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August 14, 2012: Suzumushi: Sound of Wish and Longing

August 14, 2012

“The Cricket and the Gourd” by Qi Baishi 1864-1957

We gauge the slow change of seasons with all of our senses. Probably our most subtle sense, and perhaps the one that we most take for granted, is that of sound. Delegated to “background” most of the time, it takes a truly aware and focused individual to track the nuances of sound in our lives. Take now, this slow slide from high-summer to early-fall. Are you listening to the changes? Have you noticed the absence of sound at dawn? The early cacophony of birds is now over for the year. Cicadas scratch their rasping song in the high arbors, while their more earthy cousins, the cricket, chirp their hopeful longing below.

We, in the modern West rarely if ever, take the time to even think about the cricket chirping just outside our front doors, yet to our European ancestors it was thought to be very good luck if a cricket inhabited your dwelling. Consider the lovely Irish “Gartan Mother’s Lullaby” in which a young mother seeks to cocoon her child with all the forces of safety she can think of…from the local gods, fairies, to nature herself…that which the cricket symbolizes.

“…A leanbahn, o my child, my joy, my love and heart’s delight
the cricket sings you lullaby, beside the dying fire…”

Probably the most popular cricket pictured in Western culture is the cricket from “The Adventures of Pinocchio” by Carlo Collodi in 1883. In the story, the cricket is shown as a kind of guardian angel for Pinocchio, warning and advising him to better himself, in order to achieve his goal of becoming a real boy. The cricket is an emissary of the “Blue Fairy,” Pinocchio’s mentor and guardian.  Disney portrays the cricket in the 1940 animation as “Jiminy Cricket” who in addition to his sage-like character is drawn as a kind of dapper gentleman who can not only speak, but sing.

Still in Disney-mode, the cricket-as-sidekick is again portrayed as the character “Cri-Kee” in “Mulan” (1998.) Still wise, still helpful, still “lucky,” thankfully, in this version the cricket is portrayed unclothed, un-vocal, and very recognizable as a real-life cricket. “Mulan” does a pretty good job showing how venerated the  cricket has been in the East. Generations of people from Eastern history have kept crickets as pets. In China, Japan, and much of the East, crickets were captured and sometimes kept in elaborate cages, usually made of wood, but some went so far as to house crickets in cages of gold. For most, in the Summer crickets were kept in ceramic jars and were moved to gourds in the Autumn. Crickets were kept for their song but were also bred for fighting. Males crickets will fight one another. The cricket is an omnivore, loving cucumbers and squashes, but will eat available protein. Curiously, if you feed protein to a male cricket it actually reduces his urge to fight!

Another major contribution to literature of the cricket is in the “Tales of Genji” (1000-1008 AD) which is considered, by some, to be the first novel. One chapter is devoted to a cricket hunt by the characters.

Many expatriated Japanese mourn the loss of suzumushi, the “bell-cricket” of Japan. It’s sound is said to be unique, and as import-export regulations prohibit its transportation, the suzumushi can only be heard (live) in Japan. Those visiting Japan in the Kyoto region, can hear suzumushi, en masse, at the  Suzumushidena Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple. Look for the stone temple guardian with straw sandals. This is Kofuku Jizou or “Happy” Jizou. In the temple are thousands of suzumushi and (according to tradition) surrounded by their song, if you bring something the color yellow you may make one (only one) wish that will come true.

So, in the nights ahead, take a moment. Sit on the porch or on the deck. Drink in the peaceful, soothing sound of the cricket…and, why not? Make a wish. Just one.

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One comment

  1. Steve, you have captured one of the most emotional and memorable experiences of my childhood, in one blog. Thank you for your beautiful writing and storytelling.



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