In That Slowdown: On the Southern Cassowary and Fireflies

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The gumball-colored reds and blues of a cassowary’s head and featherless neck can make you think of a carnival in the jungle, all festoon and bunting. It’s comical from head to toe, really. The black feathers covering its body make the cassowary resemble a dark wig perched on a pair of reptilian legs; its gaze with balloon-y caramel eyes can remind you of a six-year-old’s drawing. Each of its curiously plodding footsteps makes it look like it’s trying to remember a forgotten dance move. But don’t underestimate the cassowary—it is one of the only birds on the planet ever known to kill a human.

Most notably, a Florida man kept a pair of cassowaries as pets. One day in 2019, he tripped as he was checking on the status of a new lime-green egg the female had just laid. The male cassowary startled, leapt on the man, and sliced him to death with its claw. This “murderous nail,” as Ernest Thomas Gilliard described it in 1958, “can sever an arm or eviscerate an abdomen with ease,” but misguided pet owners aside, usually it’s only employed when food is involved. For example, cassowaries can get used to humans feeding them and will begin to approach any human expectantly. If they’re denied, they’ll kick and slash. Puncture and lacerate. Should this ever happen to you, the last thing you will see on this planet before you bleed out is the rush and wreck of blue skin, and the candy-apple red of the cassowary’s wattle swinging like a pendulum above you.

But it’s the casque that makes this bird extra distinctive. This hardened, dark growth of keratin on the top of the cassowary’s head grows taller with age, eventually stretching a whopping seven inches. The casque helps them figure out the acoustics of their surroundings, amplifying the sounds of a dense forest, helping them run about thirty miles per hour even if there doesn’t seem to be a clear path in a forest. Cassowaries run with their heads lowered, so the casque also functions as a helmet. A recent discovery of bones of the Corythoraptor jacobsi–a strutting dinosaur that lived during the Late Cretaceous period—revealed a strikingly similar skeleton to the cassowary’s, complete with a crest-like casque, reinforcing the cassowary’s nick-name: The Living Dinosaur.

In the world of birds, only the ostrich is taller than the cassowary. Females grow five to six feet tall, taller than their male counterparts, and flash much brighter blue necks. They can leap up to seven feet high. They hate dogs and cats and horses, and no one knows why. They are known to be mostly frugivores, feeding on hundreds of kinds of rainforest fruit, swallowing most whole— but in the wilds of New Guinea and northeast Australia, you can also find them nibbling on myrtle flowers or frogs. Fruit trees benefit from the cassowary’s diet, too; scientists have discovered that seeds from the ryparosa, a highly prized Australian tree, are more likely to sprout after a ride through the cassowary’s digestive tract. Still, even with the cassowary’s natural propensity to help its own environment—to give back, so to speak—only 20 percent of their natural habitat remains.

Most cassowary deaths are due to being hit by cars while the birds are scrounging for food too close to a highway. These accidental deaths kept increasing in Australia so its transportation department created special yellow warning signs featuring the distinctive silhouette of the cassowary, a car with a cracked windshield about to launch into the air, and the words “Speeding Has Killed Cassowaries” over a red warning stripe.

In truth, not too many people know about this striking bird. Stores don’t carry cuddly stuffed versions for kids to snuggle among their rows and rows of stuffed bears and bunnies. Hardly anyone clamors for a cassowary shirt or a plastic replica in their yard or a shower curtain print, as they do with, say, a flamingo. Cassowaries are hard to keep in zoos; you have to recreate the conditions of a rainforest, provide plenty of space for them to run around, and ideally allow them to swim. Plus, they prefer to be solitary. So much space and money to give to just one bird.

But I wonder if it takes a zoo or aquarium for us to feel empathy toward a creature whose habitat is shrinking due to humans, toward a creature most have us have never seen or heard? Their “boom” vocalization registers at the lowest frequency of all known bird calls, below the limits of human hearing. But when they boom to each other in the densest forest, sanctuary keepers report that they can feel this rumble in their bones, even if they can’t hear it. We can’t hear cassowaries, but we can literally feel their presence, and with their arresting looks, they are one of those ancient birds with a sage look that seems to warn us they won’t always be around.

What if the blues and reds of the cassowary’s neck could jolt us the same way a traffic light warns us to take care—of ourselves and others—and to obey the rules for driving? The simple fact is this giant and strange and beautiful bird is a “keystone species,” meaning the Australian rainforests depend on it to maintain biodiversity. And they are dying because of humans. The phrase “I can feel it in my bones” is synonymous with “I know it to be true.” What if the cassowary’s famous boom is also nature’s way of asking us to take a different kind of notice of them? To not just appreciate and admire cassowaries for their striking looks and deadly feet, but to sense their presence on this earth? Suppose that boom that shakes in our body can be a physical reminder that we are all connected—that if the cassowary population decreases, so does the proliferation of fruit trees, and with that, hundreds of animals and insects then become endangered. Boom, I want to tell the people at Siesta Key, whom I see dumping empty potato chip bags into the shrubs of sea grapes from my blanket on the beach. Boom to the man in the truck in front of me on Highway 6, who tossed a whole empty fast food sack out his window and then, later, a couple of still-lit cigarettes. Boom, I want to say to the family who left their empty plastic water bottles on a bench at Niagara Falls State Park, only to have two of them blow over and plummet into the falls. Don’t you see? We are all connected. Boom.


It is the final week of our stay at the Grisham House, a ten-month residency during the academic year on seventy-seven acres just outside of Oxford, Mississippi. It is highly possible my family will never have this much land all to ourselves ever again, so most of our time is spent outdoors. One of the many reasons my husband and I wanted to stay in this area after the residency was because we could spend more time outdoors in this beautiful town—this “velvet ditch,” as the locals lovingly refer to it—in the green and verdant northern part of the state.

One of the biggest treats during this final week at the estate is the abundance of fireflies. With the lights to the estate completely turned off, at first we see nothing—but patience is rewarded when a majestic illumination dots the already humid May air. This past year, under so much wide-open sky and not having to worry about oncoming cars, my sons could fully see the stars without much light pollution for the first time in their young lives. They could pick out constellations readily because, when I lived in Arizona, their grandfather showed me how to do the same. They could identify the Milky Way—the stream of stars—as it poured itself over the estate, and marvel. They don’t want to go indoors, ever. They want to stargaze long past their bedtime. My youngest throws his arm around my waist to beg please, and when I say yes, they squeal with delight, plunge into the darkness, and race down the driveway and into the field lit only by fireflies. How could I possibly tell them no?

It is this way with wonder: it takes a bit of patience, and it takes putting yourself in the right place at the right time. It requires that we be curious enough to forgo our small distractions in order to find the world. When I teach National Poetry Month visits in elementary schools, I sometimes talk about fireflies to conjure up memory and sensory details of the outdoors. Recently, however, seventeen students in a class of twenty-two told me they had never even seen a firefly—they thought I was kidding, simply inventing an insect. So I asked them what they did for fun in that crepuscular-pink time just before dinner. When I was growing up, I played kickball, tag, riding bikes—anything, really, until my parents flicked on the porchlight. But the students’ most common answer: video games and movies. In other words, they were always indoors. And usually in front of a screen.

2019 was a banner year for fireflies for much of the Midwest and East Coast. The perfect amount of spring wetness combined with a not-too-severe winter to produce a dazzling display during peak firefly season, mid-June through mid-July. But make no mistake: scientists insist that while a high count of beetles can occur in an outlier year, the overall population of over two thousand varieties continues to decrease due to lawn pesticides and light pollution. Because of—and in spite of—this decline in population, artists all over the world seem intent capturing the beauty of these bugs, perhaps as a future reminder of what we once had in abundance.

One of my favorite instances of this tribute is from photographer Tsuneaki Hiramatsu, who shot photos in eight-second exposures of a field where fireflies congregated one summer. He digitally overlapped some of these photos, and the result could easily be mistaken for the night sky on an island in northern Greece or southern India; in Hiramatsu’s work, the heavens and earth are lush, luminescent sisters.

It was indeed a sad day when I had to bring up a video online to prove that fireflies do indeed exist and to show what a field of them looks like at night. Seventeen students of twenty-two had never seen a firefly. Never even heard of them. Never caught one to slide into an empty jam jar, never had one glow in their sweaty hands. This was in a suburban town where fireflies regularly crowd the edges of less-frequented roads. And it’s not just these children. The number of my students who can tell the difference between, say, a maple leaf and an oak leaf has dwindled in my college-level environmental writing classes, too. This shared decrease in knowledge about the outdoors can’t be a coincidence.

What is lost when you grow up not knowing the names for different varieties of fireflies? When you don’t have these words ready to pop on your tongue: Shadow Ghost, Sidewinder, the Florida Sprite, Mr. Mac, Little Gray, Murky Flash-train, the Texas Tinies, the Single Snappy, the Treetop Flashers, a July Comet, the Tropic Traveler, Christmas Lights, a Slow Blue, a Tiny Lucy, the mischievous Marsh Imp, the Sneaky Elves, and—in a tie for my personal favorite—the Heebie Jeebies and the Wiggle Dancer?

All these names, silent, with still thousands and thousands more small silences following as fireflies hatch, wiggle through their larval stage, pupate, crack out of their shell, and then—winged—decide not to flash their chartreuse light. Scientists still don’t know how, when, or why fireflies decide to stay visually silent. And even though a field of tall grass might be teeming with fireflies, the space and time between flashes have grown longer over the years. There are still wren songs to marvel over. I still need to learn the names of the native insects that will be discovered in the next year alone. And the next after that, and the next.

Where does one start to take care of these living things amid the dire and daily news of climate change, and reports of another animal or plant vanishing from the planet? How can one even imagine us getting back to a place where we know the names of the trees we walk by every single day? A place where “a bird” navigating a dewy meadow is transformed into something more specific, something we can hold onto by feeling its name on our tongues: brown thrasher. Or “that big tree”: catalpa. Maybe what we can do when we feel overwhelmed is to start small. Start with what we have loved as kids and see where that leads us.

For me, what a single firefly can do is this: it can light a memory I thought was long lost in roadsides overrun with Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod, a peach pie cooling in the window of a distant house. It might make me feel like I’m traveling again to a gathering of loved ones dining seaside on a Greek island, listening to cicada song and a light wind rustling the mimosa trees. A single firefly might be the spark that sends us back to our grandmother’s backyard to listen for whip-poor-wills; the spark that sends us back to splashing in an ice-cold creek bed, with our jeans rolled up to our knees, until we shudder and gasp, our toes fully wrinkled. In that spark is a slowdown and tenderness. Listen: Boom. Can you hear that? The cassowary is still trying to tell us something. Boom. Did you see that? A single firefly is, too. Such a tiny light, for such a considerable task. Its luminescence could very well be the spark that reminds us to make a most necessary turn—a shift and a swing and a switch—toward cherishing this magnificent and wondrous planet. Boom. Boom. You might think of a heartbeat—your own. A child’s. Someone else’s. Or some thing’s heart. And in that slowdown, you might think it’s a kind of love. And you’d be right.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020