Duck Soup: The Current Buzz

If you are lucky enough to live where katydids sing a summer serenade, I wonder if you have taken time to listen to their plainsong. There's magical music echoing through the treetops in late summer, a song 60 feet deep and a thousand miles long. A song like a river. A song like a storm system swirling through hot August nights.Katydids are leaf green relatives of grasshoppers and crickets, and like those less eloquent cousins, they generate sound by rubbing their legs on their wings. But whereas grasshoppers make intermittent sounds, and crickets hiccup their way through a slow Dueling Banjo sort of twitter, katydids are symphonic.When katydids mature in mid to late August their moonlight sonata stretches from Georgia to New England. Most human ears don't sense much nuance in their calls, which someone a long time ago anthropomorphized into "Katy-did, Katy-did." A careful listener will hear more than that, however. The sound is a twittering buzz. It conveys the ping of a finger rippling tines on a stiff comb, the trill of fine bubbles in an aquarium and a little of the sibilant hiss emitted by snakes or pressure cookers. If you climb to a promontory overlooking a mountain cove you can hear the symphony in all its ululating grandeur. There are swells of sound exactly like ocean waves that roll through the forest canopy. The volume builds on a distant ridge and advances through the bowl of the valley to crash around you and then continue on.Listening to such wild harmony makes me think the waves start with a sort of jazz solo. One katydid singing along like all the others is suddenly moved to blast a few jubilant notes and his immediate neighbors join in. The joyful crescendo is picked up by others and soon builds to the wave of sound that courses through the trees.How far does that message travel? I guess it might resonate the length of the mountain chain to the end of katydid-land and then bounce like a boat wake off the lake shore. Think of it. One katydid in a dogwood in northeast Georgia playing a solo that reverberates in Lake Placid, New York. Another in a sugar maple overlooking Walden Pond beating a rhythm that echoes all the way down to Roanoke, Blowing Rock, Cherokee and Chatanooga. This is real world music and like the human version we hear on the radio, it reaches across political boundaries to link lives. When an American slide guitarist collaborates with an Indian sitarist, a Celtic harpist tunes into Mid-East harmonies, a Frenchman with an electric violin joins west African drummers, or a Chinese cellist plays Mozart there is a mixing of cultures, a cross-fertilization that changes the music, the musician and the listener. As recording technology spreads around the world we are all increasingly exposed to the joyful noise of other lands.What are we to make of it? What do katydids make of the vibrations from distant mountains that ripple through the night? Maybe it is the simple message that we are not alone. Others share in katydidness and humanity. Others share the dance of life and sing out in joy or suffer hardship and find consolation in the blues. When someday we hear and understand a coherent message from the stars, as one must suppose we will, I wonder if it too will be music. I wonder if alien bodies boogey down in the light of distant suns, beat drums, blow horns and pour out their passions in song. I wonder if our answer will be a tedious political speech or a global burst of drumming. I wonder if aliens fifty light years distant are already tuned in to Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, while others, nearer in time and space pick up on MTV. I look at a katydid, its big eyed green face as weirdly different from my own as any flying saucer pilot could ever be; its six legs and wings, wiggly abdomen and curved antennae unlike my own body in almost every detail. And yet I hear their music, and I get it. The world is vibrantly alive.


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