Backroads: Foxfire

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Panelluses stipticus (long exposure). Photo: Lynn Coffey.

The mountain people call it foxfire. A mysterious sight that occurs from the peaks of the Blue Ridge to the farthest shores of the ocean, causing fright in unsuspecting persons who happen across it on dark, damp nights. Perhaps you, yourself, have been out walking after dark when you came upon an eerie, glowing-green light that you couldn’t identify.

Foxfire, also called fairy fire or chimpanzee fire, is one of nature’s strangest phenomena. A luminous fungus that grows on decaying wood causes its pulsing greenish-glow. Thousands of phosphorescent particles in the fungus come together to make a large mass of light on whatever host it chooses. This emission of light from a living thing, such as the luminous fungus, is called bioluminescence, or “living glow,” and there are many instances in nature.

Different kinds of mushrooms glow in the dark. Microscopic protozoa found in the oceans make water look like liquid fire when disturbed. I heard about this particular phenomenon many years ago while spending some time in Puerto Rico. One of the tourist sites that really was worth seeing was an after-dark boat ride in the Bay of Ponce, in the town of Ponce. The bay was filled with phosphorescent sea life that made the water appear alive with golden luminescence. Looking at it was like watching millions of fireflies swirling in the water as the boat’s wake disturbed the sea.

There are earthworms, centipedes, and snails, as well as the ever-popular fireflies, that carry their own lanterns within their bodies.  

Omphalotus olearius. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

There are also certain luminous bacteria that grow on things and do not shine their light until the host dies, such as a dead fish on a beach, a cured ham that is hung in a cold, damp room, or even a human body that has been left on the battlefield.

The bluish-green glow of foxfire is attributed to luciferin, which emits light after oxidation is catalyzed by the enzyme luciferase. Although it is generally very dim, in some cases the glow is bright enough to read by.

The oldest recorded documentation of foxfire is from 382 B.C., by Aristotle, whose notes refer to a light that, unlike fire, was cold to the touch. The Roman thinker Pliny the Elder also mentioned glowing wood in olive groves.

Foxfire was also used to illuminate the needles on the barometer and the compass of Turtle, an early submarine used during the Revolutionary War.

After many more literary references to foxfire by early scientists and naturalists, its cause was discovered in 1823. When the glow from wooden support beams in mines was examined, it was found that the luminescence came from fungal growth.

The “fox” in foxfire may derive from the old French word faux, meaning “false,” rather from the name of the animal. But the association of foxes with such fires is still widespread and occurs also in Japanese folklore.

I distinctly remember the first time I witnessed foxfire. I had just moved to the mountain hamlet of Love and was sitting on the front porch one night during a spring rainstorm. A glowing mass in the top of an oak tree caught my eye, and I could not figure out what the eerie glow was. It was kind of spooky watching the pulsating greenish mass high in the tree. When a flashlight was aimed at the top of the branches, the glow vanished. But as soon as the flashlight was switched off, the mass continued to shine. I remember it gave me the creeps until I asked several older neighbors what it could be. They agreed that foxfire was always seen on damp, rainy nights, so moisture obviously played a key role.

Boyd Coffey said as a young boy, he walked down his steep lane to Frank Hatter’s house to get his hair cut. It was dark when he started back home that night, and he saw a dim glow inside an old stump alongside the road. At first, he thought the Arnold kids were playing a joke on him, putting a lantern inside the stump to frighten him.  But when he looked inside, there was nothing there but the green glow. He ran all the way home, scared out of his wits. Racing in the house breathless, his father, Wallace, told him what he saw was foxfire.

Guy Hewitt, another close neighbor, said that he and Fred Coffey were walking up the mountain one night and spied foxfire in a large patch of skunk cabbage growing along the road just above Frank Hatter’s house. Guy said they poked at it with a stick but never could see anything, so they took off, convinced it was a “hainted” place.

Perhaps one of these foggy, wet nights you, yourself, might be lucky enough to see a pulsing greenish-glow and realize what you’re seeing is…FOXFIRE! 

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