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

Cri
ket, 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.



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