Clellie Lynch: Crickets of the hearth sing their songs

EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — In the early morning sun, the sugar maple's golden glow shines through the still green leaves of the surrounding forest. Sharp-leaved sumacs succumb to the cool nights turning their fronds darker and darker red. Fields and roadsides are brilliant with goldenrod interrupted now and again by deep purple asters. A solitary cardinal greets the dawn. Jelly-bean bellied hummingbirds work the feeder. Glorious September is upon us.

Butterflies — stripy swallowtails, orange fritillaries, yellow sulfurs and monarchs too — flutter from fading flower to fading flower. The giant swallowtail with its six-inch wingspan and distinctive coloration — black with a trim and crossbar of yellow — appears again for the fifth year in a row. White caterpillars with a smattering of black bristles interrupt lunch as they free fall from umbrella to table on the patio. Banded tussock moths on the prowl. In the evening, silent moths gather near the front door, but only if the light is left on.

Most prominent at this time of year, though, is the autumnal orchestra of buzzy cicadas and stridulant katydids singing their "songs" — slower at night when the temperature drops. (And drop it has the heat came on in our house on Sept. 1st!). The faint whirrs, churrs, hisses, psst-pssts of unseen insects play harmoniously in the background. Crickets continually chirp and chirrup, both indoors and out. Insects rule the world from within grassy fields and burnished bushes.

Crickets are orthoptera of the subfamily, Gryllidae, with 100 genera and 800 species world wide. These small creatures are similar to grasshoppers, a little flatter, with long back legs for leaping and "singing." While grasshoppers rub their hind legs together to generate a buzzy song, crickets rub their wing bases together to create that delightful burry chirrup-chirrup-chirrup.

Cricket cousins

The familiar, black and brown house cricket, Acheta domestica, may spend a lifetime indoors. Often these creatures inhabit bakeries and breweries. Love that flour, love that hops! Also called "crickets of the hearth," many insinuate themselves into houses, hovels and mansions alike, beloved by some, an irritant to others who find the constant shrill trill annoying.

In the fall, the house cricket may be joined by its cousin, the field cricket, Gryllus pennslyvanicus, who scurries indoors in search of warmth. Both species survive on vegetable scraps that have inexplicably found their way to the floor.

From the earliest of time, crickets have been depicted as one of the "friendly" insects. In the Bible there may be plagues of destroying locusts, but nary a mention of crusading crickets. Many cultures revered crickets as omens of good luck. People not only welcomed them into their houses, but captured and caged these tiny critters. Beware the day you kill a cricket. This was a definite breach of hospitality. Beware the day your leggy house pet stops singing. There will be a death in the family!

Designs for cricket cages are as numerous and varied as designs for houses: from barred wooden cages to carved ivory boxes and brass fish with decorative openings and intricate curlicues. For thousands of years, the Chinese captured and bred crickets for fighting in much the same way some cultures nurture cock fights — though I can't imagine a room full of berobed guys slapping down yuan in hopes of a big payoff. The Japanese for more than 1,000 years revered them as family pets, but this tradition has all but disappeared during the 20th century. Perhaps like the decline in firefly populations, their industrialized society has inadvertently eliminated these chirpers.

We don't particularly like to think of insects as food. Yet the Roman, Pliny the Elder, promoted a brewed, sweet wine of 20-crickets to cure asthma and the Cherokees steeped a cricket tea to enhance singing ability. Nowadays, crickets and other insects are recognized as a source of high protein. Go on-line and you'll find recipes for cricket cookies, cricket chips, and main dishes like crickets with chermoula butter.

In our culture, Disney brought us that charming, well-dressed fella, Jiminy Cricket (supposedly a "minced oath" or euphemism for Jesus Christ) in his 1940 film "Pinnochio." Originally a minor character in Carlo Collodi's "The Adventures of Pinocchio," Disney made him a more important character and used him as one of his company mascots. George Selden's "The Cricket of Times Square" is a wonderful children book relating the adventures of Chester Cricket who accidentally arrived in NYC on a commuter train and lived for a while at a newsstand in Times Square.

'Summer is over and gone'

In the '50s, young Buddy Holly and friends became 'The Chirping Crickets' before being billed as Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Buddy had noticed that many groups were named after birds: The Crows, the Flamingos, The Penguins, The Falcons, The Wrens, The Ravens (who knew?), so he thought, why not insects? His first choice was The Beetles, but he thought better of that and used crickets to honor their trilling. Not very many beetles sing! But you know the rest!

Many love crickets for their music, especially in autumn. Yet E. B. White in Charlotte's Web reminds us that crickets' trilling and trilling day and night is a sign of waning summer and the onset of the cold. "The crickets sang in the grasses. They sang the song of summer's ending, a sad, monotonous song. `Summer is over and gone, over and gone, over and gone.' Summer is dying, dying. A little maple tree heard the cricket song and turned bright red with anxiety."

I do not hear "over and gone, over and gone" in the crickets call. I am more aligned with James Wright (1927-1980) who appreciates the beauty of the sights and sounds of these insects in his poem, Depressed by a book of bad poetry, I walk toward unused pasture and invite the insects to join me: "The old grasshoppers/Are tired, they leap heavily now,/ Their thighs are burdened./ I want to hear them, they have clear sounds to make./Then lovely, far off, a dark cricket begins/In the maple trees."

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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