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THE ITALIAN CRICKET




My house shelters no specimens of the domestic Cricket, the guest of
bakeries and rustic hearths. But although in my village the chinks under
the hearthstones are mute, the nights of summer are musical with a
singer little known in the North. The sunny hours of spring have their
singer, the Field-Cricket of which I have written; while in the summer,
during the stillness of the night, we hear the note of the Italian
Cricket, the _OEcanthus pellucens_, Scop. One diurnal and one
nocturnal, between them they share the kindly half of the year. When the
Field-Cricket ceases to sing it is not long before the other begins its
serenade.

The Italian Cricket has not the black costume and heavy shape
characteristic of the family. It is, on the contrary, a slender, weakly
creature; its colour very pale, indeed almost white, as is natural in
view of its nocturnal habits. In handling it one is afraid of crushing
it between the fingers. It lives an aerial existence; on shrubs and
bushes of all kinds, on tall herbage and grasses, and rarely descends to
the earth. Its song, the pleasant voice of the calm, hot evenings from
July to October, commences at sunset and continues for the greater part
of the night.

This song is familiar to all Provencals; for the least patch of thicket
or tuft of grasses has its group of instrumentalists. It resounds even
in the granaries, into which the insect strays, attracted thither by the
fodder. But no one, so mysterious are the manners of the pallid Cricket,
knows exactly what is the source of the serenade, which is often, though
quite erroneously, attributed to the common field-cricket, which at this
period is silent and as yet quite young.

The song consists of a _Gri-i-i, Gri-i-i_, a slow, gentle note, rendered
more expressive by a slight tremor. Hearing it, one divines the extreme
tenuity and the amplitude of the vibrating membranes. If the insect is
not in any way disturbed as it sits in the low foliage, the note does
not vary, but at the least noise the performer becomes a ventriloquist.
First of all you hear it there, close by, in front of you, and the next
moment you hear it over there, twenty yards away; the double note
decreased in volume by the distance.

You go forward. Nothing is there. The sound proceeds again from its
original point. But no--it is not there; it is to the left now--unless
it is to the right--or behind.... Complete confusion! It is impossible
to detect, by means of the ear, the direction from which the chirp
really comes. Much patience and many precautions will be required before
you can capture the insect by the light of the lantern. A few specimens
caught under these conditions and placed in a cage have taught me the
little I know concerning the musician who so perfectly deceives our
ears.

The wing-covers are both formed of a dry, broad membrane, diaphanous and
as fine as the white skin on the outside of an onion, which is capable
of vibrating over its whole area. Their shape is that of the segment of
a circle, cut away at the upper end. This segment is bent at a right
angle along a strong longitudinal nervure, and descends on the outer
side in a flap which encloses the insect's flank when in the attitude of
repose.

The right wing-cover overlaps the left. Its inner edge carries, on the
under side, near the base, a callosity from which five radiating
nervures proceed; two of them upwards and two downwards, while the fifth
runs approximately at right angles to these. This last nervure, which is
of a slightly reddish hue, is the fundamental element of the musical
device; it is, in short, the bow, the fiddlestick, as is proved by the
fine notches which run across it. The rest of the wing-cover shows a few
more nervures of less importance, which hold the membrane stretched
tight, but do not form part of the friction apparatus.

The left or lower wing-cover is of similar structure, with the
difference that the bow, the callosity, and the nervures occupy the
upper face. It will be found that the two bows--that is, the toothed or
indented nervures--cross one another obliquely.

When the note has its full volume, the wing-covers are well raised above
the body like a wide gauzy sail, only touching along the internal edges.
The two bows, the toothed nervures, engage obliquely one with the other,
and their mutual friction causes the sonorous vibration of the two
stretched membranes.



The sound can be modified accordingly as the strokes of each bow bear
upon the callosity, which is itself serrated or wrinkled, or on one of
the four smooth radiating nervures. Thus in part are explained the
illusions produced by a sound which seems to come first from one point,
then from another, when the timid insect is alarmed.

The production of loud or soft resounding or muffled notes, which gives
the illusion of distance, the principal element in the art of the
ventriloquist, has another and easily discovered source. To produce the
loud, open sounds the wing-covers are fully lifted; to produce the
muted, muffled notes they are lowered. When lowered their outer edges
press more or less lightly on the soft flanks of the insect, thus
diminishing the vibratory area and damping the sound.

The gentle touch of a finger-tip muffles the sharp, loud ringing of a
glass tumbler or "musical-glass" and changes it into a veiled,
indefinite sound which seems to come from a distance. The White Cricket
knows this secret of acoustics. It misleads those that seek it by
pressing the edge of its vibrating membranes to the soft flesh of its
abdomen. Our musical instruments have their dampers; that of the
_OEcanthus pellucens_ rivals and surpasses them in simplicity of means
and perfection of results.

The Field-Cricket and its relatives also vary the volume of their song
by raising or lowering the elytra so as to enclose the abdomen in a
varying degree, but none of them can obtain by this method results so
deceptive as those produced by the Italian Cricket.

To this illusion of distance, which is a source of perpetually renewed
surprise, evoked by the slightest sound of our footsteps, we must add
the purity of the sound, and its soft tremolo. I know of no insect voice
more gracious, more limpid, in the profound peace of the nights of
August. How many times, _per amica silentia lunae_, have I lain upon the
ground, in the shelter of a clump of rosemary, to listen to the
delicious concert!

The nocturnal Cricket sings continually in the gardens. Each tuft of the
red-flowered cistus has its band of musicians, and each bush of fragrant
lavender. The shrubs and the terebinth-trees contain their orchestras.
With its clear, sweet voice, all this tiny world is questioning,
replying, from bush to bush, from tree to tree; or rather, indifferent
to the songs of others, each little being is singing his joys to himself
alone.

Above my head the constellation of Cygnus stretches its great cross
along the Milky Way; below, all around me, palpitates the insect
symphony. The atom telling of its joys makes me forget the spectacle of
the stars. We know nothing of these celestial eyes which gaze upon us,
cold and calm, with scintillations like the blinking of eyelids.

Science tells us of their distance, their speeds, their masses, their
volumes; it burdens us with stupendous numbers and stupefies us with
immensities; but it does not succeed in moving us. And why? Because it
lacks the great secret: the secret of life. What is there, up there?
What do these suns warm? Worlds analogous to ours, says reason; planets
on which life is evolving in an endless variety of forms. A superb
conception of the universe, but after all a pure conception, not based
upon patent facts and infallible testimony at the disposal of one and
all. The probable, even the extremely probable, is not the obvious, the
evident, which forces itself irresistibly and leaves no room for doubt.

But in your company, O my Crickets, I feel the thrill of life, the soul
of our native lump of earth; and for this reason, as I lean against the
hedge of rosemary, I bestow only an absent glance upon the constellation
of Cygnus, but give all my attention to your serenade. A little animated
slime, capable of pleasure and pain, surpasses in interest the universe
of dead matter.





Next: THE SISYPHUS BEETLE - THE INSTINCT OF PATERNITY

Previous: THE FIELD - CRICKET



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