The loud squawking of a pair of seagulls interrupted the afternoon quiet of our rural hamlet of 18 houses. The Maine air, cool and clear, coming in off Penobscot Bay a five-minute walk away offset the hot sun of the September day. I was relaxing on our tightly screened back porch, taking a break from daily chores and reading a county extension bulletin in hope of learning what kind of insect was causing trouble in my vegetable garden.

A flicker of motion at the far end of the porch distracted me from my reading, but as I scanned the area I didn’t see anything moving. Then, as I focused on the spot where the wall met the floor, I saw it again, moving along the crack by the floor molding, moving, then stopping, and then moving again — a cricket. I quietly put down my paper and watched. The cricket ran a bit further toward the inside 90-degree corner of the porch, running a few inches, then stopping, then running again.

I hadn’t seen a cricket for a long time. I recalled how I had enjoyed hearing them regularly every summer evening as we sat on the porch, their songs a substantial part of that quiet, satisfying feeling of peace and tranquility that I remembered from childhood. As I thought about it, I realized that I really hadn’t heard the crickets for quite a long time.

And then the reality of the situation hit me. In my advanced years I wasn’t hearing a lot of what I used to hear. As the hearing aids I wore attested, my hearing was failing and at the high frequencies at which the crickets sang, their songs were beyond my reception range. Cricket chirps were something to which I hadn’t recently given a lot of thought. Being more intently focused on hearing conversations and being able to communicate with others, I had overlooked them.

My cricket ran forward a few more inches and then, reversing itself, continued the same running, stopping, running journey to the outside wall of the porch, turned, and began to run toward me. I sat quietly. It approached me, progressing almost to the porch door, then turned and retraced its steps to the corner, then along the wall toward the inside corner.

Each time it passed the seam where two pieces of molding met it would rise up on its rear legs as if to climb the wall, move left and right as if searching for something, then go down on all legs and proceed. How concentrated were its actions, I thought. What was it searching for? After many stops and starts, it disappeared behind a box in the corner. In a moment it returned, reversed direction again, and soon disappeared behind the box. I waited.

I wondered if it was chirping, and if so, to what purpose, for its songs represent different aspects of its life cycle. The male field cricket (Gryllus assimilis), found all over the mid- and eastern United States, attracts the female with a loud, monotonous chirp; if the female is nearby, the tone is softer. It’s different still when two males encounter each other. The danger signal has quite a different sound. Each of the different chirps is recognizable with study, and if we count the number of chirps in 15 seconds and add 37 we approximate the outside temperature in
Fahrenheit.

In the United States, crickets are perceived as “just another insect,” but elsewhere in the world, particularly in Asia, they enjoy quite a different status. In China, crickets have enjoyed the respect of the population for more than 2,000 years, due to their songs, intelligence and competitiveness.

Initially enjoyed only for their tunes, they were kept in cages by both wealthy and common people as an elegant hobby. Eventually cricket fighting flourished as a popular sport for both children and adults, continuing underground during the Cultural Revolution, and actively pursued to this day, organized by cricket fighting clubs and associations and augmented by video that enhances the size of the warriors to Godzilla-like proportions. It is also frequently the focus of extensive gambling.

In Japan, the cricket’s songs are considered beautiful, and in many Japanese homes, crickets are kept in tiny, beautifully crafted bamboo, sometimes gold, cricket cages, their music an enhancement to the household ambiance. One particular cricket species, known as Suzumushi, Japan’s Bell Cricket, is said to sound like a quiet, non-metallic jingling of sleigh bells.

Five minutes later, my cricket reappeared at the near side of the box and in starts and stops crawled under the rattan couch. A moment later it was again back at the wall, made a left turn and disappeared again behind the box. Will it find what it is looking for, I mused? Again I waited, almost 10 minutes this time, and it reappeared, working its way toward me along the wall, past the door to the house, under the stack of firewood.

It will probably stay there forever, I thought, and I went back to my reading. When I returned to my chores, and opened the porch door, my cricket appeared through the opening below the hinge, and scurried down the two steps and under the porch. Had it just been looking for a way out? If so, then how did it get in?

How is it that I have so little knowledge of an insect that has a cultural history of 2,000 years? And why have I noticed it so late? Do we only fully appreciate that which we have lost?

Although summer has just ended, the nights here in Maine are beginning to chill and I’m certain the crickets are calling for their mates and looking for a warm place to settle down for the cold weather. How fortunate I have been to have the cricket’s beautiful
songs as a part of my world. I regret that I didn’t develop a better
appreciation of its talents when I could still enjoy them. I’m certain it is singing now, even though I don’t hear it. Come to think of it, I don’t hear the cicadas, either.

Norbert Nathanson lives on Saturday Cove in Northport. Throughout his career he was in close contact with the arts, spending the majority of it in public television, academia and government as a teacher, art director, writer, producer and director of entertainment, educational and instructional programming. “Force of habit,” he said, “still drives me to look for interesting bits of my environment that might make a good story.”