No, not the Firefly Music Festival; Congaree National Park's Firefly Festival.
"Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,
And here on earth come emulating flies..."
- Robert Frost, "Fireflies in the Garden"
In the South, a key indication that summer is starting is the presence of fireflies. This year, I've seen them as I'm driving down highways, as I'm walking my dogs in the evening or as I'm closing up my pool for the night. They're everywhere, and I love seeing their blinking glow rise as the sun sets.
Congaree National Park in Columbia, South Carolina is a treasure chest for those who enjoy discovering nature's hidden gemstones. Here are three reasons why you should check out this National Park's Firefly Festival, which occurs in any given two-week period between late May and early June.
1. Congaree is one of a few places in the world where you can experience a natural wonder up-close and personally.
The Firefly Festival at this National Park exists to bring awareness to a seldom-known natural event: synchronous firefly flashing. This event, which can be found only in a few places worldwide, occurs when fireflies gather to mate with one another. Research continues to be done in hopes of determining the reasons for and mechanisms of the synchronous flashing, but it's currently suggested that the flashing is a form of male-male competition for females. While there are over 2,000 species of firefly found worldwide, only 3 species of synchronously flashing flies can be found in the U.S., one of them being right at Congaree!
2. You can walk amidst the magic of synchronously flashing fireflies.
After arriving at the park during this two-week period, you will find that workers at Congaree have extensively and adequately prepared for this event. Stepping into the encompassing glow of red lights, you find yourself transported into a seemingly new world. As your eyes adjust to the contrast between the red light and pitch blackness of the night, you find yourself walking through Congaree National Park underneath a deep red hue, which is a unique experience in itself. Soon you are directed to a trailhead on which you hike through a 0.8-mile trail that highlights the fireflies. As you walk, you're surrounded by forest and fireflies (and other visitors, of course). Almost immediately you will find yourself mesmerized by the synchronous flashing of the fireflies: all at once you'll see fireflies flashing in large groups, as if they are clusters of twinkling lights in the Milky Way. Everywhere you turn you are surrounded by these shining diamonds, and you're walking literally among and between them.
3. You can learn a lot, all while checking another National Park off your list!
The park rangers and volunteers at the event were not only incredibly helpful but also incredibly knowledgable. They were able to tell us a lot about Congaree National Park in general and about the synchronous fireflies themselves. In addition, they opened the nature center for the evenings that we were there. In the nature center, you can learn many interesting things, including the history of how Congaree came to be coined a National Park, different species of animal that one would expect to find in the swampy park, and various books and maps about an assortment of subjects. In addition to learning all about the park, you can also check another National Park off of your list — and who doesn't love that?
I walked out of Woodward Hall, embracing what was left of the setting sun’s glowing warmth, smiling at the fact that I had just finished my last class of the semester. Oh what a happy day, I thought: my genetics professor loved a project that I had put a lot of time, effort and creativity into, Alex and I ate delicious grilled salmon Caesar salads, and I had just spent north of an hour talking to another professor about life and prospective internship opportunities. Everything seemed, while unusually normal, exceptionally good.
At 5:39 I sent an email to one of my former professors asking about a letter of recommendation. While I had enjoyed sitting outside basking in the sun, I knew that my levels of productivity would be fairly low while I was there. I needed something more structured, somewhere that I couldn’t become too distracted by nature’s beauty. I’ll go up to the library, I thought. Maybe the second floor, maybe the seventh. I’ll just see how busy it is. Zipping up my backpack, I slid my feet back into my sandals and made my way across the courtyard between CHHS and COED. Passing under the bridge outside of CHHS, I approached the stairs. It wasn’t until a few seconds later that I realized something was wrong. Listening, I heard the sound of running feet and commotion coming from past the top of the staircase. I guess a club is just playing a game of tag. That’s pretty fun. I watched as two people hurriedly ran down the staircase. Dang, it must be an intense game! They’re flying. They must have a big group, too. How fun! As I made it halfway up the first portion of the staircase, somebody gasped at me, “No! There’s a shooter. There’s a shooter by Kennedy!”
My heart dropped.
I stopped in the middle of the step I was taking, disbelieving what I’d heard. And then I watched as people began pouring through the staircase in a mass, literally running for their lives. I’m wearing sandals. I won’t be able to run as quickly. Why didn’t I wear tennis shoes today? Turning, I quickly got inside CHHS, figuring I’d be at least a little safer in a building. Rapidly walking down the long hall, picking up my pace as I did so, I tried to absorb as much information as I could from the chatter people were sharing. Some, like myself, were in disbelief and slightly doubtful. Others had heard the gunshots and raced as far away as they could.
Amid the bustling conversation and swarming people I laid eyes a girl flailing her arms and reaching for the walls. I watched as people ran by her, ignoring her cries for help: “I can’t see — I left my glasses in the library! I can’t see!” Running towards her, I grabbed her hand and introduced myself:
“My name is Kerrington. I’m going to get you through this. Come with me.”
At this point, I was starting to believe what people were saying. More people were confirming the presence of a shooter, and nobody knew where he was at that point. Where’s the best place to hide? The tunnel — we’ll be safe in the tunnel. There’s a tunnel that runs underneath the courtyard between CHHS and COED, connecting the two buildings. Alex and I visited once for the sole purpose of exploring, and I instinctively thought we’d be safe hiding between the concrete walls.
I pulled my newfound friend into a room with a service elevator that visited the basement. She cried, “Where are we going?” I don’t think I ever did answer her aloud, instead pressing the down button and running through what was going on in my mind and trying to fit the pieces of a terrifying puzzle together. Alex had class right next to Kennedy. He didn’t answer my call earlier…
The elevator bell jolted me back to reality, outside the confines of my concerned, wandering mind. The metal door of the elevator slid open, revealing a large elevator car with dark red walls and a tile floor. Staring at the very empty inside, I couldn’t bring my feet to move.
Wait, what if that’s where the shooter is headed to hide? It’s a great spot. We’d never make it. We’d get shot. Plus, there’s no cell service — what if nobody finds us and we can’t find out what’s going on?
“Change of plans,” I told my friend. Running back out, my next thought was the bathroom. No, what if he anticipates that as a hiding place? Everyone hides in the bathrooms. We'd still be trapped.
“Head to the Union!” That cry of direction was good enough for me. Wanting to remain protected by the building for as long as possible, the girl and I ran down the long corridor of CHHS. I noticed two other girls running frantically, just as confused as the rest of us were. Pointing to them, I instructed them to stay calm and to follow us.
“We’re going to the Union. Stay with me.”
The four of us continued racing down the hall, eventually reaching its end and bursting from the building into the daylight. Ensuring that everyone was still behind me, we cautiously rounded the corner of a brick wall and rushed across Craver Road, where people were meandering and minding their own business. For fear of causing alarm and raising a panic I called, “Get inside! Go to the Union!” Looking up to the sky, I noticed a chopper fly overhead. The beating sound of its propellors accompanied the sounds of various sirens going off of police cars and ambulances, all of which only confirmed what was going on.
Racing through the doors behind others, the first things I could think were that we needed a hiding place and I needed water, especially if this was going to be an extended ordeal. We gathered at a table by Outtakes, and I watched as one of the girls used my phone to call her parents. Advising that the group stay there for the moment, I went to fill my water bottle by myself for only a moment, left with my own thoughts.
Alex didn’t answer my phone call, and he hasn’t answered my text. What if he saw the shooter? What if something happened to him?
Panic began swelling in my stomach, and I felt my body start to uncontrollably shake as it rose to my chest and throat. No, Kerrington. You can’t do this now. You don’t know what has or hasn’t happened — don’t worry about something you don’t know about. I tried my hardest to reassure myself, but I already felt bathed in worry. Sending up rapid prayers for Alex, my friends, and for the students as a whole, I twisted the cap onto my water bottle and stepped inside the restroom to join others who had gathered there. One girl was on the phone. Blood was pounding in my ears as I dropped my bag on a table. Rushing over to the sink, I gripped the counter and looked at myself in the mirror, noticing my red face and my dogs’ necklace.
You cannot worry about Alex right now. You have to take care of yourself and of the other people here with you.
Splashing my face with water, I feebly and unconfidently attempted to give myself a pep-talk. The panic that had ensued was too great, though, and would only be cured by the reassurance provided by a response from Alex. Slowing and deepening my breaths, I grabbed paper towels and pressed them into my face so that they could absorb the faucet water and my premature, worry-filled tears. It felt like an eternity since I had text him, and every successive second served less and less helpful in assuring his safety.
Taking one final deep breath and mustering up the necessary courage and strength, I grabbed my backpack and stepped outside with my group. Some people in the Union still hadn’t heard what was going on. Others gave the spreading word minimal attention, wandering outside the building. You can all hide in the movie theater, or the stairwell, or upstairs, I thought as I scanned the bottom floor. My eyes landed on a family-style restroom. Ushering people in, I locked the door and continued to let people use my phone to call their parents and family members. As I watched a phone number being typed in, I saw a text notification from Alex. The five minutes between texts felt like an eternity as I was waiting for his reply. In an instant, the anxiety and fear I had been gripped by dissipated, as if it had never existed in the first place. Instantly, my clouded my mind was cleared and operating in its fullest capacity.
“We’re just going to stay in here unless we get instructed otherwise,” I told my group, backing them past the door. As we waited, I continued to feel relief wash over me in waves knowing that at least Alex was safe. I called him, explaining the situation and warning him not to return to campus. Hanging up, I returned to the present concern: waiting it out with these three other women. As I was starting to reassure them, we heard an overhead speaker go off, “Evacuate to the third floor. Do not go below the second floor.”
“Alright, you heard them,” I told everyone. Unlocking the bathroom, I urged them in the direction of the stairwell. A worker was hurrying us in that direction. Noticing someone trying to open the doors to come in from the outside, I ran over and quickly opened the locked door for them, inviting them into the safety of the building and ensuring that it locked. From that point, we raced up the three flights of stairs and were ushered into a service corridor, accessible only to those with certain cards. There were probably forty or fifty of us hiding in this corridor. The amazing woman who let us in was incredibly encouraging, “It’s MY JOB to protect you all. Nobody is getting in here who is not allowed in. You are safe here. It is going to be okay. We’re just going to stay here until I am told otherwise.”
Relieved, we sat against the wall, impatiently anticipating the news updates that would slowly trickle in. It was then that I looked at my phone when I saw a NinerAlert that first confirmed the presence of the shooter just a few minutes before: "Run, Hide Fight." Shaking my head in awe of the reality of the situation, I sent up prayers to the Lord, thanking Him for protection and praying for comfort.
We sat on that concrete floor for two hours, talking to relatives and friends on the phone, playing board games, and praying. I called both of my parents, reassuring them of my safety, and answered many texts from people who were just finding out about the shooting and from those on campus, who were trying to ensure that others were safe. Eventually, the woman in charge arranged for us to be moved to a bigger, less-crowded space. We were taken into an event room that was large enough for people to sit and wait comfortably. There we remained for another hour and a half, waiting for more news and for permission to leave from campus police.
Eventually we were released and allowed to return to our dorms or to go to the family pickup location. Alex helped return my friend to her apartment, and he graciously drove myself and two friends to my mom’s house so we could stay there for the night.
The biggest lesson I learned throughout this whole ordeal is the importance of awareness. It could potentially be the difference between life and death. I experienced firsthand how quickly your body goes into self-preservation mode in the midst of terrifying, life-threatening scenarios such as this one. It is up to your mind to alter those instincts, to defy what your body longs so desperately to do. It is up to you to stop, to be aware, and to turn around to help someone while others flee. It is up to you to make conscious decisions that have the potential to save lives. In order to do this, however, you MUST be aware of what is going on around you.
I'm thankful to be a part of Niner Nation. We refuse to be define by this tragedy at UNC Charlotte, but we also refuse to let is fade into the past with time. Forever we will remember Riley Howell, who tackled the gunman, and Reed Parlier, both of whom lost their lives during this tragic event. Together we will mourn, grow, pray, cry and appreciate. Together we are Charlotte Strong.
Happy Earth Day!
This year, there’s a popular saying, of sorts, that “Every day should be Earth Day.” While I am grateful for the awareness that this celebratory day brings to important issues such as climate change, pollution, wildlife conservation and the preservation of our planet as a whole, I do agree that the topic is a very demanding one that needs daily focus and attention. Making necessary changes to our lifestyles, businesses and society is the only way that we will begin to start the journey of repairing the damage we have done to our planet.
It’s easy to become discouraged when considering the ways that we’ve affected our planet. Often I envy the people of the past who were surrounded and living in the raw, wild beauty of nature, unaffected by mankind. I am very deeply sorrowed at the fact that I will never in my lifetime see Earth in that state, one in which wild animals that are presently facing extinction roam the earth freely. Never will I, nor anyone, see the vast populations of trees and wildlife that once inhabited the lands of fallen rainforests and crowded cities. We are racing more and more quickly to a polluted ocean decorated by the skeletons of once-flourishing coral reefs. Nothing will be able to restore our earth to its young, natural state, and nothing will be able to reverse the damage that is being done now and that will continue to be forced upon our planet.
It’s easy for outlooks to be depressed by this mindset. I once had no hope, as all I could do was yearn for the things of the far past, for things that will never return.
But my hope has been placed in something else, something greater than myself.
One day the Lord directed me to Isaiah 65. Verses 17-25 stood out to me, shaking my world and completely reshaping my vision of the future:
It is within these verses that a beautiful picture is painted of the New Heavens and New Earth that we get to live in, that the Lord will create for us to enjoy. This New Earth will be so much more beautiful than what we experience now that we won't even want to remember the things of old, the things right now (v 17). That blows my mind.
My soul now longs for the things that the Lord promises to give us, and I turn to this passage in times of desperation and sorrow when I think about our dying planet. I’m incredibly thankful that the Lord has promised this New Earth to us, along with the animals that will inhabit it. My favorite verse in this passage is verse 25 — guys, there will be animals (even snakes!!!) in heaven that we will get to live with and among. I’m SO EXCITED. I consider this my new hope, my greater hope for a future that is natural and beautiful and raw and untouched and wild, perfectly and intentionally designed by God.
Last Friday afternoon I was volunteering with an organization and, as we were working with the students and chatting amongst ourselves, I noticed someone pull out a Bear YoYos fruit snack. A few minutes later, as students and other volunteers began eating them, I heard people saying things like, “I got Chile!” and, “Well I got Rwanda!” In each fruit snack, as they explained, was a “country card” that described one of 80 different countries and territories from all 7 continents on the globe. Chuckling to myself I thought, It would be crazy if I opened one and pulled out a Botswana card. Dismissing the absent-minded thought, I continued handing out food and talking to other volunteers.
I finally decided to try one of these fruit snacks, and was excited to see which country I would get to learn about (I love learning, so things like this are really interesting to me!). I opened a box of strawberry fruit snacks and pulled one out. Opening the package, my mouth dropped wide open as I pulled out the card:
I was dumbfounded — I didn't even know that Botswana was an option as a country card, and the likelihood that I would have pulled a specific card out of all eighty was 1.25%! I just started laughing, smiling and praising God. For me, that was a gracious, unexpected confirmation that the Lord is sending me to Botswana.
But the He didn’t stop there.
The following Monday night, my roommates and I were hanging out in our room, washing our faces and doing homework, when another roommate came flying into the room.
Oh goodness, what’s going on? I thought to myself. She sounded frantic.
“My computer isn’t working!! It’s spazzing out, and it’s opening different tabs randomly and—“
I was about to inform her that I was likely going to be of little help when she thrust the computer in my face, showing me what was on the screen.
“I literally didn’t touch anything,” she assured. “This tab just came open on my computer screen and I knew you were going to Africa, and I thought it was crazy!”
Google Maps had been opened, and pulled up was the Okavango Delta, which is WHERE I’LL BE GOING IN BOTSWANA. At this point, I started freaking out, too. It was INSANE. God did NOT need to do that, and yet He confirmed for me, yet again, that this is actually happening.
I must say that, for a period of time, I was disappointed that He didn’t want me to go to Texas last summer (I wrote a blog post about it: http://www.kerringtonmaner.com/home/see-ya-later-alligators) and that He asked me not to turn in my study abroad application for Spain in the fall. In each of these specific ways I trusted the Lord but was reluctant to surrender the plans I had to Him because what He wanted for me was so much more different than from what I wanted for myself. But in a period of 4 days, He confirmed two more times to me that this trip to Botswana is what He wants me to do and that His will and my will are aligned. This confirmation was not anything that I felt I needed, as I was already in the process of raising money and making preparations for the trip. However, the Lord knew that this confirmation would be helpful for me, and I’m so appreciative that He was willing to do that for me.
Several weeks ago, I received an email that told me that my spot for the trip was going to be sold and that the only thing I could do to keep it was to confirm my booking by putting down a 20% deposit before somebody else did. I was surprised and slightly concerned — I wasn’t sure how much 20% was going to be, and I didn’t have an exact number for how much I had been given so far. Long story short, the Lord had given me just more than enough to make the full deposit and to cover the fees that accompanied the transfer. Hallelujah!
I’m still in a place of patience, trusting and expectation with the Lord -- there isn’t an ounce of doubt that He will provide the full expenses needed. I still have a balance of $5462 left on the trip, excluding the cost of the flight. I’m praying for the money by April 1st (which is tomorrow), but I trust that the Lord will provide it on His timing. If you feel led in any type of way to continue to support me, please do! I continue to need support in finances and prayer, and both are equally important.
If the Lord had not made it so clear to me and to others that I would be going to Botswana this summer, I would never have pursued this opportunity. But literally all I can do is trust the Lord and be obedient, expectant and patient over this plan He has for my life.
One of the things I took for granted before moving from the Sunshine State is the great amount of wildlife that can be encountered so closely to where people are localized. I love returning to my “homeland” because I become nostalgic and because a heightened appreciation constantly grows for the place I consider home. While my deep love for Florida wildlife may slightly bias my opinion, I think that Florida is one of the coolest states for viewing wildlife, as animals are fairly active year-round.
Today I went to the Circle B Bar Reserve in south Lakeland, Florida for the first time. This nature reserve is one of many in Polk County, and its recent claim-to-fame was thanks to a viral video of a massive gator, nicknamed “Mr. Humpback” by frequent park-goers, walking across one of the trails. I had vague hopes of catching a glimpse of this seemingly-prehistoric beauty, but I figured the odds were small, as the ranch is composed of 1,267 acres. However, I also knew that, being in central Florida, the odds of seeing an alligator were high, especially down the trail aptly named Alligator Alley.
What I didn’t expect when I got to Circle B was the overwhelming natural beauty I encountered at every turn of every trail. I was so in awe at the wild serenity that surrounded me — all I could do was take pictures and soak it all in. Wildlife for viewing was not sparse, either. As soon as I stepped onto the trail I was met by all sorts of bustling animals, including great egrets and great blue herons. I soon saw osprey flying high above the treetops and out over the lake in what seemed to be a hunt for food, bald eagles tearing through the blue sky screeching and fishing, and other birds basking in the setting evening sun. After doing research and looking-up different animals, I’ve composed a list of those observed on my hike: great egrets, sandhill cranes, great blue herons, bald eagles, osprey, alligators (I saw 5!!), squirrels, bob head quail, white ibis, red bellied woodpeckers, ducks, turtles, and others that I was unable to identify.
Another thing that struck me unique about this nature reserve was the way that it remained seemingly untouched by man, serving as one of the rare truly wild places left in the world. For example, I was walking along the trail when, further out in the marsh, I heard a splash and a deep bellow. Spinning around to find the source of the sound, my eyes landed on an alligator shaking its head in the water, gobbling up a quick snack or meal. In all my time spent alligator-watching growing up, that was the closest I’d come to watching an alligator catch prey in the wild. In yet another part of the trail I stood still, allowing myself to be engulfed in the sounds of the different birds and animals — it was one of the coolest, most natural experiences I’ve been able to witness.
As a Lakeland native, I can assuredly say that my short time spent at Circle B was some of the most fruitful time I’ve spent on a nature reserve. Wildlife was present in all different forms, and the scenery was simply stunning from every angle. If you ever get the opportunity, I urge you to give Circle B Bar Ranch a chance — it’s free to the public, easily accessible, and worth every minute spent there.
1 Thess. 2:2
"...but with the help of our God we dared to tell His gospel in the face of strong opposition."