Photo by Nat Belfort

Cicadas Still Sing

IN LATE JUNE, the thrum of annual cicadas, or chicharras, as we call them here in San Antonio, becomes the dominant sound of summer. The air percolates with percussion as males buckle their ribs to make mating calls. If a female likes a male’s drumming, she will move closer and flick her wings, releasing an invitation of pheromones. Bathed in this constant purr of insect courtship, human limbs relax. Minds soften around summery thoughts.

Rafters of live oak, huisache, and Ashe juniper vibrate with this cicada jazz, but it is notoriously difficult to spot the thumb-size drummers, so well hidden are their green bodies among leaves. Not only that, but their transparent wings have photon-trapping surfaces that make them nonreflective. Between their leafgreen bodies and light-swallowing wings, chicharras are nearly invisible, and I have found sound to be a more reliable identifier than sight. In my neighborhood, it’s mostly a vibrating weave of Megatibicen resh—buzz saw but gentler—and Neotibicen superbus—clattering castanets that fade in and out—punctuated by Quesada gigas’s startling song that begins as a snare drum rattle then swells to a screaming whistle.

Sometimes I find a chicharra at the end of its five-week concert, floundering on its back in the street, rattling brittle wings against pavement. I’ll gently pick it up and examine the black, white, rust, or yellow markings on its thorax. Mega-tibicen resh, for instance, has markings that resemble a “resh,” the twentieth letter of Semitic alphabets that looks a bit like a flag in the wind. It feels as though I hold an intricate windup toy, but this is a fellow being at life’s close, so I murmur words of thanks and place it in the tuck of a branch. If I find a deceased cicada already hollowed out by ants, I might keep it in a place of honor for some weeks on a personal altar.

To many animals, chicharras are seasonal candy bars. My redbone hound used to dig up nymphs and devour them before they could surface and molt. Grackles and blue jays pluck adults off branches and fly off to feast, the insects rasping in their beaks. Once I watched a protesting chicharra wriggle free from a jay’s beak, then drop with a muted thud at my feet. The abdomen was missing. The thorax, sliced clean through, revealed an interior that looked like pale green ice, a bird’s lime popsicle. Though halfdevoured, the chicharra waved its legs and spread its paned wings, still vibrating with life. The bronze spheres of its eyes seemed to radiate an alien calm, in spite of its fate.

Another time, I watched a chicharra emerge from its brown exoskeleton, its final molt from nymph to adult. Perched on a cement step, the nymph’s back split open like a seam as the adult slowly rose from its subterranean armor. It was the palest of greens, nearly white, the hue of a prized jade. Wings unfolded, origami in reverse. I watched as its body passed through shades of green until it was the color of a pea. It was a nugget of prayer, a sacred syllable, a telescope unfolding the summer sky.

Cicadas have thrummed their way into the hearts and pens of poets across continents and centuries. In The Iliad, voices of elderly Trojan men, expressing empathy for a homesick Helen, are compared to the murmurings of cicadas. These men are past the age of battle cries. They now possess a more peaceful demeanor. Cicadas, too, might well be considered emblems of peace. They do not bite or sting. There are no hind-leg wrestling matches, no brutal mating tactics. Docile male cicadas attract females through music alone.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates relates a cicada origin myth. Cicadas were once human beings so consumed with the pleasure of singing, they forgot to eat or drink. Their bodies perished but the Muses, moved by their dedication to song, transformed their spirits into cicadas and gave them a sacred task: to report which mortals honored the goddesses of poetry and song. Those mortals include Basho¯, who, in seventeenth-century Japan, wrote his famous haiku: “stillness / a cicada’s voice / seeps into the rocks.” And Pablo Neruda, whose poem “Oda a la luz encantada” closes: “a cicada sends / its sawing song / high into the empty air. // The world is / a glass overflowing / with water.”

Here in my own time and place, I pause to drink in summer light—light swallowed by chicharra wings. I feel in my throat the thirst shared by many creatures in the heat, waiting to be satisfied by a twig’s xylem or a tall glass of Texas tea. For a while, I set aside my persistent concern for how the insect world may be unraveled by climate chaos and habitat loss in coming years, and sink fully into the moment. Whatever is to come, this summer the chicharras still sing. Their songs permeate the air and I am fed by their music. May I be worthy of a good report to the Muses.

 

Mobi Warren is a Texas Master Naturalist and puppeteer. She is the author of the young adult novel The Bee Maker and a poetry collection, Thread and Nectar. She is the translator from Vietnamese of several works by Thich Nhat Hanh, including The Miracle of Mindfulness.

 

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Comments

  1. O what a thrilling peak into cicada world. How your detailed and heartfelt observations add beauty and richness to the world.

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