EAST CHATHAM, N.Y.
Trees are now slightly burnished with golden leaf tips almost cracking in the autumnal breeze as September creeps in. The fields are filled with bright yellow sprays of blossoming goldenrod as many of the other wildflowers turn brown and toss their petals to the ground and their seeds to the wind.
The Japanese knotweed, too, is in bloom, its white spiky flowers attracting thousands of bees, who greet me with an enormous huuuummmm as I step out into the backyard. As lovely as this fall plant is, the spreading horde will need more than a bit of severe discipline after the flowers fade.
And birds are on the move. All day long hummingbirds flash into the feeders and sip and sip, bulking up their bodies by one-third for the long journey south. Never, though, do I notice these birds looking any different. Nary an obese hummer, nor one with a pot belly, but feed frantically they do.
Silent warblers too have been showing up in all their fall glory which is not much glory at all when they match the green-gold leaves. Some are quite easily identified: black-throated green, yellow-rumped and yellowthroat; others are young and nondescript, mere flashes of yellowish color as they disappear behind the screen of leaves.
Robins occasionally sing in the morning, catbirds, in the afternoon. Flickers shriek from the woods as red-shouldered hawks cry from high above. But the most prominent singers at this time of the year are the crickets. If the robins, catbirds and flickers are the soloists, the crickets are the chorus.
As thousands of crickets usher in the night, alas, we know summer is coming to an end. But what a lovely swan song. No matter how you describe this wonderful percussive sound -- chirping, churring, twirring, buzzing, burring, trilling -- this continuous evening chorus is soothing.
Lie awake at night with the window open and see if you can hear different insects. There is one species I hear at this time of year that sounds like the earth is breathing, slowly inhaling and exhaling, almost a sigh -- perhaps for summer giving up the ghost. I can hear different songs, but am hard-pressed to tell which ones are field crickets, meadow crickets, or snowy tree crickets. I can listen to tapes, yet have a hard time discerning between one and another species as I listen in the dark. Much harder that learning bird song.
Crickets are of the Family Gryllidae and in the Order Orthoptera, shared with cousin grasshoppers and locusts that often provide backup for the autumnal chorus. These insects share a look: long antenna, enormous back legs and wings equipped to produce music. Crickets rub one wing that has a scraper over the other which has the file. These tiny, relatively harmless critters also have tympana (ears), which are found near the top part of the tibia of the forelegs.
If August belongs to the katydids and cicadas, then September belongs to crickets. The common cricket song is the triple chirp one often hears in the house, while the continuous song of the night is to attract young nubile females.
Worldwide, there are more than 50 species of crickets, revered in most countries as bringers of good fortune. The Chinese believed so strongly that crickets were the root to all happiness that for centuries they have kept crickets as pets in bamboo or brass boxes. The Cherokee brewed a tea of crickets to absorb a beautiful singing voice from the cricket spirit. Pliny the Elder describes a concoction of red wine and crickets that when ingested would cure asthma or earaches.
Cricket myths abound through out the world. Some claim that if you kill a cricket, his family will come back and eat your clothes. Other believe that chirping crickets predict rain. Yet other believe that bad fortune will ensue if you try to imitate a cricket's voice. Modern day scientists have determined that if you count the number of chirps in a minute, divide by four, then add 40, you will come up with the outside temperature within a few degrees.
We all know of Jiminy Cricket, Disney's dashing cartoon creation. But what is the connection betwixt this musical insect and the British game cricket? Lord Mancroft, a conservative British politician of the ‘20s, described cricket "as a game which the English, not being a very spiritual people, have invented in order to give themselves some conception of eternity." Some Brits have disdained the sport as "organized loafing."
Checking the OED, cricket, the creature, is derived from the old French word, criquet, to creak or rattle, or the old Dutch word, crekel, which also means a sharp, abrupt sound as a crackle. The entry for the word for the sport, cricket, described during Henry VIII's era, claims an uncertain etymology although one line posits it may have derived from the middle Dutch, kricke, meaning stick. No one suggests it, but maybe the game also derived from the sound of the bat hitting the ball or the ball hitting the wicket. Not to mention that cricket may also mean "fair play,'' referring no doubt to the aboveboard-ness of the game.
So have a listen during one of these September nights to the chorus of crickets and kin, ever so soft, sweet and soothing.
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.