Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Yesterday, as we drove through the deep woods along the road leading to the Templeton Library here at Sewanee, we heard loud buzzing sounds coming from the trees.  Joel, my grandson, seven, had never heard the strange sounds, so we stopped the car and our resident botanist, Vickie, took him near an old oak by the side of the road to pick a cicada from a leaf so he could hold the noisemaker.  It was a specimen for a budding entomologist (Joel loves insects and reptiles), and he examined, firsthand, the short proboscis under the strange head with red bug eyes and beautiful transparent, veined wings. 
The insect was part of the 13-year resurrection of the southern cicada from Brood XIX here in middle Tennessee. Joel seemed to be more fascinated with the cicada than any amusement attraction he had seen at Dollywood and around Gatlinburg.  Vickie showed him the noisemaker called the “tymbal” on the abdominal base of the bug and explained how the male sings loudly to attract his mate.  Cicada means "buzzer" in Latin. They are fairly benign bugs and don’t bite unless they mistake your arm for a tree root and begin to feed, so Joel was brave enough to hold the insect before releasing him to join other cicadas in the surrounding trees. 

I remember making a field trip with three biologists one hot summer in North Carolina when the 17-year cicadas emerged.  Their resurrection area was deafening when they emerged from life underground as nymphs for seventeen years, living on root juice and in their final stages before emergence, constructing an exit tunnel.  After emerging they molt, shedding their skins on a plant close by and enter the world as adults.  In the North Carolina woods, the eerie noise sounded like music announcing the end of the world, a constant, monotonous sound hynoptic in effect and crazy-making if you tune in to their static too long.

In many countries, the cicada is featured in songs, novels, and folk tales, and is regarded as a symbol of reincarnation. I have always considered them as symbolic of the resurrection even though they only live for five or six weeks.  Cicadas are also deep fried and served up in north China as a delicacy and are utilized in Chinese medicine. 

However, here in middle Tennessee, cicadas are often regarded as pests and back in 1998, millions of them invaded sidewalks, highways, and households.  Folks say they covered cars, crunched underfoot, and drowned out the strains of music at outdoor weddings with their buzzing arias. 

Meanwhile, Joel searches for them every day.  Yesterday, he brought home a specimen whose abdomen had been devoured by ants and put it in a pocket of the Honda.  When we rescued the bug that evening, he was still alive.  We placed him on a pink zinnia in the flower bed where Joel watched him closely, knowing that he would die and declaring that he’d bury him in the bed when he took his last breath.  The insect was still struggling at dusk, but we plan to have a burial service today if the birds haven’t eaten him.

DYING SOUNDS (A poem about locust songs from my chapbook, Just Passing Through):

These locust afternoons of summer,
sound murmurs in monotonous cicada cadence,
muffling any hope of nascent song.
Is this the way death sounds,
a forever evenness of one continuous note
we insects will sing without question
in awful unawareness, beating our wings,
attempting to pierce a final darkness so dense,
to serenade a quite deaf ear?

P.S.  Some critter or bird carried our cicada away during the night.  The botanist went on an early morning foray and photographed a singing male.  She said this morning’s cicada song is ear-splitting.
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