Late one evening a couple of months ago, when Valley nights were still sultry, I was walking though Papago Park on my way to L.A. Fitness when I saw a saguaro cactus lying across my path. Even in the moonlight, I could see it was still fresh and green, and I concluded it had been uprooted and toppled by the previous night’s monsoon.
Those of you who’ve never seen a saguaro up close will have to take my word that they’re magnificent freaks. If the platypus is proof God has a sense of humor, the saguaro is proof He was building in the fashion of Antoni Gaudi long before Gaudi was. They can grow to heights of 70 feet; their spears, commonly called “arms,” begin creeping out when their trunks have gained the tender age of 75. They attain reality, in other words, at about the same rate as Sagrada Familia Cathedral.
A saguaro’s arms can make up for this lost time by proliferating, with one growing from another into green, spiny arabesques. The result is that saguaros are some of the world’s most evocative plants. For all their distinctiveness, they can look like almost anything other than themselves. About half a mile north of the fallen cactus, for example, there still stands an ancient saguaro, which, viewed from north or south, looks exactly like a giant hand giving the finger to Governor Hunt’s tomb, another half-mile to the east.
At 18, newly arrived in the Valley of the Sun after a childhood spent in Manhattan and environs, I accepted a classmate’s invitation to drive to the head of the Salt River and float down in inner tubes. Setting out from Tempe when it was still dark, we met the sun just as it was cresting the Goldfield Mountains. In that dawn’s early light, for the first time, I saw saguaros in nature, and in bulk. Growing straight up from the hillsides, arms jauntily cocked, they looked to me like the ghosts of dead cowboys saying, “Howdy,” and I took it as welcome proof I’d escaped the unforgiving city forever.
Back to the night of the fallen saguaro. I — almost literally — stumbled upon it when I was looking for something to write about. Seeing this miracle of nature lying dead and neglected stirred vague associations with things or persons spiritual, but for the life of me I couldn’t pin down who or what. Christ in the tomb? No sale; its two arms were in the wrong position. The martyred St. Eulalia? Pushing it; a two-ton arborescent cactus can stand comparison to lots of things, but an 80-lb adolescent girl isn’t one of them. Well, what about the battered wayfarer in the Good Samaritan story? Risky; unless I could figure out some way of dragging it to the nearest tree hospital, I’d have to write a self-flagellating piece in which I called myself out for being a Levite.
In the end, I had to file the image away for another time. For the time being, it remained just another dead saguaro.
Here’s my point: Even with the best, most supple raw material close at hand, being a mystic of everyday life is tough. The marvelous comes to seem mundane. If you’re a news junkie instead of a nature-gazer, it’s even tougher. Detachment may be standard-issue equipment for a Christian, but wallowing in updates on government shutdowns and global war still means courting Weltschmerz, the jadedness that develops when the distance between the hoped-for and the real is clearly seen and precisely measured.
That’s why I’m so grateful to Simcha Fisher for posting a link to what she calls “The Crickets’ Million Roundsong.” Her title is almost self-explanatory, but not quite. Robert Wilson took it into his head to record a enormous number of crickets chirping for minutes on end. But then, he slowed the recording down. Thus doctored, the effect is sublime. Tom Waits calls it “sparkling, celestial” and “a sweeping chorus of heaven,” and that’s exactly right. Psalm 150 calls on everything that has breath to praise the Lord, and here they actually seem to be doing it.
Up close, crickets aren’t nearly so angelic. Every spring, they swarm into the Valley, blanketing parking lots and turning up wedged into the grooves of tires and tennis shoes. They break into apartments. After I drowned one under my kitchen faucet, it got stuck in my drain, where, over the next few days, I got to watch it liquefy — as arresting a sermon on mortality as any I’ve heard preached.
In technical terms, the crickets in Wilson’s recording are stridulating, or rubbing the bottom of one wing against the top of the other. The rubbing agent is a thick vein, running along the wing’s underside and covered with teeth. Only males stridulate, and they do it to attract the attention of females. “Crickets’ Million Roundsong” is less accurate a title than “Cricket Douchebags Cruising,” but it is better poetry, and Wilson’s sound engineering makes that poetry almost plausible.
It worked the most remarkable effect on my managing editor, Elizabeth Scalia. A few days ago, she’d just about decided that social media are the devil’s playground, a do-it-yourself cult of personality kit. Well, sometimes, in the wrong hands, they can be exactly that. But, as Elizabeth now knows, they can also transmit the celestial music of horny crickets. One listen has her crowing, “Creation Actually Sings Praise!”
Indeed. Praise God. Praise crickets. Praise technology and imagination and ears that hear. And, occasionally, praise Facebook and Twitter. These days, they may carry the best reminders to chill out and smell the flowers.