Jim Buchanan

Jim Buchanan

Some of our interactions with wildlife have definitely taken on a Disney-esque quality.

Take, for example, Cataloochee over in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I still like going there, but it’s changed since the reintroduction of elk to the park. I’ll admit they’re impressive beasts. Still, I didn’t realize they’d be such a game-changer. What was once a rather obscure location is now overrun by throngs wanting to see an elk, to the point it’s so crowded you want to go to Walmart afterward to get away from it all and unwind.

We’re seeing sort of the same thing with lightnin’ bugs (fireflies, if you must). Of late people have begun turning out by the hundreds to see rare sights such as synchronized displays in the Smokies.

Lightnin’ bugs were made to be caught and put in Mason jars with holes poked in the lid and a little grass scattered in the bottom for purposes of lighting up a dark bedroom. Little did I realize they’d one day be an engine of commerce.

I guess a drawback of growing up here was growing up with the assumption mountain culture was like culture everywhere else.

That this wasn’t the case began dawning on me at a young age watching tourists interacting with the Cherokee.

There were several places in Cherokee you could have your picture taken with Cherokee who tended to be dressed as Plains Indians from the latest John Wayne film. 

Some people made a pretty good living at it, and this was at a time when making a living in Cherokee wasn’t easy.

Still, it puzzled me to no end, as the practice struck me as akin to someone wanting to have their picture taken with, say, one of my aunts dressed up as a Hessian. I mean, one of the first things anyone would tell you about the Cherokee, including my Cherokee friends, is that they didn’t wear war bonnets and they lived in houses, not teepees.

It was very frustrating, both on an ethical level of seeing bad history disseminated and on the more practical level of not having a piece of the action. A friend and I discussed throwing on overalls and putting up a sign saying “Have Your Picture Taken with A Genuine Hillbilly!’’ The idea never gained traction, as it wasn’t a very good idea.

At any rate, thinking about cultural shifts and reading about the lightning bug hootenannies that are popular now got me to thinking about another summer insect favorite: the June bug.

June bugs (actually beetles) pop out around … well, usually July, truth be told. Farmers and gardeners hate ‘em, but kids used to love them.

June bugs are active fliers, but not particularly accurate ones. You can hear them banging off the sides of houses, screens or most any stationary object once they become active. 

Their navigational skills are pretty much on a par with Otis Campbell driving home after a bender.

Still, they’re fairly easy to catch, and once caught, you could tie a string to one of their legs.

It was educational as all get-out. You learned about what types of string were best suited to June bug roping. Too heavy and the bugs  couldn’t fly well; too flimsy and they might slip out of the noose.

If an electric fence or powerline were nearby, you might pick up a handy lesson on the conductive properties of certain makes of string.

Several of us would get together and capture a number of June bugs with the goal of having dogfights. The visions of exciting aerial combat always ended instead with a mere tangled ball of string attached to a mass of June bugs feigning death, having figured out that if they quit flying around entertaining us we’d lose interest. And we did. Because by that time of the day, the lightnin’ bugs were coming out.

Buchanan is Editor of The Sylva Herald.