Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Summer Night Sounds

As summer began, I asked readers about iconic summer experiences. My friend Maureen Franz, from Staten Island, replied that she enjoys, “the chirping of the crickets in late summer evenings. There's nothing like sitting on the back porch and hearing their symphony. The cicadas, crickets and chasing fireflies are among my favorite summer memories.”

The fireflies are gone, although I saw a single, elegiac firefly in the grass a week or two ago. Yet, the symphony by night insects is still going strong.

To write about sound is challenging; I may not be up to the task. As a backstop, I listed two excellent audio resources at the end of this post.

Nevertheless, here goes . . .

Crickets and katydids make most night sounds. You may also hear a frog, toad or mammal making noise in the night.

Insects may not be Beethoven, or even hip-hop stars. However, hearing the buzzing, whirring, twirring and croaking is soothing and reminds us that life is lively, even if day lilies, lightning bugs and raspberries have come and gone.

Most of what I now know about night insects, beyond my sense of wonder about night sounds, came from a recent discovery of Tom Ashbrook’s March 16, 2011 interview of John Himmelman, a naturalist who loves the night and wrote the book Cricket Radio: Tuning in the Night-Singing Insects. Although I have not yet read this book, based on the interview it sounds, sorry for the pun, like a great book.

Himmelman states “the main reasons night insects sing are to establish - - or challenge - - territories and attract mates.” He goes on to say that sound character is set by temperature; insects are cold-blooded, fertility of each insect and the reaction of insects to each other.

There might be a tendency to think that singing insects at night are found only in the eastern United States. However, in a recent e-mail, Himmelman said, “yes, there are singing insects in the West.”

Night insects are almost uniformly some of the ugliest of insects. They are not as attractive or streamlined as butterflies or lightning bugs. However, it’s not likely you will see the insects - - and there is nothing like the sounds they make.

It’s great to listen to crickets and katydids in a giant natural symphony. However, there are specific voices in the insect symphony, such as Round Tipped Cone-Heads, a kind of katydid that sounds like a live wire and Greater Angle-Wings.

The Snow Tree Cricket, or “thermometer cricket;” speeds or slows it call as nights warm or cool. Himmelman explains that if you count the number of chirps in 13 seconds and add forty to it, you get an approximate air temperature.

Carolina Ground Crickets are typically the last audible insects. A single Ground Cricket will intrepidly call out as the nights get frosty - - sometimes it finds a refuge and sings into November.

Audio resources: On March 16, 2011, on Tom Ashbrook’s program On Point, Ashbrook and Himmelman, play and identify several species of crickets and katydids. Himmelman has his own website, with the sounds of night insects. At Music of Nature, one can listen to snippets of night insects or buy mp3 downloads of night sounds.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Italian Ways: A New Book about Italians and Their Trains

Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo, by Tim Parks, W.W. Norton and Company, 264 pages, $25.95

Why is an essay on Italy, its trains and people appearing in a blog on America’s East Coast, West Coast and Great Lakes?

Trains and people are a universal interest in travel writing. You can read this book to learn more about trains and people. Or you can read it as one of the best travel books of the year: well-written and dryly witty.

The first four chapters in Italian Ways are about travel between Verona and Milan. Parks devotes two of these chapters to a commuter train and two to first class travel on one of Italy’s new high speed trains. The remaining three chapters are about trips elsewhere in Italy, including a trip to from Verona to Sicily and the heel of the Italian boot.

My favorite train writer is E.M. Frimbo, whose essays appeared in The New Yorker. In Frimbo’s stories, the writers, Rogers E.M. Whitaker and Tony Hiss, said just the right amount about the technology and people of rail travel and the communities along the tracks.

In Italian Ways, Parks shows himself to be an heir to Frimbo. He writes well about everything: trains, the railroad system and people on the trains: passengers and train crews.

Here’s a sample of his writing . . .

This hiss of metal on metal, the very slight swaying of the carriage, the feeling of being enclosed in a comfortable, well-lighted space while the world is flung by in glossy darkness outside, all this puts me in a mood to read, as if the material world had been suspended and I were entirely in the world of the mind.

Parks is an organized writer and thorough researcher. The book’s organization is helped with illustrations by David Atkins, maps with small drawings of the trains Parks rides.

You may have no idea of how Italian train travel works or where the train is taking the author. Yet Parks has a gift for giving the reader the feeling that he or she will not get lost or in trouble - - even if he does occasionally.

Parks writes truthfully and respectfully about his subjects. Some travel writers are besotted and say nothing negative about their subject. Others focus on the negatives. He clearly explains the challenges of riding Italian trains.

Train schedules and ticket machines can be mysterious and hard to understand. It is often confusing if a person must line up and buy a ticket at a window. Some rail workers are capricious or officious. Yet, he appreciates and respects Italian trains, their crews and fellow passengers. When he relates frustrating events, he writes about them honestly but not peevishly.

He shows how a person who carefully prepares can get practically anywhere in Italy without a car. He reminds people that Italian railroad engineering is beyond world class. For example, Italy constructed three challenging long tunnels under the Alps. One of these, the Sempione, was the world’s longest tunnel for many decades, until in 1979 a Japanese tunnel was finished that went a mile longer.

If you love trains, you will love Parks’ wonderful, informed writing. If you wish to write about travel, you would do well to read Parks to see how a master does it. Whether you are on the beach or reading in the fall, put Italian Ways on your to-read list!