Lightning bugs

Romantic Landscape With Ruin

By Debbie Urbanski

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The Adirondacks keep rising and so forth but the real question for me of this essay is how does a human such as myself describe the world, or a part of the world, without humans in it?

There is a lot to be grateful for. Explain

Behind the man-made enclosures the trees are studied and safe, their branches bowed as they offer whatever these people want: sap, limbs, heartwood, growth, toilet paper, shade. Nearby, the white-tailed deer gather at the water tower to prance their thanks—this may look like foot stomping, it’s not—for the culling system which should keep the locals from hating them. The migratory song birds, also not hated, flock around the plastic feeders, little colors and song nibbling on the blocks of slaughtered cow fat. The hammered shield lichen in the yard on the broken twig has been identified. The deer are hated anyway. The lawn moss is hated but not the lichen. The grass plays with the children, the ants tickle the children! This is fun. South of here, a scenic overlook, protected from certain types of industry, poses for another selfie. The wind for now runs through the fast-growing forsythia and behaves.

Meanwhile I own 6,000 square feet of land. I own all the plants on my land legally. This includes any fungi and that hammered shield lichen mentioned above and the hated moss and the wild grape vines. I own all the trees. This is not many trees, the city owns the municipal trees bordering the street, but it is a few trees and at least a good part of the backyard’s sprawling silver maple. I own the air above my land, which might be 80 feet or 500 feet up—the laws are vague. It is nice to own so many feet of air, of space. I wish I owned the birds that flew through my space, the crows or the starlings, but people cannot own wild birds in the way they can own a shield lichen. I do not own the chipmunks either that live in my garage but I am allowed, via environmental conservation laws, to take the chipmunks, take meaning to pursue, shoot, hunt, kill, capture, trap, snare or net, which seems to me a form of ownership. I do own the ground below my home. I own thousands of miles of ground to the center of the Earth but I do not own the insects in that Earth or on my land. This saddens me: it would be nice to own a pair of dragonfly wings. The gray squirrel’s screech of arrival scares the songbirds away. The squirrels are hated too, I forgot to mention.

What else is hated? Explain 

The northern raccoon, the eastern mole, most kinds of bats, the rock pigeon, the meadow vole, any species of mouse, the woodchuck, the northern short-tailed shrew, the Norway rat, all arachnids, all ants, the cockroaches, the oversized flapping moth stuck to my window screen, the stink bugs, really any insect except the ladybug, the common dandelion, the ground ivy and the broadleaf plantain, the crabgrass and white clover and bull thistle and ragweed, the chickweed, the speedwell, the buckthorn and autumn olive, the mock strawberry. Also the laughing gull doesn’t actually laugh. Also the endangered species want to be preserved in file drawers and deep freezers. Also the deer tick didn’t have eyes but it fastened itself to my daughter’s scalp and gorged on her blood anyway. “Thank you for trying,” murmured the dead white rhino. He didn’t really mean it. The gray squirrel says, “Kuk kuk kuk.” It is a warning. The gray squirrel says, “Quaa, quaa.” It is another warning. In case those aren’t enough warnings, three billion passenger pigeons inhabit the nightmares of the women, including me, who claim to have nothing to do with avian extinction, nothing at all. The creeping ivy creeps. The panic grass pants. A song sparrow crashes into my attic’s picture window, rupturing its blood vessels. Oops, that was an accident. “We should do something about that,” I tell my husband. Another sparrow crashes into my picture window. Another and another. What a lot of accidents not to mention the wet smudges. I buy lengths of paracord to hang on the outside of the glass but there are difficulties. The window doesn’t open. The window is 25 feet from the ground. I don’t have a tall ladder. What does one do with the bodies of dead birds? One double bags them and throws them into the garbage. The roots scheme underground, the gray squirrels molt, the cellar spider molts, while at the water tower, near the park where my children once ran, a carbon arrow penetrates the deer’s flank.


The arrow penetrates the deer’s eye, severing the optic nerve.


The arrow penetrates the spine?

Make the deer the subject

At the water tower, where the children once ran, the flank of the deer engulfs the tip of the arrow.

Good. Keep going

The outside doesn’t want the children. “Go outside,” says the mother to the child as if she wasn’t listening. The forest envelopes the hikers and not in a friendly sort of way; the creek suffocates the child. The honeybee drives its stinger into a neighbor’s foot, triggering anaphylaxis. The moss decides it is taking over the city. The squirrel births a litter of baby squirrels, the mouse births a liter of baby mice. In the northern hardwoods beyond the cellular network, in the gravel parking lot, an eastern chipmunk climbs into the hybrid engine, severing the wires. Not that those hikers will ever need their car again. The ocean ascends the shoreline, the mice move through the vacant houses. The moss reproduces over the sagging roofs. The glacier calves, the deer at dusk promenade down the sidewalks, the dome of the Adirondacks rises. The dome of the Adirondacks rises some more. The Adirondacks keep rising and so forth but the real question for me of this essay is how does a human such as myself describe the world, or a part of the world, without humans in it? For instance, can a human (such as myself) describe a place from a non-human point of view? This is a challenge I’m facing. Such a description, I imagine, wouldn’t use any words, it would be more like a flash of light, a color, a sound, a space, movement, but how do I write a movement without words?

The humans were wetter, the humans were chased

Another challenge I’m facing is that the above two phrases don’t make literal sense. Another challenge is that I’d like this essay to be a part of my autobiography.

The humans were drowned, frozen, hurt, starved, crushed 

This means I still need to be here in this essay somehow, even if my role is wondering what would it be like if I wasn’t here in this essay. A fine balance: to be present but not too present, to witness but not witness too directly.

You need to stop talking now

Weren’t they shiny, remembers the river as the river water floods over the bridge that once connected a place to another place

And in the field a lightning bug, genus photuris, creates its own light

And a lightning bug, in return, created light



Debbie UrbanskiDebbie Urbanski’s short stories and essays have been published in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, The Sun, Orion, Nature, and The Best American Experimental Writing. Her first novel, What Comes After The End, will be published by Pantheon Books in 2023. She spends her weekends loving the Finger Lakes Trail in Central New York with her family. Catch up with her at and on Instagram @debbieurbanski.

Header photo by Fer Gregory, courtesy Shutterstock. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.