I Love. Now in the impossibly warm air of a late-January thaw, I love to picture my cicada friends biding their time below the iron ground, and I begin to dream of summer. One of my greatest pleasures during warm summers nights is to indulge my inner naturalist by prowling through the trees with flashlights hunting for cicadas. By day, I love to attempt to lure them to me, to watch them change direction in mid flight or mid-crawl by snapping my fingers in imitation of the female wing-flicks. The mating songs of the males delight me so much that I must pause in order to let the sound of summer shimmer over me when I hear them. But most of all, I love the story of their profound and secret transformation.
It begins in the summer. After mating, a female annual cicada uses a dagger-like ovipositor to cut slits into the bark or a tree branch and then stitch them full of eggs in lines as neat and perfect as fine crewel work. Once they hatch, the rice-sized young fearlessly bail over the side of the twig into free fall, landing softly on the earth and immediately digging downwards into the earth until they encounter a good root for them to feed from. They excavate a small lair adjacent to that root, which they defend with the ferocity of teensy territorial dragons from all other organism, large or small, that dares to encroach. Baring mishaps with moles, they remain here gorging themselves for a year, or two, or four (and up to seventeen years for the periodical cicadas), molting several times to accommodate growth spurts and the fat that they will be living from later. Finally, when conditions are almost perfect, they construct a tunnel to the surface and carefully clean it from any debris that falls in, sometimes forming a small chimney, biding their time and gathering their strength.
On the perfect summer evening, between the prime feeding time of their daytime and night-time predators, the thumb-sized, dark nymphs clamber out, often synchronizing with many of their siblings to improve their odds of success for what is to follow. Sometimes they spiral out away from the hole as they get their bearings, sometimes they march directly to the nearest tree or sometimes fence (or even unwary human) to begin the urgent upward climb. They may stop a foot off the ground or twice the height of a woman, and the perfect spot allows them to securely set the pinchers of their large, strong fore claws into the bark so that they are not easily dislodged. Their flexible exoskeleton dries quickly and becomes quite brittle. Their dark backs begin to bulge, and along the midline just below their heads, a precise split zips open to admit the wing buds, the square head with two bulging eyes on the corners and three tiny ruby red proto-eyes in the front. The legs pull from their gummy sheaths, and are held carefully out in the air to dry. The emerging cicadas work their way further out of their former skins by periodic subtle undulations of the thorax and abdomen, and the rumpled wing buds begin to pulse with green ichor.
When experimental tapping lends confidence that the legs are sufficiently hardened, the eclosing cicadas reach out and securely grasp the front of the shell that only twenty minutes previously was the exoskeleton of their head and thorax. Then they wriggle their abdomens the rest of the way out of the confining, chitinous girdles. Already their shiny plump bodies look too large to have emerged from the hairy, papery husks.
Clinging there at an angle perpendicular to the ground, the veins pump and wings unfurl in minutes from crumpled cellophane to a flat, celadon-veined, opalescent splendor. Luminous fairies by moonlight or flashlight, they brave the night at their most vulnerable as their new wings and skins harden and their distinctive tattoos first brighten into their most colorful and then darken slightly into opacity. Then they fold their wings over their backs and climb higher in search of the friendly leaf cover that would have impeded their eclosure an hour earlier.
In their adult form, cicadas do not eat. Their stiletto straw mouthpart enables them to sip sap from twigs and thus remain hydrated. The tree sugars may give them some quick energy, but for the most part they are now dependent on fat stored during their years under the earth.
Males seek specific heights in certain trees and vegetation, and begin their first adolescent croaks in just a few days. Very soon their full-throated song of passion emerges, a distinct one for each of the many type of cicada. These are the very sounds of summer. The females respond with wing flips, crawling or flying towards the irresistible throbbing of the singing. The males seek out the source of the wing flips, the sweetest sound in the world, homing in between each chorus until they find the females. They are so fanatic in their quest that they may be lured in by snapping one’s fingers in a certain way, Their passionate embrace may last for hours, locked tightly to one another, oblivious to all else. Finally, the males move on to advertize for more females, while the females begin the hunt for the perfect branches on which to ovideposit.
Every June, my ears are straining for the thrill of hearing the first cicada of the summer’s chorus. Though certain types come out earlier or later in the summer, a couple of weeks to a couple of months is all the time a cicada has above the ground before the hour comes to give back to the earth. . Song is life for male cicadas, even thought they risk death with every chorus. They will continue to sing and even attempt to mate after losing their abdomens to predators or fungus. They will continue to sing as they lie dying on their backs. The song is All.
As the weeks pass, they wind down like pocket-wateches, their songs becoming briefer, more querulous, deeper in tone, until finally their energy is completely spent and their bodies simply cease to move.
The next great change is more profound. It is the inevitable incorporation of their adult forms into the bodies of squirrel, bird, tree, sow bug, soil organism or raccoon. This is the ultimate transformation, into something utterly other, the great comingling through which we are ultimately all related.
They are never really gone. Their great song outlives them. Even now I can hear them singing in my mind at night. I smile, picturing them in their tiny underground caves. I pull the covers up in the snug winter's nest of my bed and go back to dreaming of the balmy nights of early summer and transformations to come.