Thursday, August 6, 2015


Summer is the time of the cicadas, and I've always loved the sound of their repetitious songs. However, as one who is afflicted with tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ears), I feel like an aging character in one of E. B. White's essays that appeared in the New Yorker: "A friend of ours...tells us that at this season it is almost impossible, walking or riding in the country, to distinguish between the poetry of earth and the racket inside his own head..." But when the cicadas emerge from their underground hideouts, I can distinguish a slight difference between the monotonous buzz in my ears and the symphonies that they composed in parts of Tennessee this summer.

The male cicada does most of the singing, using tymbals (not to be confused with cymbals), membranes that vibrate when muscles are pulled, especially when the males are out romancing. Sometimes they create songs by flicking their wings, but the female cicada makes this motion more often than the male. I've read that these "courting calls" are highly effective, but infrequently they're just distress signals when the insect thinks it's going to become the meal of a predator.

Many times, we hear entire symphonies created by cicadas—choruses composed and sung by male cicadas when they decide that if they get together and sing, a full symphony will attract females more readily than a solo. They synchronize with their tymbals, and the roaring sound is not unlike the strains of a Phillip Glass composition. Whatever the intent of these buzzing insects, I can detect this slight differentiation between their romantic rhapsodies and the tinnitus of old age humming in my ears.

I always welcome a Cicada Chorus that signals the beginning of some summers, but this year I've been looking forward to the finale of dog days as we've had too many hours of heat, even here on The Mountain. When I see the curled yellow leaves of basil in my herb garden, I realize that the sultry season is nearing an end. I also know that the eggs of the singing cicadas that fell out of the trees have hatched and gone underground for a long winter nap—sometimes for 13 or 17 years.

But my ears keep buzzing!

A poem from Old Ridges written during my third summer at Sewanee:


The old woman sunning in the garden
scorns locusts, the singing insects,
complaining they are God's plague,
forever tuning up and having
only one note in their score,
practicing the sound
until it becomes no music
but a ritornello of torture
offending her scale of joy.

She cannot know
they bury themselves
underground for seventeen years
of solitude and prayer
before bursting through decay and loam
to sing the aria of resurrection,
enchanted with that one note
loosely translated as light.

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