Insects Before, Insects After

We’ve just returned a combini, one of the brightly-lit, usually white-tiled convenience stores like Lawson, Family-Mart, Mini-Stop and 7-11. I bought a small orange aerosol can with which to douse my many insect bites, which I’ve not been able to stop scratching and scratching until my finger nails hurt. In mentioning this, I’m not making a mendacious gesture of sorrow at the harsh realities of fieldwork (or rather, I’m not only making such a mendaciously sorrowful gesture). The insect bites, and the fact that I’m still tearing at them after the initial relief of the cool wet spray has evaporated, have reminded me to talk of the importance of insect life in defining different dimensions of this small farm in what was the Toho hamlet.

Insects, of course, wriggle and crawl and fly their ways into the realities of the farm. They have a role in the pollination of plants; they can be read as harbingers of change, of changing seasons but also, more locally, of changing temperatures, levels of humidity and air pressure vector and time of day; they can also bring significantly more serious harm to animal and human health than my itchy bites and can, again, devastate the crops which form a significant part of the Shimamuras’ activities. Insects also exert an ubiquitous – in all places – and panchronic – at all times  – presence in this soundscape. Many insects are air-borne and even when they don’t fly their mechanical energy released by their chafing carapaces and vibrating wings rises up to take its place in our sky’s lower depths. Given our project’s focus on the sounds of other occupants of the air, this has made me think that the acoustic contributions of the crickets, dragon- and damsel-flies, hornets, cicadas, mosquitos, beetles and bees is particularly resonant.

I have always enjoyed the sound of insects: the textural qualities of their signals (and textural is for me the right word, since their sounds seem to rub at you, to scratch at you, to smooth you, to stick to you), the dynamic qualities both of an individual insect – of each discrete molecule of sound and of their compound they make over time – and of insects massing their sounds together; and their spatial characteristics, sometimes so dense, sometimes so disparate. But it is not just the aesthetic characteristics, insects have burrowed themselves into my memories and associations and their sounds signal to me, often, that I am somewhere else.

I have tried many times to record insect sounds but with little success. Although the audio equipment I use is supposed to exceed the frequency range of human hearing, taking a hot pair of headphones off to calibrate what I am hearing through the recorder against its ‘real-life’ counterpart, I’m often disappointed that what I’ve captured is only the faintest shadow of what my ears are funnelling through my basilar membranes, my organ of cortii, down through my nerve cells and along my auditory cortex into the skin of grey matter that is my brain. Perhaps these discrepancies can be explained by a speculation that although the recorder can exceed the frequency responses of our hearing systems, what they can’t match is our ability to resolve sonic effects in time and space? Charles Fox, of the University of Regina, told me that the rapidity with which an insect lives its life – a rapidity which makes humans, by contrast, seem both impossibly slow moving and impossibly long living, makes a great sense of artificially reducing the tempo of recordings of their signals, the better to hear all its detail. Whatever the reason – and human error is another contender – I’ve been experiencing these frustrations all over again when trying to make something of the relationship between these two occupants of the air – the planes and the insects – and their relationships in turn with the family who live and work here. But I’ll keep returning to the flies leaping up from the puddles near the pig-sties, to the hornets that drift along on low-level aerial reconnaissance down by the sweet chestnut, to the dragon-flies that flit between the poly-tunnels, to the incessant crickets and the cicadas. I’ll keep returning to make something of the fate of their signals against the force of the roiling flood-tide of sound roaring down from Narita airport. 


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