The Constant Cicada
A little poem and a long ramble on those patient, solid insects with a life beyond summer.
What do cicadas do while they wait, Buried in soil, while seeds germinate? Do they dream, do they chit chat, do they practice their song? Oh what do cicadas do for so long?
~ Marilyn Anne Campbell
~ “Patience” illustration by Steve Alguire
The Constant Cicada
I'm always struck by the solid nature of cicadas. While so many other flying insects buzz lightly past with slight bodies and a delicate air, cicadas are dense blocks of bug who drum their abdomen tymbals from the treetops like the higher-pitched insect version of howler monkeys. But a howler monkey ruckus is most often about territory while the song of the cicada is only one of love.
I almost titled this "The Season of Cicadas" because of the current Brood X emergence that's winding down in parts of the U.S., and how closely we associate the sound of cicadas with the warmer months of the year. Here in Southern Ontario we don't wait 17 years between cicada visits; instead some of the aptly named dog-day cicadas emerge from the soil every year at the height of summer, climb a nearby tree, shed their old skin, and spread their wings for the first time. Because they do not use the same mass-soil-exodus strategy of periodical cicadas, the presence and noise of annual cicadas is not so overwhelming. They click and drone in the background, adding to the symphony of other summer sounds.
But it's wrong to think of cicadas only as a creature of summer. Whether they are underground for two years or closer to twenty, most of a cicada's time on this earth is spent in the soil. Just because humans aren't likely to encounter them, doesn't mean their life has not begun. Under the ground, cicadas feed on sap from plant roots and dig tunnels that surely help to aerate the soil. They are, like all things, part of a complex ecosystem that rolls on every moment, whether humans are aware of it or not.
Somehow I misspent part of my youth, and didn't learn until I was in my thirties that the empty exoskeletons cicadas leave hanging from trees can be carefully plucked off and—with the memory of perfectly hooked claws intact—hung from other things, such as your own shirt.
For cicadas, the shed exoskeleton is a launching pad; a thing to cling to while they pump their new wings full of life. But for us that delicate echo can be a reminder as solid as the insect itself that this is a life we are only privy to a small part of. The nature of cicadas is to dig and drink and fly and sing; to take only a little and give a lot. Cicadas carry on with the work of being a cicada, whether we are watching or not.
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Looking for more cicada love? Try:
The informative article “Brood X Cicadas Are Emerging at Last” by Katie Wong on Scientific American
The creative non-fiction piece “Cicadas Still Sing” by Mobi Warren in Orion Magazine
“‘O, Shrill-Voiced Insect’: The Cicada Poems of Ancient Greece” by Natalie Zarrelli on Atlas Obscura
The art tutorial How to Draw a Cicada by Arts Kids Hub on YouTube
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Thanks for reading,
Marilyn & Steve
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