The Truth About Fireflies

A Reading for Two Voices
In Memory of David S. Lott, 1943–2018

By Jeffrey Lott

A couple weeks after David died, I was coming in from the garden at dusk and—oh my—our fireflies were putting on a show! Hundreds of them were floating up from the dewy grass like little winged stars. I looked up, and they were twinkling in the trees, flashing phosphorescent signals into the oncoming night.

As I swept my hand gently up to have one land on my palm, I was transported to our back yard in Pittsburgh. David and I each have an empty mayonnaise jar, especially prepared for our firefly adventure—original Hellman’s with a blue metal lid, carefully pierced with a dozen nail holes to provide air, and furnished with a habitat of that same dewy grass. I’m about eight and David’s going on 12.

Fireflies are not actually flies, but rather beetles of the genus Lampyridae [lam-peer-uh-day]. There are more than 2,000 species of Lampyridaein the world, with about 200 found in North America.

DSL and JBL ca 1951

David and me ca. 1951

As we fill our jars with blinking bugs, there’s some brotherly competition. David, four years older, is much more adept at plucking glowing insects from the evening air and stowing them in his jar. Later, as darkness falls, we sit on the porch and watch our captives blink on and off.

By the time I achieve his competence at this occasional summertime skill, David has moved on to whatever it is that older boys do. He was learning to drive cars while I was still punching holes in empty mayonnaise jars.

Juvenile fireflies live underground as larvae for up to two years before they emerge and fly as adults. The magical display we see on summer nights is but a small fraction of their lives.

DSL JBL Eagles Mere ca. 1954

David (left) and me at a costume party in Eagles Mere, Pa., ca. 1954


David was four years ahead of me in school. When he was in eighth grade, I was in grade four, so we didn’t exactly hang out together at recess or have the same friends. He went off to college the same year that I entered high school. We had many of the same teachers and I was, inevitably, “the little Lott.”

What distinguishes Lampyridae from other beetles is “bioluminescence.” Fireflies produce a chemical compound in their bodies that allows them to light up. They’re among thousands of organisms, including 1,500 species of fish, that produce light.

The main advantage of being the younger sibling is that you don’t have to go first. Going first was tough for David; he had to row his little boat through a high sea of expectations. But every time David messed up or got in trouble, there was a price to pay for him—and a credit on my ledger. The only risk in this arrangement is to have an older sibling who is perfect—who does everything according to expectations. Dave sure tried, but he was far from perfect.

This chemical compound is known as luciferin—from the Latin meaning “light-bringer.” Lucifer was the Roman name for the morning star, which we also know as the planet Venus.

David graduated from Wesleyan while I was taking my sweet time getting through high school. He married his college sweetheart. The year was 1965. All hell was breaking loose in the country, but David seemed comfortably ahead of the wave while I was about to get caught in the curl.

Scientists have only recently learned that the chemical on-off switch for luciferinis nitric oxide gas—the same gas that is produced by taking the drug Viagra.

Lucifer, Venus, and Viagra—now that’s an invitation for trouble!

DSL MSL with Jay ca 1968

David and Peggy with Jay, ca. 1968

While I finally finished high school and was taking a first shot at college, Dave taught briefly in New York and headed for graduate school in Michigan, then to law school in Virginia. He and Peg had Jay by then, and soon Katie. It looked to me as though they knew what they were doing—while I did not. They moved to Milwaukee, which was a long way from the East Coast.

While they mature underground, firefly larvae are ferocious carnivores, eating other soft-bodied animals such as slugs and earthworms. They burrow around, injecting their prey with paralyzing neurotoxins, then with digestive enzymes to liquify and ingest their meals.

Eew! That harmless glowing bug you just plucked out of the sky recently feasted on a liquified earthworm. If we had known that as children, we might not have been able to sleep with a jar full of them on our night table.

The distances between my brother and me were both temporal and physical. The four years that separated us seemed to fall on either side of a cultural divide in our own generation. David was a law student when I dropped out of college in 1967. He was on track and I was not. Then our father passed away suddenly in 1969.

That summer. I married Wendy at exactly the same age that David had married Peg—22. During the summer of Woodstock, and the moon landing, we lived in a deer camp in the Vermont mountains. In the meadow behind our cabin the fireflies seemed like our own Milky Way.

Bioluminescence also occurs widely among marine animals, especially in the open sea. Aboard theBeagle, Charles Darwin wrote, “While sailing in these latitudes on one very dark night, the sea presented a wonderful and most beautiful spectacle. There was a fresh breeze, and every part of the surface, which during the day is seen as foam, now glowed with a pale light. The vessel drove before her bows two billows of liquid phosphorus, and in her wake she was followed by a milky train.”

Each of us put some distance between ourselves and Pittsburgh. With me on the East Coast and he in the Midwest, David and I saw each other infrequently, usually during holidays at Gran’s. By 1974, when I started teaching in Delaware, Dave had a busy life, two kids—soon to be four—and a demanding career. When Ted was born during the 1979 World Series (“We Are Family,” for you Pirate fans), Wendy and I were in Pittsburgh for Game Five—still childless after a decade of marriage. David was finished fathering children, and we were about to get started.

Many people think that bioluminescence is all about mating. (If you could light up part of your body to initiate sex … well, wouldn’t you?)

In some firefly species, male insects flash and glow brightly to attract females; in others, it’s the female who lights up to lure sedentary males to the party.

David turned 50 in 1993, and I reached the same milestone in 1997. Fifty was our magic number together, given that our dad had passed away at 49. We shared the feeling that each year beyond our father’s lifespan was a gift—something to be treasured and enjoyed. When David became ill with chronic myeloid leukemia, a new drug saved his life and afforded him more years—another gift. We have been blessed with such gifts throughout our lives.

Not every lightning bug glows for procreation, however. Some species produce defensive steroids that make them unpalatable to predators—and then use their light to communicate their distastefulness. “Keep away,” it says. “Danger!”

David and Peg divorced, and he married Sally. His world was rocked by her fatal illness. Happily, he met Hee and settled in Chicago, then Beaufort. David Lott was not a man who liked to be alone. When David and Hee announced wedding plans for May 2005, our family gathered South Carolina—including our mother, then 83, on what proved to be her last trip out from Pittsburgh.

The main threats to fireflies are loss of habitat to development; lawn and garden chemicals that kill the creatures that firefly larvae feed upon; light pollution that makes the insects’ light less visible and interferes with mating; and commercial harvesting of luciferinfor use in microbiology and medicine.

DSL-JBL July 2006

David and me at Joe and Elizabeth’s wedding, July 2006.

Following our mother’s death, I saw David occasionally while our son Michael attended Lawrence University. David attended our son Joseph’s wedding in New York in 2006, where we took that wonderful picture of us together. We loved Sarah and Pete’s wedding, and saw David in his element, surrounded by his extended family in Door County. This is how I will remember him. Holding court on the porch of this house, which duplicated the porch in Beaufort.

Fireflies are fleeting and magical. The adult emerges, glows, mates, and passes away in a few short weeks.

Each year, the firefly season marks a passage. I always think of summer on that mountain in Vermont. And I think of those mayonnaise jars with the holes in their lids, and the little glowing bugs that David and I collected so long ago.

But don’t you know that you were doing it wrong?

It says here: “Once you have the fireflies in a jar, screw on the top. DO NOT punch air holes in the lid. Air holes dry out the air in the jar, and fireflies need damp air to survive.

In 2013, I surprised David on the morning of his 70th birthday at Scaturo’s, his favorite breakfast spot in Sturgeon Bay. I was sitting in his regular seat, hiding behind a newspaper, when he came in the door. A few months later, David showed up at my retirement party at Swarthmore College.

It says here: “You don’t need to feed the fireflies. They did all their eating as larvae. But don’t keep them in a jar for more than two or three days. Fireflies only live a few days or weeks and don’t want to spend their whole lives in a jar.”

I did not see David again until March of this year—almost five years later—a shockingly long interval that I deeply regret. I stayed a week, and we went out to breakfast, had a few diet Cokes, and disagreed about the same things we had always disagreed about. I was alarmed by the decline in his health. When I returned in June, he was in deep trouble, trapped in his failing body, confused, and angry at the world. I knew when I left that I would not see him again.

“After you have collected your fireflies, hold your own firefly festival by taking the jar out into a field and letting the tiny creatures go. Then watch them fill the air with dots of light.”


Photo: University of Florida

Whose Children Are These?

It’s been a while since I posted on this blog. I’m not writing for magazines much anymore, but I occasionally have a chance to speak in church. The following is a homily I wrote for a Memorial Day service that remembered the victims of violence in Wilmington, DE, for the past year.

At the end of this talk, there is a link to the slide show referenced in the text. There is also a link to Jea Street Jr.’s wonderful song, “Teddy,” which was performed by Jea during the service.



Whose children are these?

Homily at First Unitarian Church of Wilmington, May 27, 2018
By Jeffrey Lott

Have you heard about the mass shooting in Delaware? The death toll was shocking—greater than Columbine, more than Parkland, more than twice the number killed in the recent shooting in Texas. Yes, right here in Delaware.

Maybe you caught something about it on the news. I’m thinking that you must have heard about Delaware’s mass shooting as it happened. But if you didn’t, I think I know why:

Our mass shooting didn’t happen at a mostly white high school. It didn’t happen in my neighborhood or, I’m guessing, in yours. It didn’t happen where our business leaders live. No, Delaware’s mass shooting happened just down the road in Wilmington.

It didn’t happen all at once. But in the past year—since Memorial Day 2017—twenty-one people were killed in Wilmington, mostly by guns. Their average age at death was about 24. All but two were men or boys. They were somebody’s children, somebody’s brother or sisters, husbands and fathers. Every one of these 21 victims of Delaware’s recent mass shooting were loved by someone. And, without exception, all were black.

In a few minutes, you learn their names. You’ll see their faces and how old they were when they died.

When these folks died, flags were not lowered to half staff. Politicians did not offer their thoughts and prayers. There was no big debate about gun control when these folks died. Some of their deaths were mentioned only in the small type, in the police report.

There were no elaborate memorials—just candles and balloons and photos, handmade signs and teddy bears on front stoops and street corners.

Their families were torn apart. And there was anger in the street and the desire for revenge, which sometimes led to more death. And for their survivors, in the midst of all this pain, all this loss, there was—and is—little expectation that anything will change.

Delaware’s mass shooting happens over and over, year after year. Annually since about 2010, between 20 and 30 gun deaths (and about four times as many injuries) have been reported. Yes, the city and state are working to turn this around.

A new mayor and his police chief say they are “cautiously optimistic,” and, so far in 2018, only eight have died—perhaps a reason for optimism, but we can’t yet call that a trend. The stubborn death toll of Delaware’s mass shooting has subsided some years, only to rebound the next.

And for years, the toll on young people, on children under 18, has been especially severe.

According to the Associated Press and USA TODAY, during the 3½ year period through June, 2017, Wilmington led the country in per capita shootings and deaths of young people aged 12 to 17. Among this age group, the rate of injury and death in Wilmington was nearly twice that of the second worst city, Chicago. During the period studied, Chicago saw 1.8 teens shot per 1,000. Wilmington had 3.5 / 1,000.

“Wilmington is the most dangerous city in the country for teenagers,” New Castle County councilman Jea Street told a reporter. “But nobody cares, because it’s black teenagers.”


Why should we care? Let’s begin by asking, “Whose children are these?” Whose children are living in fear and suffering and dying at such a high rate in our small city, in our small state?

When I pose this question—whose children are these?—the easy answer is to name a constellation of causes and circumstances. We say these are the children of a failing educational system, of economic inequality, of the lack of jobs, of the cycle of poverty. These are the children of a racist criminal justice system, of mass incarceration, of the war on drugs.

But this still doesn’t answer my question: Whose children are these? Who is responsible for these kids? And why do they find themselves in such mortal danger, growing up just a couple miles from here?

Again, we look for explanations. We turn to other “reasons” that are largely stereotypes: These are the children of single mothers, of absent fathers, of guns, drugs, poverty, systemic inequality, of crime, of hunger … these are the children of hopelessnes

All of these reasons and causes are “responsible” in one way or another—but that’s not the sort of responsibility I’m asking you to think about today. I want you to consider our personal moral and spiritual responsibility for the well being of other people’s children.

As we remember today the victims of Delaware’s annual mass shooting, my answer to the question, “Whose children are these?” — is that these are our children.

Our children.


As you watch the following video featuring the work of our guest musician today, Jea Street, Jr., I ask that you remember the first principle of our Unitarian Universalist faith—the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

This is the ethical, moral, and spiritual lens through which we must approach all forms of violence—especially violence against and among children—not only in Wilmington, but across America and the world.

Whose children are these? These are our children. And we must love and care for them as we care for our own sons and daughters. As a society, we publicly mourn the children who have been killed in their schools in these shocking mass shootings. But a far greater death toll—the real, day-to-day mass murder in America—is happening in the streets of our cities.

In the beloved community that we seek, there is no room for any distinction between “our children” and “their children.” This is the promise of our faith, that Wilmington is our city, and its welfare is our responsibility. That its children are our children. May we work to make it so.

Slideshow: Litany_FirstU_5-27-18 (pdf)




Preacher & Doc

“I take photographs to tell important stories to people who weren’t there,” says Bob Fitch.


Bob Fitch Photo Archive © Stanford University Libraries


Lewis & Clark Chronicle, Fall 2015
Editor: Shelly Meyer

Clutching his camera, Bob Fitch stood over the open casket of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 9, 1968. Before him, he saw the famous Reverend Doctor, civil rights leader, and martyr. He also saw a brother, a mentor, and a friend. He thought of the time he’d spent with King and others in the civil rights movement, photographing the height of the voting-rights struggle in the Deep South. And before he raised his camera to capture an image of King’s corpse, he paused.

“It was a tough decision to take that photo,” he says. “It felt like blasphemy to put a camera in his face. But then I thought, ‘The world needs to see this horrible truth.’” Bringing the camera to his eye, Fitch made an indelible picture: King is at peace, yet a dark-skinned hand hovers above his head, its veins distended. The meaning of the picture is not so much in King’s dead body, but in that hand. The horrible truth is clenched forever in that fist.

Asked recently about the photo he took at Martin Luther King Jr.’s viewing nearly 50 years ago, Fitch chokes with emotion. “When I look at this picture today,” he says slowly, “I feel a throbbing in my chest and shoulders because I knew him personally. He recognized me as a colleague, as a younger brother. It’s as though my brother were murdered.

“Our country has a terrible history of slaying its workers for peace and justice— its teachers, preachers, union leaders, strikers. It’s a reminder that the whole struggle for nonviolence and justice is still very much with us today—both the struggle and the oppression.”

Read more and see additional Bob Fitch photographs in the Lewis & Clark Chronicle.

Note:  Bob Fitch died in his sleep of complications from Parkinson’s disease on April 29, 2016. There’s a nice tribute to him here.

Restoration Hardware

When he looks at art, what does
George Bisacca ’77 see that others don’t?


George Bisacca in the conservation studio at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photograph by Jon Roemer, Middlebury Magazine


By Jeffrey Lott

Middlebury Magazine, Fall 2012
Editor: Matt Jennings

A painting is an image, but it is also an object. The image resides in a thin film of pigment bound by a medium, such as egg yolk or oil, to an underlying support: a taut piece of canvas or—in the case of many Western paintings before the late-15th century—a carefully prepared panel of wood.

For most of us, the painting is what we see on the surface, where light reflects the image into our eyes. George Bisacca ’77 sees that same image, but his vision of a painting penetrates more deeply, to the object beneath. As one of the world’s leading conservators of paintings on wood (often called “panel paintings”), Bisacca sees through the paint to the cracks, fissures, worm holes, and clumsy repairs of centuries past—yet he also sees the craftsmanship, history, cultural tradition, and immense beauty of these objects.

In the airy, north-facing conservation studio atop the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Bisacca stands among a dozen paintings. Some need minor repairs, removal of yellowed varnish, cleaning, or minor retouching. Others are in shockingly bad condition….
Read more.

Slideshow: Inside the conservation studio with George Bisacca ’77 
Photographs by Jon Roemer for Middlebury Magazine



The Power of a Transformative Idea

Thomas Neff B.A.’65 helps turn Russian warheads into American electricity.

Illustration by Esther Bunning

 By Jeffrey Lott

Lewis and Clark Chronicle, Fall 2014

Editor: Shelly Meyer

Like most Americans born in the 1940s, Thomas Neff B.A. ’65 remembers the “duck-and-cover” days. He recalls the siren tests, the Civil Defense ads, the emergency broadcast system, and Life magazine stories about nuclear fallout shelters. This was the national Cold War anxiety that Neff absorbed as a child in Portland, where his father taught at Lewis & Clark.

Even though Neff says Portland was “kind of remote” in the 1950s, “we had to go through all these nuclear attack drills in grade school and high school. At the time, I really didn’t understand how getting under my desk was going to do any good.”

Thomas Neff proposed that nuclear fuel be created from former Soviet weapons and sold to the United States to generate electricity. It worked. (Photograph by TBD)

Thomas Neff, 2014 (Photograph by Peter Goldberg)









Decades later, as the Cold War angst of Neff’s youth was defused by détente, a different form of nuclear anxiety emerged. As the Soviet Union broke apart, many feared that cash-strapped Russia would sell or lose control of thousands of “loose nukes” then deployed across the former Soviet Union—and that its underemployed nuclear scientists and technicians would offer their knowledge and skills to the highest bidder. Nuclear weapons expert Rose Gottemoeller—now under secretary of state for arms control and international security—describes American policy-makers in 1991 as fearing “nuclear mayhem.”

For Tom Neff, it was not a time to duck and cover…. [read more]

Unforgettable Experiences

Lewis and Clark Chronicle, Winter 2012. Photograph courtesy of Jason Friedman.

Lewis and Clark Chronicle, Winter 2012. Photograph courtesy of Jason Friedman.

In the luxury hotel business, a little adventure isn’t such a bad thing.

 By Jeffrey Lott

Jason Friedman B.A.’95 says that when he was 10 he wanted to grow up to be a park ranger. He already knew he liked being outdoors more than being inside his family’s Upper West Side apartment. “Before the park ranger idea,” he recalls with a smile, “I wanted to be a garbage collector—riding the back of the truck and crunching up stuff with those big hydraulic jaws.”

His parents—a labor lawyer and a stay-at-home mom—probably weren’t thrilled with that particular career goal, but it was clear early on that, for Friedman, the best way to learn was to experience the natural world, to venture and explore. Now, as a successful hotelier in Bangkok, Thailand, he says he’s found his calling—to design and provide similar experiences for guests in luxury hotels.

The road to Bangkok wasn’t particularly direct. Friedman’s story is something of an odyssey, a circuitous—and often fortuitous—trek. With skill and luck, he often landed just where he wanted to be. He’s tramped across Nepal, mapped routes in Borneo, scuba dived in the Indonesian archipelago, rafted down the Mekong, and mastered elephant polo. In every venture, Friedman’s mantra seems to be, “Sign me up. Count me in.” [more]