Cicada Song

535 total words    

2 minutes of reading

Chorus cicada (Amphipsalta zelandica) at Whakarewarewa, a cicada species endemic to New Zealand

The cicada shell; it sang itself entirely away

~master haiku writer, Basho (1644 – 1694)

The last of the late summer cicadas’ shells cling to the crepe myrtle tree in the front yard of our townhouse in our new town of Alexandria, Virginia. Across the Potomac from the swamp of Washington D.C.—like a steam bath this year—I see the wisdom of the cicadas, the usefulness of the metaphor of song to mean Life. “The cicada shell: it lived itself entirely away,” I might have suggested to Basho, if I had been a brash, not-with-it-yet student of the master (dare to dream!)

Poet Gregory Orr writes,

To be alive: not just the carcass

But the spark.

That’s crudely put, but…

If we’re not supposed to dance,

Why all this music?

“Why all this music?” I ask the cicadas who are loudest in this impossible-green, dragon-colored phase, their last incarnation before they die. They do not answer in a language understood by my head, but by my heart. The message: Keep singing.

On the days I feel disconnected from the Song, I grumble,“Keep singing” is not the greatest advice, Cicadas. Sometimes you can’t keep singing. You need to freeze (with the paralysis that is getting back-to-back orthodontics appointments for two kids), flee (before the Crystal City Costco traffic gets really bad), or fight (mostly with strongly worded op-eds).

What do they know? I say to myself, sweeping the dead cicadas with their wonderful trilobite eyes from the walkway, keeping up appearances in this neighborhood of well-edged lawns. My daughter calls their carcasses “crow snacks,” and she is not wrong.

When I am connected to Life through the nature that presents itself arrayed in its six-legged glory in my Alexandria backyard (steps from a mini-mall with a Panera restaurant), I feel—as John Keats said in “Ode to Autumn”—“o’erbrimmed.” I find haunting the high-pitched loudmouth rasping cicada chorus that ebbs and flows like water in the September air. Sing loud and all together now. Winter is coming. But how could they know that? I doubt a cicada comprehends its own mortality (to be fair, the list is long of the things I do not know).

Their “clammy cells” (as Keats said of the bees in “Ode to Autumn,” though I think this applies equally well to cicadas) are “o’er brimmed, they think warm days will never cease.” What would it be like to live like that? “To be alive,” as Orr wrote, “not just the carcass/but the spark.

The cicadas quiet. Autumn smoothes its cool dry hand over the land to still it. I bring the light box out of the basement and into the kitchen to better deal with my seasonal affective disorder.

If I could place a sensitive microphone under the soil, I am certain I would hear the sounds of the cicada grubs. A different music. Most unfamiliar. The spark. By the springtime of the cherry blossoms, it will be again transformed. It will re-emerge, the cicada music. And I will be waiting by the Panera parking lot with my dog-eared copy of Robert Hass’s translations of Basho.


Featured Image: Chorus cicada (Amphipsalta zelandica) at Whakarewarewa, a cicada species endemic to New Zealand. By Joaquín Salido Bello. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

  • Elizabeth Bastos

    Elizabeth Bastos is a freelance urban environmental writer mother-of-two in the Baltimore suburbs. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, McSweeney’s, and the Baltimore Sun. She is at work on her first book about the natural history of stormwater retention.
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