Neither “sunset” nor “twilight” adequately describes the crepuscular time of day, that time when the sun has dropped below the horizon but still sends forth just enough of a glow to make your way home. In this dimming light one can just discern the path, but can not see what lives in the shadows.
The only true light to be seen in this liminal twilight zone is the flashing abdomen of the firefly, Photuris lucicrescens. I spotted my first firefly this summer just a few days ago. In the ebbing light the number of people outside was inversely proportional to the number of flashing, flying insectivorous abdomens. Almost no people. Lots of fireflies. They flash near eye level, staying close to the path or hovering over the grass where they can be spotted, staying out of the dense woods or thickets.
I immersed myself in the twilight several times this week. The first was in a swamp rehabilitated with hiking paths surrounded by phragmites and weeping willows, while dozens and dozens of fireflies lit up the trail like silent fireworks, no two flashes in the same location. The second time was in an urban park which hugs a tributary of the Hackensack River, with fields of yellow trefoils, butterfly weed, lavender clovers, daisies and purple asters, the petal colors all a shade darker in the low quality light. And the third time, tonight, during a run around the neighborhood, crossing through another park, the looming oaks blocking the day’s last rays of light. The bright green of the leaves faded to dark as the twilight zone drew closer to night absolute, shifting from lime green to emerald to hunter green, and finally to a deep brown-green, barely green at all.
We humans have traditionally not embraced this transitional period of dusk. When kids still played outside, the specter of the coming dark could send kids racing home as the sun set. We are not totally comfortable with this dim light of twilight, unlike the fireflies and other crepuscular creatures such as skunks and deer. This time is their time, the low-quality light the time when they shine.
We on the other hand struggle to make sense of what is neither day nor night, our eyes struggle to adjust, our pupils open at full bore yet not open enough. And religions that base their calendar on the sun and the moon struggle to categorize this ambiguous time as well. If the holy day is slated to begin at nightfall, an indeterminate time is of no help. If a fast from food and drink is decreed to end at nightfall, an approximate time is not helpful. When does one end and the other begin?
In the Jewish religion much is discussed about twilight and dawn in painstaking attempts to delineate one day from the next, night from day and day from night. When can you begin praying? By what hour must you finish? Precisely when must all work cease for the Sabbath?
But all is not knowable. There is no precise moment when the illuminated day time sky morphs into night, just as there is no exact moment when a child becomes an adult. And twilight will never resolve into nighttime with clarity. We must do the best we can to make sense of dusk and remember that at least some species flourish in the haze of the dimming light. The fireflies are one species that have adapted to use this period to search for a mate and live to illuminate another fading twilight with a final flash of light.
Howard E. Friedman
(written but not published, June 17, 2015)