help of an Oregon State University entomologist, I learned that, though we indeed don’t have fireflies in Oregon, we do have glowworms. This is a different species from the winged beetles that light the nights elsewhere. Here the larvae glow, and the female, who retains the larval form even after reaching reproductive maturity, continues to be luminescent. Adult males, not surprisingly, are attracted to light and, in their beetle form, fly to the side of the flashing female. Different species of glowworms send different patterns of light, and sometimes a female, hungering less for sex than for nourishment, will signal a “foreign” male, and when he comes courting he becomes her dinner. (Which may be only a good story. References I’ve read more recently say adults probably don’t eat at all.)

I felt particularly fortunate in finding my path star-strewn. Glowworms are uncommon here and becoming more so as land is developed and pesticides become more prevalent. I was delighted to discover that some glowworms are predators of slugs and snails. Exotic gastropods, particularly the European brown garden snail, which was introduced to California by an enterprising chef dreaming of a fortune in escargot, are the ruin of many of my nursery plants. So now I’ve been introduced to a helper—and to another reason, besides protection of the birds, reptiles, and mammals, for not using toxic slug bait. After all, who would want to snuff out the stardust?

* * *

One fall day while wandering in the woods, I came upon a fir log that David had cut from a wind-damaged tree. It was maybe three feet across, lying near the stump. Its deeply fissured bark showed that it was not young, and counting the rings, I realized it was about the same age as I am, my bark wrinkled as well. The rings held its autobiography. This circle of wood was laid down in a droughty year: rings tight together showed minimal growth. Later circles showed good years, putting on ample wood to separate the rings widely. Here trauma caused off-center growth and, farther out, dark arrow-shaped wood and a distorted ring testified to the loss of an early branch.

I thought how like a tree a person is. The years are all there. That seedling and sapling are still inside, ring upon ring—long-ago events, old influences, all part of today’s being. Here is the ring from the second grade when you ran to school, on the edge of tears, worrying you might be late. You came upon a little girl crying beside her over-turned wagon. When you stopped to right it for her, her big eyes, surprised smile, and dried tears sped you happily on your way to school—your first lesson that helping someone else helps the self at least as much. The fourth-grade ring holds the outcast’s misery when everyone you knew was excitedly planning something to which you were clearly excluded. Weeks of pain culminated in your own surprise birthday party and the discovery that emotional responses have far more to do with perception than with fact.

A few rings later your father told you that you couldn’t assume higher morality in someone just because of their uniform, clerical robes, or profession, and you were awakened to the fact that people are pretty much people however they look, whatever they do. The eighth-grade ring instructed that the terra was not necessarily firma when a magnitude 7 earthquake in western Washington rolled the ground like waves in the sea. Here is the distortion from the loss of your parents. Here is another from the loss of a friend.

All those years, those accumulated rings, give the tree its strength and direct its growth. They comprise what it becomes and record the history of where it has been. As I looked at it lying there, thinking of the story of its life, I wondered if inside its wrinkled skin its heart didn’t still feel like that of a sapling.