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Cricket Radio: Tuning In the Night-Singing Insects

Most haunting of all is the one I call the fairy bell-ringer. I have never found him. I’m not sure I want to. His voice — and surely he himself — is so ethereal, so delicate, so otherworldly, that he should remain invisible, as he has through the nights I have searched for him.”

The actress portraying ecology movement pioneer, Rachel Carson, spoke these words in the 2009 film “A Sense of Wonder”. They were taken from an essay she had written in Womans Home Companion in 1956, called “Help Your Child to Wonder”. The passage recounted time spent searching, with her grandnephew Roger, for the sources of the “insect orchestra”, which swelled and throbbed outside of her Maine cottage from midsummer until winter.

Carson writes, “The game is to listen. Not so much to the full orchestra, as to the separate instruments, and to try to locate the players.”

She describes her fairy bell-ringer’s call as clear and silvery, and faint. It is “so-barely-to-be-heard, that you hold your breath as you bend closer to the green glades from which the fairy chiming comes.”

While I’m sure the scientist in Carson really did want to find that little “fairy”, I can understand why another part of her didn’t mind leaving it a mystery. There is something to be said for enjoying something for enjoyment’s sake. For the perpetually curious, it can be a challenge to override that part of you that needs to know more about those sources of wonder. Sometimes, as with the crickets she was unable to find, that choice is made easier for you.

I’ve no doubt she knew those crickets were not calling for her pleasure. They were hard at work at the business of holding a place for their kind on this planet. There could be no more urgent and consequential task to be undertaken by those insects, or for any creature. There was no joy in their song. There was no celebration; nor was there sadness or sorrow. Those “players” were throwing everything they had into propagating their species, and not by choice. They are hard-wired to do so. Yes, Carson knew that, but she probably also knew that there is a kind of beauty in those cold, hard facts. It is like the Mathematician waxing poetic at the austere elegance of the Pythagorean theorem. Physicists find beauty in the makeup of mass, matter, and motion. I suppose the common theme is balance and harmony — things working as they should. A cricket rubbing its wings is carrying out its purpose, as it should. There is something added to that, though. Sound has a way of stimulating our brains. It enters through our ears and resonates within the auditory cortex. The hippocampus, responsible for long-term memory, is located just below that auditory cortex. It integrates with this region, adding connections to our past, along with the associated emotions.

That beauty we derive from the songs of crickets, birds, and whales; the enjoyment of listening to waves crashing on the shore, or wind through the leaves, comes from our own perception, interpretation, and triggered memory connections. We are hard-wired, too. It is in design of the human spirit to be stimulated by things not undertaken for our own edification.

. . .

The preceding opens the first chapter for my new book “Cricket Radio: Tuning In the Night-Singing Insects” (Harvard University Press). Having grown up with an appreciation of the sounds of nature, the crickets, in particular, I set out to explore why they sing and what it is about their sound that touches the human psyche. In the process of doing so, I ended up writing a field guide to the Ensifera (crickets and katydids) and now, this book. The guide, “Guide to Night-Singing Insects of the Northeast” (Stackpole Books), represents the “how” when it comes to getting to know this group. “Cricket Radio…” is the why. Why should we open our ears to the sounds that drift in through our windows on a late summer night?

I think a clue can be found at the end of the second chapter:

. . .

Whether they are joined with others, or going it alone, there can be no question that Ensifera song has a purpose — several, actually. It is part of their inheritance. They are born with their auditory signals encoded in their systems. A singing insect is compelled to sing. To silence it, you’d have to tie its wings behind its back. This becomes most evident to me on those sunny November late afternoons, when I’m noticing how quiet things have become. The frosts have come and gone several times, a grim reaper harvesting the last of the year’s insects. The chorus has been silenced. And then, I hear a trill. It’s a lone Carolina Ground Cricket (Eunemobius carolinus) calling, feebly, and stuttering, from beneath a leaf in the side yard. The song lacks the vitality of its summer brethren, but those worn wings still move ablur. There are no females left to answer. It doesn’t matter. It is trilling because it has to, and it is giving it everything it’s got. It is the violinist playing as the Titanic is sinking. It’s what they do.

How can that not stir a soul?

. . .

For more information on “Cricket Radio: Tuning In the Night-Singing Insects, go to www.cricketradiobroadcast.com.
And go here for “Guide to Night-Singing Insects of the Northeast

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book-coverMike DiGiorgio and I did an interview on NPR’s Faith Middleton Show. It was for our book “Guide to the Night-singing Insects of the Northeast” (Stackpole, 2009). I was at the tail end of a bout with bronchitis, and my voice barely held out, but managed to get through it.

NPR puts their shows online a few days later – you can hear it here –

Link to NPR Faith Middleton Show

About this book – We worked on this book for 8 years. I wrote “It started as a hobby, turned into an obsession, and then, when I decided to write a book, it became my job. As much fun as it’s been, I am looking forward to this becoming a hobby again…”

I figured the easiest way to tell you about it is by cutting and pasting the “Introduction”. Here it is:

Introduction

We all hear them. The true katydids scratching out their raspy chirps; the crickets staging their choruses of trills. They are the sounds of summer. They have replaced the calls of the Spring Peepers and Gray Tree frogs, which have already seen to their nuptial duties. Come July, the night singing insects begin to sing. By the end of summer, they’ve reached their crescendo, filling the soundscape of every yard, meadow, woodland, and tree-lined street. Most of us take these sounds for granted. They are just there. But some of us listen. We hear these songs and are grateful for our ability to appreciate what they do for us. Sometimes the sounds create an aural thread to our past, bringing us back to another time and place. Sometimes, we just enjoy that very moment and realize there’s something going on outside our homes that may have little to do with us, but touches our senses.

But, what are making those sounds? While we can hear the katydids and crickets, we rarely get to see them. That cryptic ability allows them to survive. It’s not easy being a bug. There are so many other creatures out to eat them that evolution had to come up with ways to usher them to adulthood. Katydids took the path of cryptic shape and coloration. They look like the leaves and grass upon which they live. Field and ground crickets blend with the soil and dead leaves on the ground, and spend most of their lives under things. They possess a rich diversity of forms that allow them to look like what they eat and the habitat in which they live.

While most guides deal with the eyes – what things look like, this one focuses on the eyes and ears. I don’t know how this happened, but it appears orthoptering has arrived, and seemingly from out of nowhere! It helps that this new interest offers much of the satisfaction of the popular pastime of birding. For one, you have the songs, which can be used to identify the species. You also have the pleasing aesthetic quality of the makers of those songs. Add to that the advantages of having fewer species to learn and the fact that your subjects tend to spend their entire life in one area.

It could be that the growing interest in butterflies and dragonflies got people thinking that insects had more to offer in terms of “the hunt”. It is often the case that one interest leads to another. When you’re out looking for one thing, it is impossible not to notice what else is around. That’s what makes us naturalist types who we are. We’re curious. One answer leads to three questions. One pretty bug makes us want to see another.

However, while a swallowtail butterfly gets noticed as you walk down a trail, a bush katydid is just one of the many leaves along the way.

The purpose of this book is to make those leaves jump out at you. You hear them; now it’s time to put a face to the call. It’s time to see them.

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