Silent Sparks

Book Review: Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies by Sara Lewis

In general I don’t do book reviews, except when something exceptional comes across my desk.  Sara Lewis’s Silent Sparks is one of those special books.  This book works on so many levels that I barely know where to begin.  I guess the most impressive thing about the book is how it seamlessly integrates the enchanting world of a summer evening in a meadow with the science of fireflies.  This narrative flows so smoothly and gracefully that you hardly realize that you are absorbing the latest biological and ecological research on fireflies and related insects.  The book never feels dumbed down, or didactic.  Even when Dr. Lewis discusses the threats to fireflies (development, light pollution, pesticides, and, alas, collecting), she never gets preachy, and I found myself nodding, yes, yes, yes to every point.

What makes this book so magical is not only its eloquence but, of course, the subject matter.  Who knew that the secret lives of fireflies were full of such poisons & potions, romance, intrigue, disguises, competition, and even treachery, deadly treachery?  Well they are, and this book is a page-turner.

Dr. Lewis, a Professor Evolutionary and Behavioral Ecology at Tufts University, is at the forefront of firefly research.  I was delighted to read her account of one of the original pioneers in the field, the late John Buck, a biologist at the National Institutes of Health. In the 70’s I spent a delightful evening with Dr. Buck at his Woods Hole house talking about synchronization of animals, especially fireflies.  That and some of the other fascinating people in Woods Hole helped fuel my early interest in the natural world.

Silent Sparks is a lush, beautifully-illustrated, semi-coffee table book that nevertheless was on my bedside table for a month as I slowly digested every delicious page.

We live in a great area for fireflies and I expect that they will be more appreciated than ever this summer.  If you are interested in these elfin creatures of the night, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of this book.

I don’t know where the title of the book originates from.  Could it be a poem by Emily Dickinson?  Here is one example:

“A winged spark doth soar about —

I never met it near

For Lightning it is oft mistook

When nights are hot and sere“

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