Screw winter solstice. The way I know that autumn has succumbed to winter in San Francisco is when I have my first sighting of a most unwelcome guest: the Jerusalem cricket, a.k.a. potato bug.
My introduction to this indigenous terror was five years ago,when in the midst of unpacking a few lingering boxes from our move to Bernal Heights a few months before, my husband caught one of these beauties scuttling along our dining room floor. “Jesus Christ!” he cried. “What the hell is that!?”
Longer than the planks on our hardwood floor are wide, the creature made me think of a crab crossed with a cockroach, but without the cuddle factor of either. As the boxes we were unpacking mostly contained souvenirs from our honeymoon in Southeast Asia years five years earlier, we immediately wondered if the bug could be some exotic hatchling we had inadvertently smuggled into the country, some venomous horror that might pass for a very unattractive cicada in the moments before its neurotoxic bite stilled your stuttering internal monologue.
But now wasn’t the time to surmise about the insect’s identity or origins. Now was the time to get it the hell out of our house.
I don’t remember exactly how we captured it (when it comes to creepy-crawlies, we usually oust rather than squash, and in any case, this thing was far too big to crush with a shoe — just imagine the sound that would make, not to mention the cleanup afterward). I do remember insisting that my husband release it on the other side of the street. Far away from our apartment.
Back inside, a Google Images search to the effect of “grotesque hideous vile cricket cockroach thing” helped us ID our intruder right away. We learned that Jerusalem crickets are not venomous (though they can inflict a painful bite) and that they feed on dead organic material … such as the pile of decaying leaves perpetually outside our back door! We also learned that they are native to the western United States. After 10-plus years in San Francisco, it’s a wonder we hadn’t met one before. Then again, Bernal Hill is the most verdant locale we’ve ever inhabited in the city.
The next couple winters, a succession of JCs struck progressively closer to hearth and heart: first in our kitchen, then right outside our bedroom door — that time I very nearly stepped on the thing with my bare foot.
The past couple of years, my annual JC sightings have been up on the hill, in Bernal Heights Park — this year’s occurred just last week. Interestingly, both times, the insect was dead.
So was the other notable wild animal we last spotted up there, the Pacific gopher snake.
Hmm… Maybe if we could persuade a live one to visit our home, that would help get rid of another, much more common, hallmark of winter: house mice.
IMAGES: Nasty Jerusalem cricket, Neeta Lind. Gopher snake, Wikipedia