Home & Garden Columns
I’m always a little startled when I get a response to one of these pieces. Sometimes it’s about something that requires correction, like the incident of the owl in the Embarcadero BART station. Other comments call for amplification.
A while back, in a column about Jerusalem crickets, I mentioned that I had no idea how these alarming-looking insects got their name. All the known species are North American natives, with no historical association with the Middle East.
Then David B. Weissman, who studies Jerusalem crickets at the California Academy of Sciences, sent me a copy of an article in which he addresses that question. He looks at several alternative theories and comes to a conclusion that, while admittedly speculative, makes sense to me.
The first few scientific descriptions of these insects either used no common names or translated local Spanish or Indian names, like “child of the earth.” “Jerusalem cricket” first appears (without explanation) in a paper by entomologist Vernon Kellogg in 1905, and UC Berkeley’s E.O. Essig employed the name in 1913.
In a popular article in Pacific Discovery, predecessor of the late lamented California Wild, in 1971, N. W. Baker conjectured that a Jerusalem cricket viewed from above in its normal resting position “resembles a Jerusalem Cross, an angled cross with short bars across the ends, these short bars represented in the cricket by the long spines above the tarsi [hind legs].” Weissman didn’t find this at all convincing, nor do I.
Weissman wrote to several senior entomologists for their interpretations. Keith Kevan suggested that the name came from the insect’s tendency to feed on roots and tubers, the source of another common monicker, “potato bug.” Maybe it was regarded at some point as a pest on Jerusalem artichokes, AKA sunchokes. The “Jerusalem” in the plant’s name is a corruption of the Italian girasole, meaning “turning to the sun,” for the heliotropism it shares with other sunflowers. But this turns out to be another appealing theory destroyed by an inconvenient fact: the ranges of Jerusalem artichokes and Jerusalem crickets don’t overlap. The crickets occur in the arid West, the chokes originally in the Northeast.
The version Weissman gives the most weight to comes from Richard L. Doutt, who pointed out that “Jerusalem” was in common use in the 19th century as a mild epithet (perhaps about the intensity level of “Holy cow”), usually indicating surprise. Doutt envisions a young western farm boy turning over a rock to reveal a large and ominous insect and exclaiming “Jerusalem! What a cricket!”
This wouldn’t be the first time an expression of surprise got attached to an animal. One of the local names for the ivory-billed woodpecker was “Lord God,” which is what people tended to say when this duck-sized bird burst out of the deep timber.
Another response, this time from a friend, involved the column about the steelhead in Codornices Creek in which I regretted the absence of eels in California. What about the Native American eel fishery on the Klamath River, he wanted to know. For that matter, what about the Eel River itself?
Good question. But those weren’t eels, strictly speaking. They were lampreys. In his Handbook of the Indians of California, A. L. Kroeber refers to the “lampreys, also known as eels, much prized by the Yurok for their rich greasiness,” and adds that the Yurok caught them in nets and pots as they swam up the Klamath to spawn. The Eel River tribes were also avid lamprey fishers. There were separate spring and fall runs in both rivers; on the Klamath, the river eddies where lampreys were taken were individually owned. Like salmon, the lampreys were split and smoked for storage.
Lampreys may be eel-shaped, but they’re something else entirely—survivors, along with the hagfish, of one of the earliest groups of vertebrates. They lack jaws and paired fins, have cartilaginous skeletons, a notochord (the precursor to
the vertebrate backbone), and only one nostril. And their brains are small, even for fish.
Most lamprey species are anadromous, like salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon: spending most of their lives at sea, returning to their natal streams to spawn. They typically prey on other fish by attaching to the victim’s side with their suckerlike mouth, rasping a hole with their sharp tongue, and sucking their host’s blood and body fluids. But a few California lampreys, like the rare Kern brook lamprey, spend their entire lives in freshwater where the larvae feed on algae and detritus and the adults don’t eat at all.
In addition to the North Coast tribes, Europeans have prized lampreys at various times and places: they figure in Portuguese, Galician, Bordelaise, and Finnish cuisine. And seafood scholar Alan Davidson notes that the city of Gloucester gave Elizabeth II a lamprey pie to commemorate her jubilee in 1977. I hope it didn’t go to waste.
The absence of true eels in California remains a mystery. East Asia has them, and eastern North America and western Europe. As a unagi fan, I feel somewhat cheated.
Photograph by Robyn Waayers.