Thursday, April 21, 2005

Viagra au naturel

IT LOOKED eerie—a blaze of fireflies pulsing like stars in the nippy air, throbbing with mating passions. That show of lights somehow eased the shadows of a Holy Thursday night on a dry river bed a few kilometers trudge up Mount Makiling.

It’s likely that no river has lain in sleep for months on that moss-grown, boulder-strewn bed—except my 20-year old kid Kukudyu and I. We were out to spend the night, do on-site learning sessions by the next day. Usual father-and-son bonding. As the late Benjamin Franklin once begged: "Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn."

Past noon from the foot of the mountain’s northern section, it took us four hours ploughing non-stop through prickly bushes and forest undergrowth to get to that site. We got there in one bruised piece. By then, dusk was falling; the sylvan air hummed with a trill of crickets, cicadas, critters nameless in choral orison. That incessant “sh-r-r-e-eemmm---“ layered with “k-kr-r-eeengg--” if memory serves me right, are seed words in eldritch Sanskrit to invoke Hindu deity of prosperity and beauty, Lakshmi, and the goddess of death and destruction, Kali. Cool healing sounds.

Then, the fireflies came. They were a shy swirling drizzle of stars from the canopy of tree branches as darkness washed in.

Told my kid that two lines of poetry my grandfather recited to me--I was a toddler then-- was a query to fireflies: “Alitaptap, alitaptap dala-dala’y liwanag/ Saan ka ba nagbuhat at sino baga ang iyong hanap?” From his cupped palms, lolo also gently plucked out a firefly for me to wonder at. Impressionable me learned a lesson from that gesture: playing with fireflies won’t get you charged for arson or any similar fiery felony committed with a well-stacked female.

Lolo’s lines plied out something romantic about those lightning beetles—not flies, these critters, they’re bugs whose presence serve as reliable gauge of ambient air quality. See: fireflies can’t thrive in polluted air. Unlike cockroaches and such kotong collecting vermin, fireflies don’t stand a chance of surviving the man-made gas chambers of EDSA, Quezon and Ayala Avenues or Alabang-Zapote Road in the metropolis. That also explains why no firefly ever fell in love at first sight with the ember of a lit up cigarette.

Say: Bugs, a 1970s movie take-off from Thomas Page’s 1973 work “Hephaestus Plague” had this biotech savvy mating off a tectonic plate-dwelling pyrotechnic cockroach with its household counterpart. The induced union produced a highly intelligent species of cockroach that would likely frown on voting dullards into high office. The critters chucked more heat than light. Probably aghast at the voting population’s foibles and failures, they rearranged a suburban lay-out setting off fires here, there, and everywhere before taking their creator with ‘em down into earth’s bowels. They were for reel, those real fireflies.

Say again: the Sailor Moon anime heroine Tomoe Hotaru translates as “firefly of earth.” That’s one firefly my lolo ought to have snatched and given to me as plaything.

Now, Lolo’s two-bit poetry echoed an Aztec belief. They saw fireflies as sparks of knowledge in a world of ignorance or darkness. Say, the word “hell” comes from helan—abysmal ignorance that can touch off the infernal in any milieu. That’s also a throwback to Manuel L. Quezon’s curse—“I’d prefer a government run like hell by Filipinos than a government run like heaven by Americans.”

Lolo meant well, going out into the nippy night to snatch a firefly on the wing and giving the critter to his beloved apo. As it turns out, most of those bugs are males—about 50 males to one female in some species—trying to outshine each other. That’s tough competition. A light bulb gives off 10 parts light and 90 parts heat—a male firefly all fired up for fornication emits 100 percent light.
The nitric oxide content of cells in a firefly’s belly has been tagged as the culprint for such blinking signals. Such cells crank up nitric oxide. The chemical shuts down the operation of mitochondria, mini-organs inside cells that use oxygen to produce cellular energy. The work stoppage frees up floods of oxygen, which then fuels light production. When the burst of nitric oxide subsides, the mitochondria power up and consume the oxygen again, which turns the lantern off. Ah, nitric oxide’s the same chemical in Viagra that causes a limp staff to go stiff like a flourescent lamp—and it’s been known that fireflies can go at it for at least five hours non-stop.

In his time, my lolo dished up verses poetic. This time, I relied on two-bit natural history and pharmacology to impart a lesson or two to my kid.

So I told him it’s much better to chew unsightly critters as Korean bugs than catch sexed up fireflies for their belly hoard of natural Viagra.

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