Lorraine Shannon—An Ode to Cicadas

Thirty-eight degrees Celsius today. It’s supposed to be early autumn. The plane trees, always the first to signal the end of summer, have crisp brown edges on their leaves. A day of no birds, shrivelled worms, burnt grasses. Only flies and ants seem to have survived. A microscopic view, of course, might reveal scores of organisms devouring others, a life hidden beneath the surface. The roar of cicadas that in January was like a jack-hammer up close, has vanished. How is it, I ask myself, that I didn’t notice the day they disappeared, the day I opened the front door to silence? Even the handsome Black Prince cicadas that live on the Casuarinas are gone. It was their discarded casings I collected as a child and lined up in formations of opposing armies, rigid in their armour; or clustered into groups to play happy families.

In December we hunted for Green Grocers on our way to school, each enclosing a single cicada in our small sweaty palms, a shiver going down my spine at the strange, sticky sensation of the cicada legs crawling in the embrace of my closed fist. Once inside our classroom we moved our thumbs slightly to allow a tiny chink of light to enter the cicada’s prison. Immediately, it started to sing and the room was filled with the urgent trilling of cicadas desperate for liberty and mates.

They had lived in the dark for so long I was always relieved to release my cicada in the playground. I imagined their despair when captured and transported in the dank loneliness of our hands. In the trees they climb and climb as if getting as close as possible to the sun will remove the memory of groping in the dark underground for years. They gather in groups to sing, to soar in brief astonished glory as if the thought of having been in the dark for so long is unbearable. As nymphs they dig holes to crawl out of their burrows, then find a safe spot to grip firmly while their skin splits and they can emerge head first, wait while their new wings dry and abandon their ghost selves without a backward glance. Assuming they have a successful metamorphosis that is.

My dog is adept at discovering newly emerged cicadas, nosing them curiously then leaping backwards with a yelp when they move. Some struggle futilely, having emerged with incomplete wings. They are quickly devoured by crows before they even have time to register to the injustice of a world that allows them to live for years underground but denies them a final consummation in the sun.

Much like the human infant the cicada nymphs spend their time drinking and sleeping. Tied by umbilical cords to the tree roots, wrapped in a protective layer of soil, their forms are moulded by the liquid that courses through them. How can we say where one body ends and another begins? They attach their mouths to a tree root, fashioning a tiny sluice gate through which sap flows. Their bodies create a miniature floodplain, a diversion in the flow of sap from root to foliage. The pressure that draws water and nutrients up towards the leaves is strong enough that the nymphs hardly need to exert themselves. They just hang on while the rich nutrients flow through them and are excreted as honeydew into the soil. The sap of life flows through the floodplain of their dreaming bodies forming a conduit from root to earth, sweetening the soil.

Who knows what calls them to climb towards the light? Who knows what inspires them to seek out change? Perhaps increased sap flow indicates warm weather and rain; perhaps they use the annual growth of trees. Like a human child, they enter into a relationship with the directional forces of the earth, their bodies solidify yet retain in their spiraling, involuted organs, forms reminiscent of the interplay of water on surfaces. My body, my dog’s body and the cicada’s body are all formed by the flow of liquid, all part of a great circulatory system spread over the face of the earth.

Liquid, the indeterminate element, waiting to take on definite form, the element Novalis called sensitive chaos. Contained within the vascular systems of plants, drawn up and transpired as a great invisible stream into the atmosphere, enclosed within the small space of the body, mirrored in the flow of thoughts. Every idea – like every organic form – arises in a process of flow until movement congeals into a form. It unites and separates, dissolves substances and binds them together. Creates places of concentration and fertile exchange, charting paths into remote territory; forms in a river a mouth between sea and hinterland.

Abundant water swells living tissue, drought shrivels it. A river flowing, flooding and ebbing shapes bars, banks and valleys. A tree growing, weaving together leaf, branch, trunk and root, decaying and transpiring, creating larger weavings of soil and air, establishing a shady domain, cool moist humus vital to life. Among the roots cicada nymphs, among the leaves birds nesting, under the branches people and dogs resting. And somewhere in burrows the eggs of the solitary wasp, Exeirus lateritus hatch on the paralyzed body of a cicada. The female wasp searches out a cicada singing in a tree, stings it until it is paralyzed but not killed. She then carries the cicada to a burrow and lays her eggs on it. The wasp larvae gradually devour the cicada, keeping it alive as long as possible. Deprived of the company of other cicadas, buried in darkness, perhaps the lone cicada imagines itself repeating its earlier life, succumbing to a trance in which it is dismantled bit by bit, to become dust.

Socrates tells a different story about cicadas to Phaedrus as they walk outside the city and into the countryside to talk of beauty and love. He relates a myth of how cicadas were once humans who lived before the time of the Muses. When the Muses came into the world some of these people were so enchanted by music that they kept singing and forgot to eat and drink. So they died and from them sprang the race of cicadas that can sing from birth to death without need of sustenance. Socrates tells Phaedrus that they must steer clear of the cicada’s hypnotic song if they want to receive the gift that the Muses can confer on mortals. This gift is the food that the soul feeds on, it is the beauty of the loved one; it is the original song that leads the soul home to beauty, a song that can only be heard if the lover has not been bewitched by the cicada choir. Socrates is warning Phaedrus of the poet’s aesthetic power that can rob the mind of its reflective ability so it can no longer discern the difference between the messenger and the message. The poetic, Socrates is saying, combines the power to awaken the soul to beauty as well as the power to drug it to sleep.

To day in the unseasonal heat, in the deathly quiet I miss the pizzazz, the get-up-and-go vitality of the cicadas. I hope that somewhere deep enough in the ground to be cool and moist new life is waiting for a moment in the sun to sing its heart out.