Monday, August 31, 2009

Song of Summer

The nice thing about living in New York is, if you're here long enough, pretty much everyone you know will come visit you at some point. Last week, a good friend and his family made their annual trip through the area and we had a chance to meet for dinner. I haven't seen them for two years, but once the greetings were dispensed with, one of the first things Walter noted was the number of cicadas they had heard in the trees near their hotel at the far end of West 43rd St.

If it had been a comment from almost anyone else, I would have been surprised, but Walter has spent the past 20 years living in Japan, where I met him, and has spent more of his adult there than in the U.S. In Japan, cicadas, or semi (sem-mee), are a an image of both summertime and the carefree days of childhood, as well as the passage of time and the inevitability of death.

In many Asian countries, it is common for people to keep insects as pets. Here in the U.S., it seems to be more common to keep spiders and other exotic species, but in China or Japan, crickets and cicadas are preferred for their beautiful songs. As soon as July arrives and rainy season ends in Japan, store shelves are full of cages and nets for kids to catch and keep semi.

I've seen the reaction of kids in the U.S. to cicadas, when they get near enough to see one live, and even crickets and it is often one of either horror or revulsion. The reaction of Japanese children is almost as surprising. Very often a child will squeal with delight and proclaim their new pet "cute." I like cicadas, but beauty, in this case, truly is in the eye of the beholder. (If you've seen one up close, you'll know what I mean.) I've found myself more enthralled with the scene of dozens of kids hunting down or chasing after cicadas with sometimes comically long nets, their voices competing with the cicadas' as dusk gathers and the heat of the day lifts. It is truly an image of summer.

Crickets and katydids actually make wonderful pets—though they are wild animals and should spend as much of their lives in the wild. Making a cage for one is very easy and keeping them for a short time can be a lot of fun.

In classical Japanese literature, the image of the cicada and its song is somewhat different. Every year, semi appear to sing their short lives away in the trees and providing a very visible (and audible) reminder of the passage of the seasons. Basho, one of Japan's most revered haiku artists, penned the famous work that appears above, which perfectly captures the lingering melancholy of deep summer and the sense that it must, it will, soon give way to fall in the natural course of things.

Cute or horrific, happy or melancholic, it seems insect sounds have a unique ability to color our personal memories as well as our culture with nuance and meaning. As I've already said several times in this blog, all we have to do is listen.


We have almost come to the end of August, which means the Cricket Crawl is almost here. It is time for everyone to start familiarizing themselves with the calls of the seven insects we will be listening for next Friday night. I am vacationing in central Michigan right now and I have brought them with me on my mp3 player, but it seems that fall has already arrived to the north country and the nights have been strangely silent. There was one lone cricket singing outside our window last night, but I was too tired to give it a name. Perhaps tonight. The weather is supposed to warm and summer is still lingering among the dunes.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Guide to the Guides

This is going to be a fairly low-tech post. Retro, even. Because my books—real paper books—about singing insects finally arrived. More about both of the books in a moment. Now I feel like my education about singing insects really begins.

There is nothing quite like the potential that a new field guide embodies. All it really promises is to help you organize its small part of the world into a structure or a system that will presumably help you understand it a little better. But from that little corner, whether it's cloud shape or soil type or plant species, that tiny foundation gives you a place to stand and observe the rest of the world swirl around it. It's something we do less of these days. Carol Kaesuk Yoon had a very nice essay in this Tuesday's New York Times describing the decline of taxonomy, or the science of identifying and organizing the natural world. We lose something of the richness of the world if our ability to name it falters.

The act of naming, of identifying, also allows us to claim the thing for our own, not in outright ownership, but in awareness. By naming we bring it into our world and through that act, our world becomes richer. It also opens our horizons to the vast amount of stuff out there that we have yet to even turn our attention to. I remember when a friend began teaching me woodland plants and I discovered through those half-dozen names the phenomenal diversity of the unnamed green things poking up through the forest floor in early spring. It was giddily overwhelming.

It's the same now when I open the Guide to Night-Singing Insects of the Northeast or The Songs of Insects, I feel like I'm stepping into a whole other world. Now, not only do I have to learn body morphology and feeding or mating behavior, but I need to also think about frequency spectrum and song timing. So much to learn; so little time.

Both books come with a CD of insect songs, but that's where the similarities end. The Songs of Insects (SOI) relies primarily on large, well-lit photographs to identify each insect. Text is relatively minimal on each glossy two-page spread, unlike Guide to Night-Singing Insects of the Northeast (NIS), which is laid out in a more conventional, guide-book style, with entries describing range, habitat, size, call, etc. next to simple drawings of the insects and identifying characteristics.

The CDs, are also markedly different. The one that comes with SOI (which focuses on northeastern species) lets the insects speak more for themselves. You hear a voice identify each species with common and Linnaean names, but after that it's all up to the insects to tell you who they are. NIS, on the other hand, tells you something about each insect and their song before playing what they just told you about. Maybe it's because I just came off an eight-hour stint of trying to tease out the best quotes out of an interview I did with a bioelectrical engineer, but I find myself wanting the voice on the NIS disk to shut up and the insects to start singing. (Although I bet when I load both of these onto my iPod to take into the field tomorrow night I'll be glad I have at least some description of the insects themselves available to me without using a flashlight.)

Bottom line—if you have kids (because of the photos) or you just want a nice-looking, nice-sounding book about singing insects, get SOI; if you want a more traditional field guide, go with NIS. Me, I'm glad I have both. Now I can start enlarging my world through theirs.

I live above a busy, confusing intersection in the Bronx, so most of my day is filled with horns honking and engines revving. On nights like this, however, when I find myself awake in the relatively quiet hours, other sounds filter into my window that I hadn't paid much attention to until now. Insects. Across the street is a narrow strip of green called Fort Independence Park. Like anything with any vegetation, something calls it home. Something I may soon be able to name.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Learning to Listen

It's August and the Dog Days are almost upon us. Growing up on the southern shore of Lake Michigan, I always associated the onset of these deepest, laziest days of summer with the sound of what we called "heat bugs" grinding away in the trees. Until I browsed the Songs of Insects Website, however, I had no idea that what I was hearing was actually four different kinds of cicadas: scissor-grinder, Linne's, lyric, and the aptly named dog-day.

Admittedly, we haven't had much of a summer here in New York—not one day in June or July posted a temperature of 90 or above—but hearing just a snippet from any one of these songs makes me feel like I'm in the midst of a long heat wave on the verge of autumn. It's not a bad sort of heat, mind you, but one that brings on a deep sense of blissful listlessness. Humans. Our sense of hearing might stink compared to other species, but our sense memory stretches back decades.

So I was excited when my friend at the Center for Biodiversity Conservation, Liz Johnson, asked me to blog the upcoming Cricket Crawl in New York City, partly because of the memories I have of singing insects, but also because they provide a very subtle way for us urbanites to step out of ourselves and to remind ourselves that, no matter how big this city feels, it is miniscule compared to what surrounds us and (sometimes) suffers our presence. The Cricket Crawl will involve nothing more than creating a diffuse network of volunteers committed staying up past their bedtime to count the different cricket and katydid songs they hear and emailing or texting their results back to a central location. The training is simple, the task light, but what, you might ask, is the purpose of all this?

That's not so easy. As a group, crickets and katydids are mostly plant-eaters (katydids) or omnivores (crickets). Few of this group ever rise to the level of pest, as their relatives grasshoppers and locusts do. They are, however, part of the web that is the natural world. They eat and are eaten, their lives affect and are affected by the environment as their populations rise and fall. They might seem irrelevant to our lives, but their disappearance from the ecosystem would inevitably alter the region's natural function, just as removing bricks or nails from a house makes it more vulnerable to collapse.

Yet, very little is known—other than the general shape of their distributions—of the populations that share our backyards and our world with us. In fact, we know so little that new species are still being found right here in the eastern part of North America. Any survey of the existing populations would therefore be helpful in forming a foundation for future studies.

And because they sing, they allow us to become a part of their world for just a little while, if we simply stop and listen. So on the night of September 11, I'll be keeping track of those adventurous urbanites who decide to stay up late doing nothing but listening. Listening for the insects that map their world via a song-and-response patchwork and who are simply trying to further their own species by out-singing their neighbor. Little do they know that, for once, a small number of humans will have stopped to take notice and to count their voices.

Photo: Fall Field Cricket courtesy of Songs of Insects