Oh Jerusalem Cricket!

Up until a few moments before this picture was taken on Santa Cruz Island in 2004, if you’d said I’d ever get this close to a Jerusalem cricket aka potato bug without having to be physically restrained and sedated, I would’ve punched you in the arm and said you were nutso.

But there I am. Letting one crawl upon my hand (albeit begloved) that we found near the site of one of the island fox captive breeding pens we were invited to the island to build (see previous post).

After the jump is a reprint from the archives about the childhood backstory to the phobia and this fateful encounter that to me is indicative of my present respect and consideration for all critters — especially the ones prone to illicit irrational revulsion. Except maybe camel spiders — I’m still working on accepting them into the big circle of life.

November 9, 2004: During my stay on Santa Cruz Island, I had what I consider to be nothing less than a breakthrough regarding my feelings for Jerusalem crickets… also known as niños de la tierra… also known as “potato bugs”… also known as one of the creepiest crawlies on the planet.

My first encounter with the buffed-out bugs came when I was a junior high schooler and I lived on Holly Drive near Cahuenga and Franklin at the base of the Hollywood Hills. There used to be a vacant lot on the corner and one day me and all the other hood rats decided to groundskeep the thing into something resembling a baseball diamond… or a BMX track. One or the other. Maybe both.

Anyway, with a ragtag bunch of tools scavenged from various sources on the block, we got to work. And in the middle of carving out either a berm or a baseline with a hoe, I unearthed one of these glistening suckers. Once it righted itself the sucker, close to three inches long, looked right at me — and advanced.

At best I gave out a yelp but it was probably more like a girlie squeal and I brought the hoe down upon it in a big arc and dang if I didn’t cleave the big bug in two, which was even worse because it was still looking at me with those big damp gleamy eyes, but now its separate parts were wriggling like it was even more pissed off than before.

So I did what any self-respecting Hollywood punk would do: I dropped the hoe, screamed and ran the hell away and my panic was enough to enlist the retreat of rest of the groundscrew who took off with me having no idea from what they were running.

From that day on I lived in a pretty irrational fear of Jerusalem crickets — also known as “potato bugs.” And I wasn’t alone.

But then came the breakthrough last week on Santa Cruz Island. Maybe it was being so close to nature in such a pristine state. Maybe it was just that I’d finally outgrown my fear. Or maybe it was that my recent introduction to “camel spiders” (aka “wind scorpions”) have now supplanted Jerusalem crickets in my book as the most freaky critter alive. Whatever it was that eased my mind, when one of the pen crew flipped some earth and out crawled an exceptional representative of the species, I didn’t run screaming like the girlie boy I once was. I hunkered down with my digicam and took pictures as the guy worked to dig himself away from me.

Nice, huh?

But the breakthrough was not finished until the following day when, having heard me boasting of overcoming my potato bug phobia, the pen crew leader walked over cupping his gloved hands and deposited a jumble of grass and dirt into my hands that just so happened to include another excellent specimen.

Looking and photographing one from a safe distance is one thing, but letting one crawl on me? Why the heck not? And sure, my hands being gloved might not be as impressive as being bare-handed, but it takes nothing away from the fact that as little as five months ago when I last encountered a mortally injured one on a trail while mountain bike riding in the Verdugos, I couldn’t even bring myself to put it out of its misery with a stomp of my shoe… I had to find a rock big enough for the job and then had to slam it down for all I was worth and not even look to see if I’d finished it off.