"Songs of the Cicada"
Casey N. Cep
June 7th, 2013
The New Yorker
When I was a child, I loved bugs and the Bible. The two met one summer when all anyone could talk about was a plague of locusts. It was 1996, and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland everyone—farmers, gardeners, even people who simply cared deeply for their pansies and peonies—feared the coming scourge, a repetition of the eighth plague of Exodus, when God sent locusts to “cover the face of the earth.”
The Eastern Shore is a small peninsula wedged between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, but that summer it felt like the whole of the earth was under the threat of the coming swarm. It wasn’t often that life on the Shore resembled the Bible’s text so closely, yet during the summer of the seventeen-year cicadas it felt like the scriptures might be reënacted on our very soil. While most feared another plague, I was dreaming of that bewildering prophet John the Baptist. The gospels of Matthew and Mark both describe John’s dress and diet: he wore a camel-hair coat and a leather belt while dining on honey and locusts. John’s sartorial choices were inspired by Elijah, a prophet of the Old Testament taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. By copying their clothing and feasting on the coming cicadas, I thought, I too might become a prophet.
But cicadas aren’t locusts. They can’t chew, so they don’t destroy crops; they suck sap from the roots of trees and flowers, but even that they do mostly as nymphs underground, not as adults when they emerge for the few weeks they live above ground. When the teeming clouds of cicadas finally arrived that summer, they didn’t bring enlightenment or prophecies, just a cacophony that kept us awake, and a cemetery of cicada wings that our cats refused to eat.
All that remains of that summer is a grocery bag full of cicadas that an armchair entomologist friend of mine put in his freezer. We thought they might be worth returning to for research, either of the scientific or the gustatory sort. Seventeen years later, the cicadas are returning and I have found more than John the Baptist to keep me company during the invasion. Cicadas are a global species and an ancient one. They can be found in “The Tale of Genji,” Plato’s “Phaedrus,” and even “Aesop’s Fables.” Time-lapse photography may have enhanced our understanding of their life cycle, but poets have been cataloguing their summer songs for thousands of years.
Take Robert Hass, who describes in “Between the Wars” how one could hear “the slightly / maniacal cicadas tuning up to tear the fabric / of the silence into tatters.” The poem’s speaker is reading Polish history, but finds himself disturbed by the insects’ furious activity. When male cicadas sing for females, they do, as Hass says, shred and torture silence. The tiny tymbals of the cicada buckle several hundred times a second, like mallets on a kettledrum, already a blast that only amplifies when billions of the males sing simultaneously, each trying to attract a mate. Jorie Graham describes the music of the cicadas as “kindling that won’t take.” Her poem “The Errancy” begins with the tymbals of the male cicadas crackling like wood under flame: “The struck match of some utopia we no longer remember / the terms of.”
One version of the forgotten utopia of cicadas can be found in Plato’s “Phaedrus.” When Socrates runs into one of his students walking outside the Athenian city walls, the two settle by a shaded stream to talk. Socrates notices that their conversation is competing with the shrill sound of cicadas. The eavesdropping insects listen as teacher and student debate the virtues of friendship over erotic love, the blessings of madness, the immortality of the soul, the art of rhetoric, and the superiority of speech to written text.
The most charming excursus can be found when Phaedrus and Socrates return to the chirping cicadas that surround them. Socrates likens the cicadas to sirens, telling Phaedrus a beautiful story about how these creatures were once men. After the Muses were born, Socrates says, some men became so intoxicated by their music that they sang and sang until they died, having forgotten to eat or drink. Cicadas rose from their bodies, reincarnated by the Muses to sing continuously, without requiring food or water, their only task to make music and spy on humankind to see who honored the Muses.
It’s possible that Socrates became fascinated by the cicadas through “Aesop’s Fables,” which, we know from the “Phaedo,” he spent his last days translating into verse. Various versions of the fables have substituted species and adapted animals, but Aesop mentioned at least a few cicadas. The eponymous grasshopper of “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” who spends his summer days singing while the ant labors to store food for the winter, was originally a cicada, making the frivolity of these summer creatures more tragic, less admirable.
But Aesop also tells the tale of a cicada outwitting a fox. A hungry fox tries to lure the singing cicada down from the heights of a tall tree by complimenting the creature’s song. Show yourself, the fox cajoles, so that I might see just how you create your symphony with such tiny wings. The cicada, though, has seen wings like his own in the mouth of another fox and is not beguiled; sending a leaf from the highest branches, he watches as the fox executes an ambush. In each fable the cicada teaches us to learn from the misfortunes of others: by example, with the fox, and by negative example, with the ant. Even the cicada’s own reversed fortunes in the two fables suggests that change is possible, if only every seventeen years.
The fables of Aesop and the myth of Socrates testify to our willingness to look for morals everywhere. Etiologies exist even for the cicadas, which some believe were created by the gods to frustrate summer siestas or any effort at indolence; there are even more tenacious efforts to find meaning in their peculiarly long life cycles. Their calendrical feats of strength not only mark eras but encourage divination.
Take Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” which dedicates seven panels to cicadas. “First came the plague of locusts,” the section opens, with a young Bechdel reading a newspaper with competing headlines: “17-Year Locusts Return to Area” and “Grand Jury Cites Nixon as Unindicted Co-Conspirator.” The cicadas do more than mark seventeen-year intervals. They are omens of the personal and the political. For Bechdel, they were portents of sexuality and self-discovery; for Nixon, they presaged his ignominy.
The dictionary gives her a definition and a diagram of the Magicicada septendecim, and Bechdel editorializes, “When it was time to breed, they crawled en masse to the surface, shed the skins of their nymph-hood, and emerged as winged adults.” After a few weeks of going at their abandoned exoskeletons with croquet mallets, they “settled down to an orgy in our tall maple trees, cloaking us in the ambient noise of their conjugal exertions.” The cicadas, Bechdel speculates, “shook loose the screws on some collective libidinal impulse.” As soon as they “shuffled off this mortal coil,” she got her first period. A kind of amateur augury leads her to believe the cicadas hastened her own maturation.
Bechdel not only fixes the eerie exoskeletons of the molting cicadas and the papery, membranous wings of the mature cicadas on the page, she also adds onomatopoeic attempts at capturing their mating calls. Several of the panels in this section feature large, bold bands of “EEREEREER” stretching across them: Bechdel’s choice for the whirring whirl of their tymbals. It’s a less imaginative version of Jorie Graham’s “kindling that won’t take,” but the persistent interference of the text with the graphic images perfectly mimics the cicada’s interference in our aural lives.
Just about everyone on the East Coast will wrestle with that sound this summer. Already serenading parts of the South and the Mid-Atlantic, the seventeen-year cicadas will soon have emerged everywhere from Georgia to Connecticut, leaving us to decide whether they shrill, trill, chirp, or squawk. They sound to me like a sprinkler when it’s first starting: less like “EEREEREER” and more like “THTHTHACK.” I’m still no John the Baptist, but I’m listening with the same sense of wonder that I had as a child, waiting for revelations in the rasp of the cicadas.