Sing on, grave crickets

This morning, before the rainy front moved in, I heard a remarkable thing — crickets singing softly from the long grass under a powerline (field crickets, genus Gryllus, I think). We’ve had several hard freezes, two modest snowstorms, and the days are about as short as they get. Yet, they sing on.

Our culture has a long tradition of moralizing about these singing orthopterans, starting but not ending with Aesop.

Wastrel Fools! Squandering summer while the provident ants buckle under and work.

Or, Happy Fools! Sing while you can, for tomorrow we die.

As the title of this post suggests, the crickets seem to me to offer an alterantive to Dylan Thomas’ rage — why not sing, sing as you go gentle into that good night? A song is more defiant than rage.

So far, so good. These little tales are hardly masterful works of nuanced allegory, but they make their point. What the literary encrustations don’t do is honor the actual insects. We see ourselves reflected in their lives, but the mirror itself is invisible.

Here’s a brief take from a biologist’s perspective: evolution has molded each species to the particularities of the ecological situation. There are many ways of being a successful insect. Diversity wins the day.

Crickets overwinter as eggs, a thrifty strategy that requires no food stores. In the spring and summer, the eggs will hatch and several generations of crickets will follow before the winter comes again. Ants overwinter as colonies of sterile workers tending their fecund queen (she truly is “the 1%”). Because the colony has so many workers, it needs food stores to make it through the winter. Both strategies have worked for tens of millions of years.

Ironically, ants also eat cricket eggs to make it through the winter. In fact, hungry ants are a major source of mortality for cricket eggs. So, it seems that we need each other after all.

Hello? Aesop, are you there?

3 thoughts on “Sing on, grave crickets

  1. Anonymous

    Only a few days after the frst snow, I was assured that at least one Autumn Meadowhawk was flying at Lake Cheston. I amazed at the hardiness of the dragonfly. Thank you for this lovely observation — informative and literary all in one!

  2. Sonia Kay MacKenzie

    Thank you. I appreciated this so when I read it a few days ago. Couldn’t respond immediately as it evokes some tender issues of family aging and illness at this time. (I keep thinking of Eliot’s first lines in (aging) Prufrock too: “Let us go then, you and I,/ When the night is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table.” I know this is a far cry from the crickets, but at times all nature and art reminds us of the inevitable myseries of life, death, and suffering. Thanks again, and yes, yes, “‘SING’ gentle into that good night.” The “dying of the Light” is not ‘overcome by the Darkness’ (thanks, John). It is, though, a time of transition and certainly song is welcome and strengthening–and with much precedent in individual lives and nations’ histories. I am heartened. It would be good to die with a song, a psalm indeed, on one’s lips. This will help my family.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Kay, Thank you for offering these reflections. I’m glad that you appreciated the post and I send my best wishes as you live through the unfolding events with your family. Thank you also for Eliot. I’m always glad to be inspired by his language — “The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes” — and challenged by his outlook.


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