Somewhere in the middle of the summer, there’s a particular insect that tunes up, right in the hottest part of the day. We call it “the hot bug,” because you only hear it in the afternoons on days that are mid-80’s and above. It sounds industrial, like a fan or a saw running in the distance. You never really hear it in May or June; not hot enough for long enough. By the time July rolls around, though: watch out. The hot bug is trilling and drilling in earnest.
Around the same time, there will be a particularly hot, still night, and you’ll realize you hear what we call “the school bug.” It starts quietly, with just one or two of them audible in the distance. It’s a two-note call. Sort of a push-me-pull-you call, with the first note getting more emphasis. RASP-rasp, RASP-rasp; something like that. And because it starts with only a couple of school bugs, it’s sort of a lonely sound, like whatever kind of bug is out there is all by itself, RASP-rasping for company. Hoping another of its kind will answer its two-note tune that it’s probably creating by rubbing its hairy hind-legs together. (Eek!)
By the end of the week, it sounds as if an international orchestra of RASP-rasping school bugs is tuning up outside your window. The din is deafening if you’re not used to it; I’ve had urban-dwelling friends visiting and they ended up shutting their windows rather than trying to sleep through it. RASP-rasp, like a heavy snorer on the other side of the bed. RASP-rasp, like someone clawing their way through a hickory knot with a dull saw. RASP-rasp: a maddening cacophony to those who don’t live in the country. RASP-rasp: a familiar sound to those of us who grew up sleeping next to open windows, with nothing but the screen between you and the hairy-legged raspers out there in the dark.
We call them “school bugs” because once you hear them, it means that it’s getting close to time for kids to go back to school. The summer, though not yet over, is in decline. The school bugs are a signal that cooler weather is coming: once they tune up, it’s a specific length of time until the first frost of fall.* And when you’re waiting on the bus in those first early mornings of the new school year–with your back-to-school blue jeans feeling strangely stiff and formal after months of bare-legged summer, and the weight of nine months of schoolwork clinging to your backpack like a bad monkey–the school bugs are still RASP-rasping out there in the not-quite-dark. RASP-rasp: peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a brown paper bag. RASP-rasp: new sneakers a half size too big so you don’t outgrow them before November. RASP-rasp: a big yellow schoolbus braking to a halt with a tired gasp of airbrakes before swallowing up an assortment of kids at the mouth of each dirt road bus stop in the county.
Years ago, I saw a benefit concert at Biltmore. Judy Collins was the headliner, and she looked every inch the star in fluttering white clothes and flowing white hair, her Suite: Judy Blue Eyes as remarkable as ever. She paused several times during the show to introduce her musicians or to comment on the evening. At one point, she asked the audience-at-large, “what kind of insect is it that we can hear so plainly?” Before the words “school bug” could much more than go through my head, a man in the crowd shouted out “school bugs!” I couldn’t believe my ears–outside of my family and the en famille shorthand-sort-of-language we speak when we’re together, I’d never heard anybody call the RASP-raspers school bugs; never dreamed anyone else made that particular connection.
I’m sure Judy Collins gave a fabulous show that night, but I don’t remember most of it: I was too distracted by the sound of the school bugs and being grateful that the school bell no longer tolled for me.
*I’ve been told recently that the school bugs also predict high temperatures for the following day. Fair enough–it usually is hot the next day by the time you get to July and August–but for me, they’re always about school, as clear and obvious as if you’d flashed a big “S” signal up in the sky.