Detrivores of the Bubble Moon
We live in a strange little corner of the city, where two different roads terminate in a feral dead-end at the edge of an industrial zone. Many years ago the roads continued on toward an old low water crossing, but now that way is blocked with tall fences, barbed wire and a chain link gate. At summer’s end, the vegetation covers the fences almost completely, even crawling up the telephone poles, and the right of way is thick with massing gnarls of poison ivy, agave, fallen branches and spiny green vines, into which all manner of urban detritus disappears. At night, even under the weird light of this week’s waning gibbous moon, the woods and fields on the other side of those fences are inky dark. What street lamps there are don’t really reach our little corner, and it has always been a popular place for lovers to park, turn the lights off, and get intimate in the shadowy end of a public street. It’s also a popular place for foxes to sneak out of the woods for a nighttime hunt behind the diners and bars down the road. If you were on foot, and didn't really know where you were, this zone would probably scare you. And if you were driving home late at night, and missed your turn, you might be one of those people it captures.
Our house also hides in that darkness behind the fences, half buried under the earth, and when I walk out with my early morning coffee to get to work, the main source of light is the stop light at the next street over. Friday morning as I walked out at 5:30 I saw something different, aimed right at me, with a blue-white light that was more like the LED moon still shining in the western sky. Like a UFO that had crashed in the yard.
Not quite in the yard. The car had been stopped by our hurricane fence, which was wrapped around the front end like a metal net around some robot fish. Lights on, but engine off.
I went outside to get closer to the car. One of the trucks was headed out from the door factory next door to make a delivery, and when I pointed out the vehicle embedded in the woods the driver immediately stopped and got out, focused with more urgency than me on seeing whether there was someone in the car.
As we clambered over the broken trees and pulled the vines back, the truck driver said he thought he heard someone back there in the woods. More likely some nocturnal animal we had spooked with our intrusion through the normally impermeable barrier of the urban interzone.
No one was in the car, that we could see. Some glass beads hung from the mirror, and some personal effects were there in the center console. In the rear window was a sticker for a well-known engineering school in a faraway state. As I spoke to the 9-1-1 dispatcher, the truck driver opened the door and looked more closely inside, reciting what he found in the language of an emergency responder, but in a way that reminded me of how nature nerds try to taxonomically identify and gender code the things they see outside. Then he produced an identifying instrument—a loyalty card from a nearby hand car wash, with what must have been the name of the car’s owner.
The fire truck came first, and left after confirming there was not a body under the car. “It happens,” said one of them. Then they told me to wait for APD, who arrived more quickly than they had suggested would be the case.
The lone officer on the scene was friendly, collected what information there was to collect, and talked to me about how the incident would be handled as we waited for the wrecker to arrive. I learned some of the codes for different kinds of automobile accidents, the heightened penalties for leaving the scene, and the kinds of inventive stories people come up with to create reasonable doubt as to their guilt in such situations. When I told the officer that I wasn’t inclined to do any more about the matter than see if I would have any insurance coverage from the driver’s carrier for the damage to my fence, he told me that he would be mad, but then added with a laugh that he’s vindictive (his word), coming from a family with anger issues. “That’s why I’m a cop,” he said, smiling in the dark.
As we watched the tow truck operator chain the car and drag it out of the woods, I Googled the name we had found on the car wash loyalty card. A phonetically common name, but with an unusual variant spelling. That produced a direct hit on LinkedIn, for a graduate of the school whose sticker was in the car’s back window. Their place of employment was an ironic surprise, and one I feel compelled to keep to myself out of respect for their privacy. Especially as I got to thinking how many of the young professionals who have moved to Austin in the past decade to work in the futuristic offices of the giant tech companies that have also moved here must be living lives of maximum overclocked stress. I was glad, when I reached out, to learn this person was okay, if a little freaked out.
The LED moon also brought the season when the urban crickets come inside, seeking the comfort of concrete and dirty laundry, and doing their best to interrupt your slumber. You think they are within reach, until you chase the sound of their chitin violins and cannot find it. They are in every room of our house, and somehow we seem to have finally adapted to their presence this year, sleeping through their chirping songs amplified by the dark corners of the shelter we built.
I first noticed the weird way crickets proliferate indoors in Texas not long after I moved to Austin in the late 90s to take a job in a downtown law firm. Our office was in a 1980s high-rise by the river, and in the fall when I was crazy busy doing technology deals I would go back to the office after dinner and work late, often using the stairs to go from floor to floor, usually to go from my office up to the library where we kept the law books. The stairwells were bare concrete, and in September and October they would fill with crickets. Biblical quantities of crickets, sixteen floors up, apparently evading the attention of the building’s management.
When I was a boy, someone told me that it is bad luck to kill a cricket, and for whatever reason that legend stuck. So when I hear them, or see them, I try to capture them with a gentle but decisive hand, take them outside, and toss them into the grass. Some claim they can bite you, but I have never experienced that. The spines on their legs can feel a little like a bite, but if you hold them right, they will usually be still until you release them.
I have eaten crickets in Oaxaca, and found them delicious, and in my last novel, set in an even more ecologically exhausted America than the one we live in, the convenience stores of Dallas sell cricket tacos. I have never tried to eat the crickets here, but seasons like this remind me what an abundant and easily captured source of protein they are.
An Internet search for information on the behavior of crickets in urban environments yields a lot of exterminator clickbait, but with some work you can find your way to learn that crickets, being detritivores who eat things like dead plants and rotting food, do well in places where there is human trash. You can also learn that they most likely come inside our structures for the light, even if the light is high up. In 2007, crickets infested the 307-foot tall UT-Austin Tower, blanketing the interior in swarms six to eight inches deep, an infestation so severe that the university suspended its tradition of illuminating the Tower when the Longhorns won the game.
We have two types of crickets here (at least in our house and yard). The black Texas field cricket, Gryllus texensis, pictured above, a native which apparently was only identified as a separate species in the last couple of decades. And the weirder and bouncier camel cricket, Diestrammena asynamora, an exotic also known as the spider cricket, pictured below.
I don’t know if the camel crickets, which originated in Asia, are the kind I was taught as a child that people kept as pets in tiny wooden cages. But I was glad to find that these fantastical memories of such practices were not false, and that the Wikipedia entry on “Crickets as pets” reads like some fabulist Borgesian invention:
Between 500 and 200 B.C. the Chinese compiled Erya, a universal encyclopedia which prominently featured insects. The Affairs of the period Tsin-Tao (742–756) mention that "whenever the autumnal season arrives, the ladies of the palace catch crickets in small golden cages ... and during the night hearken to the voices of the insects. This custom was imitated by all the people." The oldest artifact identified as a cricket home was discovered in a tomb dated 960 A.D…. By [the 12th century], the Chinese had already developed the art of making clay cricket homes, the skills of careful handling of the insects, and the practice of tickling to stimulate them. The first reliable accounts of cricket fights date back to the 12th century (Song dynasty) but there is also a theory tracing cricket fights to the reign of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (8th century).
Crickets’ adaptation to our urban spaces may be further enabled by the rapidity with which they can evolve, when the females can lay 20 to 600 eggs a day, depending on the species, in the tiniest patches of dirt. The females are the ones who choose the mates, depending, it seems, on no more than the information they can derive from the songs of the males. The biggest threat to their contributions to our urban ecology is the other noise we create that those songs must compete with.
I am glad to report that I seem to have persuaded our three-year-old daughter that crickets are not dangerous to her. She probably will not buy into my idea of building tiny golden cages to house them more glamorously, and take them out for an occasional tickling. But with enough sharing of the magical heritage of these weird bugs who spring out from her piles of toys in the morning, you never know. She also told me this week, as we were out for a morning jog under the setting moon, that the Moon is a bubble in the sky.
For more on the wonders of urban crickets, check out this excellent August 2022 piece by Hannah Loss for Sierra, the magazine of The Sierra Club.
Thanks to Professor Jen Alvarez Dickinson for having me out Thursday to talk with her students at St. Edward’s University about dystopia, writing, and their take on Shirley Jackson’s amazing story “The Lottery.” After the class, I marveled at the 300-year-old Sorin Oak that is preserved on the campus, on its hill looking over downtown Austin from the south. If you are in Austin, you should check it out.
In the 90s, when I was busy having close encounters with urban crickets in concrete stairwells, I often fantasized about taking up the more liberating urban explorer’s art of parkour, the balletic variation on the psychogeographers’ dérive, in which practitioners bounce and leap off the obstacles of the city like post-industrial acrobats. So I was delighted to read the story in this week’s New York Times about the parkour artists who are using their skills to turn off the lights left on at night by retail establishments after they close. A green guerrilla tactic so charismatic even the cops celebrate it.
Field Notes will be off next week, as we attend the memorial service for my dad, whose passing I shared last week. Have a safe week, and we should be back in time for Halloween.