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.