Tom Sawyer was softly singing “You Light Up My Life” as he carried the large chunk of rotting wood into the tunnel that he was digging. Well, maybe not. This GRAMMY® winning tune sung by Debby Boone did not hit the charts until 1977. Tom had no electricity to furnish light for his tunnel construction and a torch sucked the oxygen from his environment. Besides, a torch lasted too long. So what could Tom do?
Mark Twain, or Samuel Clemens, if you wish, knew the ways of nature. Mark knew that there was a fungus that sometimes grew on rotting wood in the forest that gave off a constant bluish-green glow, sometimes bright enough to read by. I remember seeing this phenomenon once when I was in the woods at night, but I don’t believe that I could read by the soft glow.
The bioluminescence was just the thing that Tom needed and we call it foxfire. I don’t know how this name originated unless foxes might have chosen to den in hollow logs with foxfire growing thereabouts. There is also a theory that the French word fois (meaning false) somehow morphed into fox, or false fire.
There are other sources of light in nature, such as lightning bugs, which folks who live above the Mason–Dixon line sometimes refer to as fire flies; but we Southerners know better. There are also glow worms — remember the song “Shine Little Glow Worm, Glimmer, Glimmer?” — and so on.
The song was written by Paul Lincke in 1902 about a larva which is native to Europe. When Johnny Mercer reworked the song in the 1950s, the larva magically became a firefly. The modern song was made famous by the Mills Brothers and was also sung by Ray Charles. There are also multitudes of life deep in our marine world that have glowing capabilities.
Teacher and writer Eliot Wigginton moved to Rabun County, Georgia in the late 1960’s and became employed at Rabun Gap–Nacoochee School. In 1967, he came to realize that there was a treasure chest of knowledge in the old mountaineers who lived in the hollows and mountainsides thereabouts.
He sent his students out to interview these old timers, and he started recording and publishing the interviews in a magazine called Foxfire. Eliot brought this soft glow of knowledge to the world, which later was published in book form.
The first book was published in 1972, and now there are twelve volumes of mountaineer and pioneer knowledge. The later volumes bear the names of authors Kaye Carver Collins and Angie Check. Eliot Wigginton received an award as teacher of the year in 1986 and is now retired and lives in Florida.
His students and the mountaineers they interviewed over the years told us how to build log cabins, kill and process hogs, raise gardens, preserve food; and much, much more. With a set of Foxfire books, one could move into the wilderness and know how to survive, as our forefathers did. The wealth of knowledge in these books is staggering.
In 1998, the University of Georgia Department of Anthropology placed in their archives thirty years of materials relating to the Foxfire books, including 30,000 black and white photos and hundreds of hours of videotape. All of this knowledge of survival in the wilderness and the documentation of an Appalachian mountain culture has been rescued and preserved.
We owe a lot of gratitude to Eliot Wiggington and his students for bringing the soft glow of Foxfire into our lives. Foxfire will indeed “light up your life.”