|Matthias Blume/Creative Commons|
by guest writer Mark Dery
As sprawl creeps eastward into what was once wild, more and more Californians are coming face to face with JCs. As Mike Davis recounts in Ecology of Fear, developers, their pro-growth political beneficiaries, and what Davis calls “a regional planning system dominated and corrupted by development interests,” have collaborated for generations on the chainsaw massacre of the state’s wild places. “[E]ntire Southern California ecosystems, including salt marshes, native grasslands, Engelmann oak savannas, and vernal pool communities, have become virtually extinct over the past century and a half,” he notes. Even so, the subdivision of Eden continues, paving the way (literally) for more McMansions, more malls, more freeway arteries.
As white-flight exurbanites stake their claims at the wild edge of eastern California’s chaparral-covered foothills, they’re confronting a border of another sort, trespassed by a new breed of alien. The border, in this case, is the “ecotone”—ecologists’ term for those transitional spaces where biological communities such as forest and prairie, or in this case lawn and chaparral, intersect and interact. The increase in confrontations between exurban homesteaders and large predators is evidence that hostilities between culture and nature are escalating. In news reports of coyotes adapting to a suburb-friendly diet of garbage, pets, and unattended toddlers, or of cougars attacking humans on the wrong side of the white-picket divide between manicured lawn and backcountry scrub, environmentalists hear the annunciatory trumpets of an ecological Judgment Day.
Despite their low media profile, Jerusalem crickets are emissaries from a world out of balance, too—sentinel species whose increasingly frequent run-ins with exurbanites are symptomatic of habitat destruction. “In Jerusalem crickets, you have so many species that are geographically limited to a sand dune, to a mountain peak, that if you develop that habitat you may cause a species to go extinct because it’s only found in a very limited area,” says Weissman. No one knows how many species of Stenopelmatus are dangling from the rim of extinction, he says, because he’s the only one studying the insect. “I’m trying...to document as many of these different species as I can, [to] show that they’re geographically limited,” he says, “and then [I’ll] try to get some of these habitats protected. Until I give them a name, we have no formal mechanism to do that.” There’s an Adamic loneliness to Weissman’s one-man quest to name every branch of the JC tree and record it in the Book of Life. Yet there’s a whiff of the apocalyptic about it, too: Bruce Dern as the hairy eyed tree-hugger in Silent Running, single-handedly defying myopic politicians in order to save what remains of Earth’s ecosystems.
Decades after the fact, I discovered that my late-night encounter with Stenopelmatus was far from unique. In all of its particulars, my experience was struck from the same mold as many of the first-person accounts archived on the tongue-in-cheek website, PotatoBugs.com (“dedicated to the fabrication and perpetuation of fear, hate, and disgust for the Potato Bug”). Time and again, the victims of stenopelmatid abuse sharing their recovered memories on PotatoBugs.com play variations on the themes I touched on, in my account of the Thing in the Moonlight. There is the same shock and awe at its unexpected weight (it’s the heaviest insect in California, according to Weissman, who has recorded specimens weighing 13 grams, more than some mice), the same revulsion at the sheer size of the beast:
[W]hile trying to decide what this monster-looking thing was, my husband informed me that it was a Potato BUG. No way, bugs do not come in a size large enough to wear a dog collar; yes it was that big. The size of a miniature dog of some kind. Now, my husband says that terror has a way of making me exaggerate but I stand by what I say I saw.
(For the record, Weissman has never encountered a specimen larger than three-and-a-half inches.)
There is the same panicked attempt to flush the beast into oblivion, the same crazed fear that it will rise again to exact a vengeance too monstrous to mention:
Called my son downstairs to handle the beast, he tossed it into the toilet and before the flush I swear that thing was swimming, ended up doing the backstroke as it went down. And eewww all I could think of all nite was that it could come back up. Now every little noise at nite in the dark house makes me think I'm living with a whole nest in my house!
Lastly, there is the same post-traumatic fallout, the mind-curdling memories that users insist have “scarred” them for life, condemning them to nightmares crawling with orthopteran horrors: “I have come here to post my story in hopes that I will slowly heal from my traumatizing encounter with the hideous creature known to all as the potato bug.”
But seriously: how does a largely subterranean, mostly nocturnal insect that poses no threat to humans become what PotatoBugs.com calls “the most universally feared, hated, and disgusting [creature] on the planet?” Despite its lowly but important role in Californian ecosystems (JCs are protein bars for predators) and its relative harmlessness (JCs can inflict a painful bite, but typically do so only when provoked and, contrary to popular belief, are not poisonous), the Jerusalem cricket is for many Californians the poster child for fear and loathing. It inspires a revulsion that channels cultural anxieties and Freudian fears, not to mention our primordial antipathy toward The Insect, the blank-eyed face of nature at its most inhuman.
“The single most disgusting creature known to man. Its tiny little head staring right at me, its mandibles on my bare skin”: in the ironic support group now in session on PotatoBugs.com, the word “disgust” is a mantra. But what, exactly, makes the Jerusalem cricket so disgusting? Let us count the ways: there are the dead, doll eyes, set in a bald head that is nauseatingly glossy, like a Tootsie Pop that somebody has been sucking on. Creepier still, Stenopelmatus is loathsome to the touch, unexpectedly fleshy for a creature with an exoskeleton: “When I picked it up (behind the head) I almost dropped it on instinct because it felt so vile: overfilled and soft, like a water balloon,” writes a user named Bitriot, on the website Everything2.com.
Yet, while undeniably rooted in the biological and inescapably visceral in nature, our disgust for the cricket is more than merely visceral. “Like all emotions, disgust is more than just a feeling,” William Ian Miller reminds us, in The Anatomy of Disgust.
Emotions are feelings linked to ways of talking about those feelings, to social and cultural paradigms that make sense of those feelings by giving us a basis for knowing when they are properly felt and properly displayed. Emotions, even the most visceral, are richly social, cultural, and linguistic phenomena. [...] Disgust is a feeling about something and in response to something, not just raw unattached feeling.
Disgust inclines toward moral judgment, he argues, inviting us to equate the foul with the fallen, defilement with depravity. Thus the reflexive linkage, in many PotatoBugs.com posts, of visceral recoil with moral reproach. The word “evil” thumps out a steady backbeat in the site’s discussion threads. JCs are evil because they live underground, the realm of the chthonic, and, like all unhallowed things, they only come out at night. They’re the untouchables of the insect world, battening on death and decay. Most of all, though, they’re evil because they’re ugly—disgustingly ugly.
(c) Mark Dery; all rights reserved. A shorter version of this essay first appeared in the (now out-of-print) spring 2007 issue of Cabinet magazine. Reprinted by permission of the author.