That Hum and Buzz

Insect Sounds

by Ashton Nichols

Think of an insect three inches long that makes a sound so loud it keeps you awake at night. When we traveled to a beautiful spot on the Delaware Bay recently, that is what we encountered. Think of another insect, half that size, which has inspired poets and painters the world over. Many of us have this first creature in the trees near our homes, and this second small animal near our hearths, along the flowered edges of our homes and our gardens. Cicadas and crickets–the singers of the bug world.

The cicada makes the loudest sound of any insect on earth; not one louder insect sound has ever been recorded. A cicada can reach 120dBs, which is equivalent according to the experts to: a riveter, a wood chipper, thunder in a summer storm, a diesel engine room, and a Fourth of July fireworks display. That’s loud! The female cicada makes no sounds whatsoever, and of all of these loud males, the Australian cicada buzzes louder than any other cicada…bububuuuuuzzzzzzzzzz! An astonishing sound.

Cicada photo by Bruce Marlin

Cicada
photo by Bruce Marlin

Here is what John Keats said about the warm sound of the crickets by his hearth: “from the stove there shrills / The Cricket’s song, in warmth increasing ever.” Keats wrote these lines in a beautiful poem entitled “The Poetry of Earth is Never Dead.”  So the poet, who is perhaps the greatest wordsmith of our language since Shakespeare, finds this tiny black bug to be a creature that can make a sound that warms us, even in the cold and dead days of winter.

The level 130dBs of sound is described by the experts as “deafening” and also as the “threshold of pain.” We all know what it is like to hear a sound so loud that our ears literally hurt. We have all turned up the stereo headphones too loud, or we have stood too close to dad when he was firing up the chainsaw right next to us, or we have been in the fifth row of a Led Zeppelin Concert in 1969–right in front of that bank of Fender amps–and, although we said we loved it, it really did hurt our ears. So imagine a little insect that can make a sound only 10dBs below this “threshold of pain” and then imagine dozens of these, or even hundreds of these, in the trees and shrubs around you on a late summer night.

Field Cricket

Field Cricket

Of course, there are other insects that make memorable sounds: grasshoppers, bees and wasps and mosquitoes and midges all buzz, and some buzz loudly. But I say that crickets and cicadas carry the day. They have the voices that do not die and, as Keats said two centuries ago, they are still “increasing ever.” We hope so. Although climate change may expand the range and population density of certain species, it will also upset the balance of many insects and most of their sound-making fellow species. Like the poet, I want to hear my nearby cicadas and crickets for years to come.

1 Comment

Filed under Arts, Environment, General, Literature, Nature, The Roost

Fall of Nuts

A Time for Squirrels

By Corinne H. Smith

“I should like to see a man whose diet was berries and nuts alone. Yet I would not rob the squirrels, who, before any man, are the true owners.” ~ Henry David Thoreau, Journal November 7, 1853

I was sitting and typing in my writing porch on a recent breezy afternoon. The gusts were powerful enough to blow acorns right off the nearby oak tree. Bam! bah bah plop. Bam! bah bah plop. They slammed onto the porch roof, bounced twice, and landed outside my door, over and over. I put aside my work to go out, pick up a few acorns and look at them. They were squat and smooth and had fallen right out of their caps. The tree was still holding fast to those.

acorns2

Where acorns fall, squirrels appear. Now our yard is full of bounding puffy gray tails and the squawky sounds of critters claiming certain stashes as their own. They’re everywhere, all of the time: running over our roof, running up and down the wooden fence, perching on the railing or on a branch to take a snack break. Squirrels R Us.

This routine frenzy of fall always reminds me of a passage from John K. Terres’ book, From Laurel Hill to Siler’s Bog: The Walking Adventures of a Naturalist (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969, pp. 196-198). Terres wrote from North Carolina, where he had adopted as an indoor pet a young flying squirrel he named Hepsey. One evening he decided to test Hepsey’s nut-gathering prowess:

In an experiment, I put one hundred hickory nuts on my bureau at dusk one fall evening to see what she would do with them. By midnight, when I returned to my room, she had stored them all. Some were in her nest box, others were in the folds of the window drapes, some were in my shoes under the bed, and others in the pockets of my shirt and trousers that hung outside my closet door. Just as the wild flying squirrels of Laurel Hill have food storage places in holes in trees a short distance from the home nest, or in the forks of limbs and under fallen leaves of the forest floor, these had been Hepsey’s hiding places for her stores.

At midnight when I came to my room, Hepsey had disappeared. I did not look for her but counted another one hundred hickory nuts and spread them on my bureau. The next morning when I got up, every nut was gone. Hepsey had picked up and stored two hundred in one night.

One squirrel + one night = two hundred hidden hickory nuts. Terres did some calculations. He considered the amount of prime nut-harvesting time, from September through January, and how many of those nights would have decent collecting weather. By his account, each flying squirrel in his neighborhood had the potential to grab and hide from 10,000 to 12,000 nuts in a single season. Since he often found “uneaten flying squirrel caches,” Terres was “sure that they usually stored many more than they ate. Hepsey seldom ate more than one or two hickory nuts in a night.” Which explains where hickory trees come from.

When Henry David Thoreau was developing his tree succession theories, he did a squirrel calculation, too. He estimated that on a piece of land measuring ten rods square (1/16th of an acre), squirrels would have to plant only 10 acorns a year “in order that there might be one oak to every square rod at the end of ten years.” (October 17, 1860) Too bad Henry didn’t sneak a squirrel past the rest of the Thoreau household and keep it in his room the way John Terres did.

Handful of harvest

Handful of harvest

Terres learned something else from watching his companion closely. “After Hepsey had stored a hickory nut or acorn, she would not store that same nut again. Her sense of smell or taste was so keen that she distinguished at once a nut she had had in her mouth before and refused to carry it away.” Presumably, this ability also helped Hepsey identify which nuts were really hers, when it came time to find and eat them.

If our squirrels are each hiding 10,000 acorns this year, and eating only a small percentage of them, maybe this is good news for me. Maybe I won’t have to mow the backyard at all in a few years. It will have become an oak forest. Then I’ll hear some REAL acorn thunder when I’m writing in the porch.

2 Comments

Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Nature, The Roost

Immersion

The little plan took hold during some days of visiting throughout southern New England. Why not, I thought as the miles slid beneath our tires, use a few free hours in Concord to retrace favorite trails behind (west of) Walden and then rinse off the heat and dirt with an immersion. Once seeded, the idea grew to promise – because the 29th would be my birthday, it would be a present to self.

A few minutes past three, I set out from Bear Garden Hill, tracing the Sudbury on my right, headed for Fairhaven. Beech leaves spot the trail, their yellow light rising from the ground. Then up under the Fairhaven cliffs, their jutting rock still a surprise after all these years, and on toward the pond. From atop the westside bank, the greeny waters are flecked with gray from the changing sky – the recent infusion of summer air is giving way to fall’s return and the wind has shifted to the northeast. Walden’s water is, as Henry Thoreau proposed often, most beautiful.

Another day, another hour, but always beautiful water.

Another day, another hour, but always beautiful water.

Even though I made my immersion vow during an 80-degree day that begged for its cooling, and now the temperature would be hard pressed to nudge 70, I reaffirm my plan. To warm for it, I run on, rounding the pond, climbing over Emerson’s Cliff, checking on the beavers in the bog south of the pond and trailing on into the Lincoln woods. By the time I return to the pond, I’m hot, and I shuck off my shoes and shirt before the cooling wind can take my heat.

The water is bracing cool. Here, on the southwest side, the bottom falls away quickly; a few steps bring me to chest level, and ducking myself pondward takes me out over my head. I float, feeling my body’s contractions, its heat seeping out, its muscles registering surprise. I can’t achieve an easy float for sky-watching, and so I ease back to shoulder-level water. There, I stand and watch the wavelets play across the eye-level surface. An envelope of water warms around me; I relax, slip toward reverie.

What wakens me is a jostling. Its enough to test my balance, and it takes me a few seconds to realize that the larger wavelets are rocking me. I watch a five-incher approach. It curls slightly; it mimics its larger sea-cousins. The trough drops the water-level to my neck, then the crest rises to my chin, and, sure enough, the wave moves me.

I begin a game of guessing the wavelets’ force, noting soon that the trough behind the first wave draws me to the second wave, whose force then feels magnified. A beech leaf surfs by. I am completely immersed in my reading of this water and the play of wind across it.

Even here at September’s end, with its sense of departure and imperative about “several more lives to live,” Walden is a whole world.

2 Comments

Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Nature, The Roost, Walden