Bookshelf: Crickets and Katydids, Concerts and Solos
I’ve been whetting my appetite for spring with a book about bugs: Crickets and Katydids, Concerts and Solos by Vincent Dethier. It’s a memoir of a summer job that the author had, a very unusual one. As a student in the 1930s, he was hired to catch crickets and katydids so that a professor could record their songs.
It’s an idyllic story. Dethier learns to find the different species by season, by different habitats, but most of all by listening. Songs are how these insects – crickets, grasshoppers, and katydids – advertise themselves to mates. Each song must be different, so a female can find a male of the right species. So he spends a full growing season, from May to September or so, at the feet of the White Mountains in New Hampshire listening to bugs. Birding by ear is a familiar term to many of us – this way of identifying and finding insects was new to me.
Dethier put the insects in cages, males and females together, and fed them with wild vegetation and lettuce from a Franklin N.H. grocery. His employer, a retired Harvard physics professor, recorded the songs using equipment he designed himself. The author later became a distinguished entomologist and biologist.
The thing I found most attractive about this story was the great love and attention the author brings to being in nature, the glory of the sights and the sounds of it. He brings a rapt interest to being outside and observing the web of interrelationships in nature that most of us reserve for appreciating art in a museum, or for reading an essay or novel. It’s an aesthetic experience: listening to the music of massed choirs of tree crickets in late season. Dethier invites us to take all this in. The biology is almost incidental.