Firefly Light, Pure Water, and Tea

It’s nearly mid-June and the fireflies have returned to the meadows in my neighborhood. On warm, still, cloud-less nights I sit behind my house when darkness has settled in to enjoy one of my favorite moments of summer – the juxtaposition of the heavenly glow of the stars in the sky and the tiny,  twinkling lights of the fireflies hovering over the hay fields. With a little imagination, one could believe that the blinking lights are the frantic efforts of stars that have fallen from the sky to rise up and return to their celestial domain.

Ricefield-Fireflies wood block print                     by artist David Stone

But fireflies are real creatures – they are members of the beetle family who have a marvelous, bioluminescent ability to emit light from their abdomen which they use to attract mates. When I was a kid we called them lightening bugs, and we tried our darnedest to capture a few each June and keep them in a jar for a few hours for closer examination.

artwork by Mike Lowery,

Fireflies are a phenomenon in Japan, too, during the month of June. Firefly ‘viewings’ or ‘gatherings’ along streams and fields are a popular way for many in Japan to venture outdoors and appreciate the natural world. For tea lovers, this also offers the opportunity to enjoy tea in a tranquil, outdoor setting, combining an appreciation of life’s fleeting moments (an awareness that every tea ceremony gathering carries with it is the notion of ‘ichi go ichi e’, meaning, one chance in one’s lifetime, or, the knowledge that such a gathering of guests will never gather again at that monent, on that day, in that year, in their lifetime) with a delicious bowl of fragrant tea.

I recently discovered charming piece on firefly viewing that emphasizes the importance of pure water for both the health of the natural world and for tea preparation and drinking, and which also cleverly contains subtle references to principles of Chado, or the Way of Tea.

The piece was written by Dr. Genshitsu Sen, Hounsai Daisosho, and posted  on the website under Essays on Tea, Firefly Light. I wonder if others familiar with Chado will recognize within his words the nod to the principles or temae (etiquette) of Chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony, that I think I see in this piece: wa (harmony – applied here as harmony with the surroundings), kei (respect- applied here as our respect for the environment), sei (purity- applied here as purity of water and nature), and jaku (tranquility- applied here for the ability of nature to calm and refresh us).

This is what he wrote:

” Speaking of fireflies, each year in June a Firefly Light Tea Gathering is held on the grounds of Tadasu no Mori, a wooded site within the Shimogamo Shrine renowned from ancient times in Kyoto. The gathering is hosted jointly by the Tadasuno Mori Kenshô Foundation and Urasenke Konnichian. The gatherings are part of an effort to re-establish fireflies along the Mitarashi Stream that flows through the shrine precincts and to reclaim the purity of the stream. The fruition of these efforts over the past five or six years occurs at dusk in the sixth month. Here and there fireflies wing about. Yearly the number of persons who come to view them increases.  Starting from around six o’clock in the evening, the Firefly Light Gathering attracts not only firefly aficionados but also many who come seeking a few moments of tranquility.

In the same way that fireflies cannot live without the flow of beautifully pure water, tea that elicits gratitude from the heart’s depth cannot be partaken of if there are no sources of crystal pure water. For the task of ensuring the purity of flowing water, each individual must expend his or her energy. Let us join together in creating a world environment that encourages gazing upon the light of fireflies and sharing a delicious bowl of tea.”  Translated from Tankô Magazine by Christy A. Bartlett.

For those interested in celebrating the Japanese idea of nodate ( open air tea ceremony ) or preparing matcha outdoors, this traveling bamboo and silk tea basket is designed to carry the necessary supplies. The basket contains a tiny whisk, a folding matcha scoop, and room for a small chawan ( matcha tea bowl).

So, please join me on some moonless night during June, in the backyard, or beside a meadow along a darkened country lane, with cup of tea in hand, and salute the presence of twinkling fireflies, and the joy of partaking of a cup of tea with other kindred spirits.


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