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Plant Talk

Backyard Magic

Posted in Behind the Scenes , Inside our Collections on August 24, 2021, by Marlon Co

Marlon Co is the Photographer & Digital Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.

Composite photo of fireflies flashing yellow over a field of blue wildflowers just after sunsetMagic—it’s something we all grew up with as children. Whether it came in the form of heroes drawn from our imaginations, or the mystery of the world around us, there was a fantastical universe out there to be explored. Sadly, in growing up that magic seems to fade. But what if I told you that it’s still there waiting to be rediscovered?

My name is Marlon, and I’m the staff photographer here at NYBG. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen my images appear in emails, social media, and on-site at NYBG. For the past seven years, it’s been my distinct honor to bring the beauty of NYBG’s collections and our natural world closer to you—especially during the pandemic, when so many of us craved the fresh air, sunlight, and open natural spaces that places like the Garden provide.

Photography for me has always been about seeing with that childlike wonder and finding beauty, appreciation, and ultimately a connection to the world around me. It’s part of what makes New York one of the most amazing places to live as a photographer—there are so many things to look forward to year-round. In summer, however, the verdant blur of foliage across the Garden’s 250 acres means I spend a bit more time seeking out the wildlife, wildflowers, and water lily blooms that define this warm and sunny season. It can even be a challenge with so much lush growth to find the iconic moments that make for a stunning photo. But with an eye for the magic, you’ll find it’s all around you.

For me it’s all about slowing down and paying attention, whether to spot a frog lounging on a mossy stone in the Rock Garden, or a red-tailed hawk perching on a shaded branch—so close you could almost touch it.

Recently, slowing down allowed me to photograph one of the very first things that made me believe in magic: the firefly. While working at NYBG has taken me to the inter-Andean mountains of Peru and the vastness of the Amazon, this time it took me to nearby Sleepy Hollow, NY, where I made my first attempts at photographing lightning bugs. While the photos never quite do it justice, I was fortunately met with great success.

The positive results at Sleepy Hollow made me think that NYBG might be a prime location to test out the technique, creating a series of exposures—each several seconds long—then compositing them into a single image that demonstrates the sheer amount of firefly activity in a given timeframe. With shooting times of 30 minutes or more per final photo, it requires patience, even if there’s little to do but watch and deal with mosquitos. But the result more than makes up for it.

The Garden has many environments that are close to water, along with abundant foliage and leaf litter, and many relatively open spaces, all of which make for great firefly habitats. So, after NYBG closed and just as dusk approached, I set off to find the deepest pockets of shadow in hopes of catching a pulse of bioluminescence. The display started slowly, but as darkness fell proper, the number of insect performers swelled, and I was surrounded with dancing motes of soft yellow light.

A firefly perches on a blade of grass, its abdomen glowing yellowAs a kid, I imagined fireflies could be fairies or some other creature out of fantasy, but as an adult they’re even more compelling. With 165 species of firefly (actually beetles in the family Lampyridae) found in the U.S. and Canada, there’s a surprising diversity of flash patterns and meanings to be found depending on which species lives in your area. Sleepy Hollow’s fireflies flashed in staccato bursts, yet the NYBG bugs gave off long, languid pulses, whether to attract a mate or ward off predators.

The results of my long-exposure Garden firefly photos you can see here for yourself. I may have been a bit late to their mating season this year, but next summer I hope to return to experience the otherworldly performance again. Coming away from the adventure, it only reaffirmed my belief that the world is full of moments where we think, “Can this be real?” It can be a sunrise or sunset, a flower or tree, a humbling vista seen from a mountaintop or a simple smile shared among friends. Some of these things may seem ordinary on their own, but if we allow our imaginations a bit more freedom to roam—much like children do—perhaps we can witness the magic of our world in our everyday lives.

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