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Music Beckons

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

Subtitle: John Himmelman’s further descent into curmudgeonry.

I’ve seen my last movie in a movie theater. Unfortunately, it was Ironman 2, a big letdown after the first Ironman. Oh well. The movie itself had nothing to do with this decision. I still love watching movies, but for now on it will be in the comfort of my home.

So, you know what did it? Having to pay $9 to sit through a long string of TV commercials prior to the movie. These are commercials you cannot mute. You can’t get up and go to the fridge or switch to another channel. You’re held hostage as commercial after commercial blares out of the theater’s Dolby speakers. This practice began years ago with “The Jimmy Fund”. This caused a bit of controversy, but it was difficult to complain about helping sick kids without coming off as a misanthrope. Then they started sneaking in other commercials – usually one or two – irritating, but survivable. Having gotten away with that, they began adding more and more. Betsy and I walked out of Destinta Theater in Middletown, CT as the 5th commercial came on. We got our $18 refunded. At the Marquee Cinemas in Westbrook, we were assaulted by 8 commercials! And this was well after the movie was scheduled to begin. I’m not talking about coming attractions, mind you. I actually enjoy those. We’re talking about TV ads on the big screen.

A couple of people have suggested showing up later in order to bypass said assault. But then you run the risk of getting lousy seats.

And it’s just WRONG!

We pay a hefty price to see this entertainment! Add to this what we overpay at the snack bar. We should not be subjected to ads once the movie is slated to begin!

I know that some of you are rolling your eyes. You really don’t mind commercials. Well I hate them. In fact, my first blog entry was on how TV ads manage to annoy the bejeezus out of me.

When our son Jeff moved out, we turned his room into the entertainment room. It has a big screen TV, DVD player and surround sound. There’s a wide range of affordable refreshments downstairs and adult beverages. And a comfy lazyboy chair. When we want to watch a movie, we dim the lights and settle in. Amazingly, no one screams at us from the screen, trying to sell us stuff we don’t want.

I know I’m not alone in abandoning the theater experience. It’s probably part of the reason the theater owners are sullying what they offer by subjecting their paying customers to ad barrages. If I’m not there to see them, they can’t bother me.

Forget spending trends, gross national product data, personal income and outlay analysis. Ignore new construction numbers and manufacturer shipment, inventory and orders reports. I’ve come up with a better economic indicator. The longer we go without reading or hearing the following qualifier, the better our economic condition:

“In these economic times,…”

Nary a day goes by without crossing paths with those four words. Nary, I say! Turn on the news, pick up the paper, click on an article and I defy you to make it through the day without being reminded that the economic times to blame for — whatever — are “these”. Sometimes the adjectives “trying”, “difficult”, or “troubling” are unnecessarily plugged in before “economic”, as if we need to be reminded that said economic times are not “booming”. Aren’t we now at the point where we know that certain limitations in our actions are no longer affected by the economy of, say, 1644, or that of the distant future?

Do you know what I think it is? I think saying something like, “In these economic times we need to tighten our belts and, um, batten the hatches…” makes us sound like we’re financially savvy. We’re fiscal smarty pantses. We’re reading the signs and deciding accordingly.

I know, I know. It’s also a grim reality.

Please don’t mistake this little observation for a lack of empathy for those who’ve had the wind knocked out of them by the downturn in the US economy. Believe me, I’m one of them! This is merely about the words used — ad naseum. It’s one of those instances where I unwittingly pick up on an over-repeated word or phrase and cannot stop noticing it when it crops up. It’s like listening to a speaker who has “Umisitis”. As soon as you realize they fill every silence with “um”, you can’t help but notice every single agonizing instance of it. Or when someone can’t relate a story without saying, “So he’s like…. and then she’s like…. but then he’s like….” You start anticipating every “like” to the point where you just want to pierce your eardrums with a lobster pick.

I propose we take advantage of this verbal tic and use it as an economic indicator. It could be shown as a graph depicting the number of instances “In these economic times…” is used in the daily media/conversation cycle. This would give us a good overall view of the Nation’s recovery. We can watch and rejoice as that phrase dwindles, or, dare I say, takes on a whole new meaning, such as, “In these economic times I’d be a damn fool to NOT buy a new hover boat!”

Naturally, this would require an unprecedented monitoring of American communication, a thankless job to say the least. But you know what? These economic ti…, I mean, the times in which we live beckon such sacrifices.

Great Crested Flycatcher shaking off a knock to the noggin

I was painting at my drawing table when I heard a bird hit the window in front of me. It hit pretty hard, but fluttered up to a branch on the birch just outside the window. It looked okay at first, but then the eyes slowly closed. The bird went into shock, looking as if asleep, but remained on the branch because avian feet must be consciously flexed to open.

There wasn’t much I could do. I watched from my window, which was only about four feet from the bird.

Then, slowly, the eyes opened. I grabbed my camera. How could I pass on that opportunity? I took my fill of shots, the window acting as the perfect blind. The bird took off a few minutes later. I heard it calling – “reeeeet….. reeeeet….” from the yard a few minutes later.

B.A.L.L.S. Trophy

Last Thursday night I received the coveted B.A.L.L.S. trophy at the annual Awards Banquet at the Pattaconk Bar and Grille. Many have fought and died for this prize only to have it fall into my hands as a result of a total fluke. Gaze upon its awesomeness in, well… awe.

(B.A.L.L.S., by the way, is the acronym for Bocce Amateur League of the Lower Shoreline. Okay, so it’s kind of a forced title to fit the acronym.)

Betsy holding freshly dug wild leeks.

Betsy holding freshly dug wild leeks.

I went leek picking the other day. Betsy, the dogs, and I hiked into a super top secret place I know of where they are abundant.

Years ago, when I first came upon this trove of plants, I thought they were some kind of lily. A sniff of a leaf quickly dispelled that assumption — smelled like an onion. The leeks (Allium tricoccum), also known as ramps, grow in the hundreds along a shallow brook. Every year, I make a point to bring home a handful. I love their garlic/mild onion flavor. They make for a more flavorful onion in onion dishes. In garlic dishes, they are a slightly milder substitute.

digging leeks

Part of the allure in harvesting these plants is the hike to get to the spot where they grow. It’s a bit of a trek, but there’s always much to see along the way.

A bigger part for me, though, is the whole seasonal phenomenon aspect. The ramps grow at a time when spring has found its feet. It’s something to celebrate. I’m not alone. Spring is time for the Ramp Festivals down south, where the tuber’s culinary accents are celebrated. They’re often accompanied by bluegrass music and the odor of ramp-fueled dishes cooking under the tents.

Our little handful of wild leeks should keep us festive for a while.

Blueberry season next…

Rinsed wild leeks.

Rinsed wild leeks.