What Thoreau Heard in the Song of the Crickets

Beginning in August and well into the fall here in New England, the crickets take over the night, their song a chiming of little bells or a rhythmic ripple of falling water. There has always been folklore to tell us what that song means. In ancient Greece, Aesop took it to be a sign of careless joy. In China it still portends wisdom and good fortune. In Germany it may warn of danger.

In the last few years I’ve been working on a book about hunting for butterflies and, for companionship, I’ve been reading the classic nature writers, especially the 19th-century philosopher Henry David Thoreau. The author of “Walden,” it turns out, has little to say about butterflies but, to my surprise, lots to say about crickets and their song, so much so that when I gathered his journal’s many scattered remarks about them what emerged was a sort of modern, American fable.

It’s a tale about how we work, and it has two parts. In the first, the crickets both announce the seasons and push them forward, each one foretelling what soon will come. The spring crickets who appear in May “bring in the summer” and summer is the beginning of autumn. On a warm day in June the cricket creaking may be “the iced-cream of song,” in July it may make a person philosophical, in August it may be a call to solitude, but no matter the month, without fail the close of the year comes quickly to mind.

Midsummer, as Thoreau wrote in his journal in July 1854, is not really summer, it’s “a dividing line between spring and autumn,” and to cross it is to begin descending “the long slope toward winter,” toward November when the few surviving crickets sing “the requiem of the year” until the snow “quenches their song.”

It all seems quite hurried, the way each season must fall forward into the next until the final freeze. In May 1854, when Thoreau hears the year’s first cricket, it makes him think not of new birth but of “lateness.” That entry in his journal comes a few months before “Walden” was to be published and Thoreau was a man trying to finish a job. “What have we done with our talent?” reads an entry from the previous August. “The sound of the crickets, even in the spring, makes our hearts beat with its awful reproof … The year is full of warnings of its shortness, as is life.”

Thoreau may have become a master of fruitful leisure but that doesn’t mean he was a stranger to the urge to improve himself and his world. “Walden” opens with him asking his neighbors whether their condition “cannot be improved” and follows up with considerable advice. He thought well of those who visited his cabin if they “improved their time” by looking at the water and the flowers. In other instances he directs the same impulse toward his own condition, especially when it comes to using time productively. Writing about a trip to Maine he says that, while his companions were setting up camp, he “improved the little daylight that was left in climbing the mountain alone.”

But for Thoreau, the New England cricket’s is a pulsing song and the pressure of time is but one of its beats. Books must get written, yes, and a neighbor’s land surveyed for pocket money, but time in all such cases belongs to the singular and irreversible “seasons” of history, not to the seasons of nature which, like the phases of the moon, repeat again and again. Spring, summer, fall and winter — our seasons are spun into being by the earth circling the sun; the earth herself, however, is not seasonal. Taking that larger view allows Thoreau, in the second part of his fable, to reframe the cricket’s song as an “earth song,” a reminder not of life’s brevity but of eternal return. The solar year is under the crickets’ command, he declares, and the sound we hear on these cool September nights is not seasonal, it’s “the creaking of the earth’s axle.”

In one telling passage, Thoreau follows his claim that the crickets “sit aside from the revolution of the seasons” with what feels like a logical consequence: “only in their saner moments,” he says, “do men hear the crickets.” And of what does such sanity consist? Of having no “trivial and hurried pursuits.” Of having “your engagements so few, your attention so free, your existence so mundane” that you can always hear their song. Above all, sanity means knowing that, freed from seasonal hurry, you have all the time in the world to finish your task, to let your talent mature.

The end of “Walden” illustrates the point with the parable of the artist of Kouroo, who slowly carved a perfect walking stick even as empires rose and fell about him. “As he made no compromise with Time, Time kept out of his way.” (Thoreau’s journal has a less elevated version where the chanting of crickets reassures a man who takes many eons to do a good job cutting his fingernails.)

One mark of a durable fable is its ability to contain a contradiction without resolving it. In this case we have conflicting ways to hear the creaking of the crickets and both are true: time is limited and time is endless; you must get to work and you may relax. Thoreau was clearly familiar with both states of mind.

We all are. Myself, I’m a very slow writer. My first book took five years. The second took 10. During the many days it took me to write this essay I had one of those school dreams in which I’ve failed to write my term paper, and it’s due tomorrow. Waking, it was a comfort to hear the crickets sing not of the long slope toward winter but of capacious time. They confirm what I’ve learned over the years, that I get nothing done without access to the sweet sense that, mortal as I am, I can, if need be, spend a whole day writing a single paragraph.

Over the years Thoreau himself learned to listen less to the song of “awful reproof” and more to the one of good cheer. He’s clearly talking of himself when he writes that “if the setting sun seems to hurry [a man] to improve the day while it lasts, the chant of the crickets fails not to reassure him, even-measured as of old, teaching him to take his own time henceforth forever.”

When it came to published work, Thoreau was another slow writer. There are seven manuscript drafts of “Walden” composed over the nine years following his move to that cabin by the pond. “July 5. Saturday. Walden.” reads the first journal entry after he had settled in. “Yesterday I came here to live … Always there was the sound of the morning cricket.”

Lewis Hyde is the author of “A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past” and the editor of “The Essays of Henry D. Thoreau.”

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