Every Lighted Thing: what luminescence in nature can teach us about the inner life

As of late, I’ve been obsessed with light. Northern lights . . . photography lighting . . . jellyfish aglow. . .

Yesterday afternoon I went to the Grand Rapids Public Museum for an exhibit titled “Creatures of Light”, which gave me a working vocabulary of various forms of light found in nature:

  • “Below the surface of the Caribbean Sea, certain corals, fishes and sea anemones gleam in brilliant colors along a dark coral reef. These animals don’t create their own light—instead, they transform light through fluorescence [. . .] They absorb one color of light, and emit light of another color.”
  • “Many plastic toys, paints and stickers that glow in the dark produce their light by a special form of fluorescence. They absorb light from another source and then re-emit it—but very slowly, so their glow continues even after the original light is removed. This prolonged glow is called phosphorescence.”
  • Bio-luminescence is visible light generated by a living organism through a chemical reaction. The light we know best—incandescent light—is associated with heat. Bio-luminescence, on the other hand, is cold light.”

One thing in this exhibit struck me: bio-luminescence is light generated from a reaction within, whereas fluorescence is the transformation of light from without.


As with anything I encounter, I couldn’t help but think of the exhibit in terms of the inner life.

I’ve often heard it said that extroverts gain their energy from outside–from other people and surroundings–while introverts recharge from solitude. We’re finding our light, our energy, from separate sources, but towards the same end.

I know many people who identify as being midway on the spectrum of introversion to extroversion; at times they rejuvenate from quality company, and at times they rejuvenate from quality time alone.

It turns out that there is a species of jellyfish that is both fluorescent and bio-luminescent:

When this jellyfish is poked or jostled, spots on its rim light up like an emerald necklace. Its mysterious glow is both bioluminescent and fluorescent. Inside its miniature light organs, a chemical reaction makes blue bioluminescent light, and a fluorescent molecule turns the blue light to green.

What a beautiful way to exist. To coexist. I try to move through life this way: to produce what light I can, but also to transform what light I can absorb from the world around me.


The metaphor doesn’t end there. In terms of understanding the inner life, it’s useful to compare not just source of light but the patterns in which we emit this light.

The “Creatures of Light” exhibit detailed the evolution of illumination patterns in lightning bugs:

  • No Illumination: Experts think the earliest fireflies did not make light.
  • Constant Illumination or Long Glows: The earliest light-producing fireflies could not turn off their light.
  • Pulsed Glows: Some later forms evolved to glow in slow pulses, like the blue ghost firefly modeled on the table.
  • Controlled Flashing: When controlled flashing evolved, fireflies began their diversification.  

Let’s say I’m reincarnated as a humble firefly. If my current way of life plays any determining factor in that fate, then at what point on the evolutionary table would I find myself? Would my light be absent, constant, erratic, or controlled? How do I even light my world now, as it is, and as I am?


There’s source of light. There’s pattern of light. And then there’s the rate of releasing this light.

Phosphorescence is like fluorescence, but slower. The phosphorescent object–a plant, a glow-in-the-dark toy—absorbs light slowly, then releases it over time.

Light takes time to process. It can also take time to see. Even the light from the sun takes 8 minutes to reach your eyes.

How long does your light take to reach someone standing in front of you?


Last night, after my day at the light exhibit, I attended a local event called “Light the Sky” where participants released hundreds of floating balloon-type lanterns into the dark air.

Participants were given markers to write personal messages on the fabrics of their lanterns. Some of these people wrote down their hopes and dreams. Some drew mini pieces of art. Some memorialized loves ones who had passed.

I unwrapped my lantern and smoothed out its wrinkles. I wrote nothing on it. Ultimately, I made the last-minute decision to tuck the thing away into my purse, saving it for another time.

My reasons may have been selfish. At the time, I was too preoccupied in the joy of witnessing the mass of other lights and other stories. I also did not want to lose my lantern in those masses: I wanted to watch the curvature of my own release, its interaction with the wind, and the exact moment at which its fire disappeared from my sight.

I will light my lantern when the time and place are right. Wherever and whenever I decide to do so, I’ve considered writing these words–which have meant the world to me–on its thin outer fabric, for someone to discover:

You can learn only from moving forward at the rate you are moved, as brightness, into brightness.

(S. Manguso)

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