Posted by: atowhee | January 27, 2021

NIGHT MUSIC–THE CICADAS OF A MIDWESTERN CHILDHOOD

IF YOU HAVE NEVER HEARD 17-YEAR CICADAS, CLICK HERE AND LISTEN TO THE CHORUS RECORDINGS.

This is going to be another year for the emergence the 17-year cicada in the eastern third of the US.  I remember vividly the summer when I was a kid and they came out from the ground as nymphs, shed their plastic-looking carapace and flexed their wings for the first time.  Soon the cicadas would dominate the rural sound of that summer, day and night.

I believe it was 1953.  I was seven, so I had pretty free run all over our twenty-acre farm in the Missouri Ozarks.  I knew not to leave to go a neighbor, or try to go into town, without my mother’s permission…but to the creek and its linear forest gallery, around the barn, garden or chicken house, in and around the pastures with sheep and cows grazing, through our small oak grove, over fences (barbed wire and all), down to the pond…that was all open to exploration.  And whenever, wherever, I went, at least one of our dogs was sure to come along, until lured away by the scent of a cottontail to chase (and never caught), or perhaps a mole’s tunnel system to begin excavating.

My parents told me what to look for.  Life-long Midwesterners, they had gone through several cicada summers.  That word, “cicada,” I never heard until years later.  We knew them as “locusts.”  In early summer they began to appear, and to signal one another.  I heard the loud buzzing sound from trees and shrubs before I knew it was coming from the locusts.  My first visual was of the nymph shells left clinging to the rough oak bark.  The hooked claws on each of the six feet persevered long after the nymph became flying locust and the carapace was left behind.   Another word I learned much later—in those days it was “locust shell.”  I was in my toy cowboy stage so I immediately recognized the hump-backed shells as pretty good miniature bison (“buffalo” to me then).  Tiny plastic cowboys and dozens of buffalo shells set me up for an hour or more of play every day that summer.

As the summer went through its days and stages I saw more and more of the adults, often resting on horizontal branches high in my favorite climbing tree—a generously shady maple (not native in that habitat).  Their transparent wings ad big “bug-eyes” were intriguing, unlike the ants and spiders and beetles and butterflies I was used to seeing in warm weather.  Picked up their prickly claws would grab hold of finger or bare arm.  Unlike all the many wasps, ticks, fleas, mosquitoes and deeply dreaded chiggers, these big guys were harmless and fascinating. Herbivores of long-standing, the locusts were plant eaters who did little damage. They didn’t even bite like the large, sickly green grasshoppers it was my job to take off the garden corn and green beans’ leaves. Those guys would bite hard, and then puke “tobacco juice” all over your fingers, basically semi-digested corn leaves mixed with ‘hoppers’ stomach acid. Those grasshoppers, by the quart jar full, went straight into the chicken yard where they were welcomed with open beaks. 

I could carry a few locusts around on my arm or shirt for some time before they jogged awake and flew back into a nearby tree.  My mother told me never to bring one into the house because she pretended they would eat her cyclamen.  I think she just didn’t want one clinging to the top of a curtain, or hiding behind a piece of furniture and then buzzing all night.

The sound.  Decades later when my wife and I spent many summer days in Italy or Greece, I immediately recognized the cicada buzz. As expected, their “music” came from the trees.  Different species from the one I had known, but the cicada rhythm, the tune, the symphony of buzzing and clicking was familiar.  Like the sounds of a chickadee family member, be it in Hampshire New or Old.

On those locust summers, before air conditioning, all our screened windows were open round the clock.  The outdoor sounds were always inside.  Any outside light would attract the buzzing June bugs.  There might be calling tree frogs.  Into the early darkness we’d hear the call of the Whip-poor-will, a bird I never saw but could imitate with copy-cat whistles.  Any time it was above 80 degrees (most summer nights) there’d be the irritating, droning whine of the katydids, never taking a year off.  Sawing away on their sharp-bristled legs, the shiny green katydids give out a grinding drone to madden anybody not deaf.  The higher the temperature the more severe the whine, the faster the frequency of ups and downs in pitch.  I hated them when they kept me up past midnight.  On locust nights their louder sounds would dominate, pushing the smaller katydids back into an accompaniment role.

 Here’s one juiceless explanation of cicada cacophony from the internet:

“Cicadas are able to produce these sounds because they possess an organ that is almost unique among insects, the tymbal organ. … Contraction of a tymbal muscle attached to the membrane causes it to bend, producing a clicking sound. The tymbal springs back when the muscle is relaxed.”

Further: “Each male cicada has a pair of these circular ridged membranes on the back and side surface of the first abdominal segment. Contraction of a tymbal muscle attached to the membrane causes it to bend, producing a clicking sound. The tymbal springs back when the muscle is relaxed. The frequency of the contractions of the tymbal muscle range from 120 to 480 times a second, which is fast enough to make it sound continuous to the human ear. Cicadas also have air sacs that have resonant frequencies comparable to tymbal vibration frequencies, thus amplifying the sound and producing that crescendo of high-pitched buzzing that is the characteristic sound of late summer.”

The eastern US has 7 species of periodic cicadas.  There are many more across the globe, ranging from two-year cycles up to the 17 year max.  Some USA cicadas are on 13 year cycles, just luck I guess.

LOCUST POETRY

Robert Hass:  “the slightly / maniacal cicadas tuning up to tear the fabric / of the silence into tatters.”
— in “Between the Wars”

“They say your songs
portend the end of summer
just as chirping robins
usher in the spring air…”  –David Granville, 2005

“O, shrill-voiced insect; that with dewdrops sweet,” begins an ode to cicadas by Meleager of Gadara.

Get this, pretending to sleep through the sound–harder than sleeping on an airplane:

Summer Night (Sonnet)

“Cicadas and katydids are calling
Breezes blow in from my open window
Roses are blooming and leaves are falling
The moon’s rays hitting my lawn look like snow
Owls are singing from majestic trees
While sweet Bluebirds are sleeping in bushes
Night dances through the softly blowing breeze
And Midnight silently the world hushes
Dewdrops like jewels shine on roses sweet
And the stars twinkle all through the calm night
While the Fairies dance on enchanted feet
And the moon happily shines very bright
And I under my warm covers doth sleep
Until pretty morning brightly doth peep. ~Marian~2013”

A friend who lives in Princeton responded: ” This morning I emailed a neighbor to say that we need to get ready again–they are coming back! We have so many here that it gets stinky and putrid where the carapaces pile up under oak trees and elsewhere. Last time they were here, there were streets that you could not walk down lest you go crunch crunch crunch with them underfoot. We had a giant old elm tree on our front yard 17 years ago. It dies of bootlace fungus and other diseases (not Dutch elm), and there is an American hornbeam near its place. I will be interested in seeing if the same numbers appear this year. So we will have a pandemic, meltdown in DC–and locusts! What more could any person ask? Our cups runneth over–and so will our streets.

I did some research on their predators: long list inc. squirrels, raccoons, dogs, cats, Purple Martins, Wild Turkeys and larger domestic fowl, kestrel, nightjars, screech-owl, corvids, gulls, terns, probably coyotes…I think they would be too much for a praying mantis or any spider I can picture in the eastern US.


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