IT IS SURPRISING how few books there are on the songs of insects, since people have been listening to them for thousands of years. “Last night the chilly cricket did not cease its song,” wrote Yueh Fei in 1130 AD. “It woke me from dreams a thousand miles away.” So many ancient cricket poems of the East are full of sadness and ennui, the fearful realization that human life creaks onward toward death, while the strange music of the suborder Ensifera lasts as long as life goes on. This orthopteran soundtrack has little to do with human life, but we always notice it, grasping frequencies that even the bugs can’t hear.
These songs might have depressed generations of Chinese poets, but not so John Himmelman. He has written the most exuberant, thoughtful, and heartfelt work on singing insects ever published — a detailed assembly of scientific information blended with personal witness and nature writing the likes of which we rarely see.
Eleven years in the making, Cricket Radio: Tuning In the Nightsinging Insects not only tells you all you’d ever want to know about the biology of sonic insects, but also about the author’s experiences in stalking these wild and wonderful sounds for many years. He teaches us how to listen precisely on a cricket-stalking expedition, to move silently in the night woods, cup our hands to tune in to the source more accurately, and move closer to the quarry to capture the singer and figure out exactly who he is.
Himmelman even gives specific instructions for how you can keep these insects in your home, as the ancient Chinese used to do, to enjoy their songs at close range. When you are done, you may send the musician back out into the cacophonous night. “To further assuage my guilt in kidnapping these singers from their homes,” Himmelman says, “I make a point to release them back where they were found.” He rarely keeps an insect more than a couple of weeks. “Most have a life expectancy spanning just a few months, so even a week removed from their home is a good chunk of their life. . . . Do these insects really know they are in captivity? Probably not, especially if things are done correctly. But I know.”
I’ll let you in on a secret: Himmelman has put all the songs he describes in this book on a website free for you to enjoy. You can listen to the insect music with or without his narration at cricketradiobroadcast.com. The site is organized as a seasonal march from spring through fall, presenting which bugs you may hear during each month. Listen carefully and you’ll learn the names for a whole world of aural beauty that is often overlooked. Insect music is even older than bird song — it is the very score of ancient evolution itself. Perhaps this is why we have such a yearning for it. When the crickets pour out their chirps and swirls, we sometimes wish they would just stop and be quiet. And when the sound disappears, we long for it to start up again.