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