Notes on Crickets
Written August 17, 2020
When I was a kid growing up on the South Side we called all the bugs that make noise at night in July and August “crickets.” I am not sure why or if any are actually crickets. I think they are cicadas, but we reserved that word for the 17-year variety. As a boy I was told how much noise the 17-year cicadas made back in 1973, the year before I was born, and looked forward to 1990 for their next arrival in Chicago. When that happened I was in Europe on vacation and only arrived home for the tail-end of their emergence. They liked oak trees, everyone said and it seemed true, and my neighborhood had many oak trees. The trees themselves seemed to sing when the cicadas got going. When they came back in 2007 I was up on the North Side, where the cicadas where more muted and widely dispersed, maybe because the oak trees are too. Once that year I went to a cousin’s house in my old neighborhood for an engagement party for my sister, and I deliberately got off the train two stops early to walk over a mile down oak-lined streets to listen to the cicadas. I remember, on the deck of my uncle Bob’s, my great aunt Rosemary had a cicada sitting on her shirt like a living broach. Her husband, my uncle Kevin, sat next to me and asked me why no one made comedies anymore. I was somewhat confused, thinking maybe he meant the quality had fallen off since Chris Farley died, which seemed an unlikely opinion given his age. My dad later whispered “He means musicals.” Kevin was a daily communicant. Fought at Saipan, and was part of the first group of Marines who arrived at Nagasaki after Japan surrendered, which we only learned through a eulogy someone gave after his death a few years later. Rosemary, seated in the front row of the church, saluted the young marine who handed her the folded flag. I never saw her again.
I’m sitting on my front porch listening to the cicadas. Or crickets. Or both. There are two types I can discern from here: the whistling-up-and-down types and the clicky types. The ones that click start slowly and speed up and get louder as they go, then start over. In the daytime they are largely silent, unless a bird is carrying them off or chasing them. I get to see those little Werner Herzog moments--the merciless bird and the frightened, clicking cicada --thanks to COVID. I work from home right here on this porch. At night, listening to hundreds or maybe thousands of insects chatter, looking across and down the street through the heavy leaves, it is easy to imagine I am not in the staid and domesticated Midwest but in one of Marlowe’s (via Conrad) dark places of the earth. And maybe if the hunted cicada could speak, he would say that I am.
“The South Pole Wall, as it is known, consists of thousands of galaxies — beehives of trillions of stars and dark worlds, as well as dust and gas — aligned in a curtain arcing across at least 700 million light-years of space. It winds behind the dust, gas and stars of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, from the constellation Perseus in the Northern Hemisphere to the constellation Apus in the far south. It is so massive that it perturbs the local expansion of the universe.”
That’s Dennis Overbye, he of the perfect first name, writing in the New York Times on July 10. You may have missed it because you are freaking out about Trump or COVID or the economy or the General Civic Unrest. It’s easy to knock the Times these days, but you have to hand it to the Science section for giving us the big, and I mean big, picture.
700 million light years of space! Thousands of galaxies! How many suns is that? How many planets? Some of them must contain life, right? Even basic life, like crickets or cicadas. Maybe there are enough planets and enough time that there is or was something exactly like the crickets or cicadas I am hearing right now.
When I see a bird chase a cicada, or worse, when I see one carry it in its beak while it clicks futilely before/as it is eaten, I can’t say I am all that disturbed. Its suffering is remote from me, and the only difference between the bird’s habits and mine is the bird kills its own food and eats it alive, so I can sympathize with his appetite. But if I consider incidents like remarkable that enough to mention it here, then I see a moral in it. Or if not a moral, a message about the meaning of life, or rather a meaning of life, and about significance. That cricket, however dumb it may be, does not want to be eaten. It may not matter to me, but it matters to him.
“The surprise for us,” a man named Daniel Pomarède of Paris-Saclay University told Den Overbye, “is that this structure is as big as the Sloan Great Wall and twice as close.”
You know, the Sloan Great Wall. Which is two times farther away than something else just as incomprehensibly big… And that you will soon forget about entirely.
A superstructure, no, two superstructures of trillions of stars, both of which you will forget the names of. Trust me, I had to look them up despite reading about them only a month ago. You too will soon wipe your brain clean of this knowledge. It will be effortless. By the mere act of forgetting you will erase countless stars and planets. Behold yourself, destroyer of worlds.