Cicadas and the New Sublime

2,273 total words    

9 minutes of reading

Photo Credit: G Van Horn, "Husks"

Sunday morning. End of August. Chicago. Logan Square. According to the weather forecast, it will be a very hot and humid day. Sunny, a high of 92°, SW light winds. This Sunday is a perfect example of what Chicagoans call the “dog days” of summer—the sultry summer weather usually occurring between July and early September.

Chris and I get ready to have brunch with Amanda and her toddler Tegan, who’s seven months old. We step out at ten o’clock—the front door opens and a waft of warm air envelopes us. It’s intense, but in a good way. After putting up for almost twenty years with London’s capricious, lukewarm, inconsistent, and washed-out summers, heat and sun is all I crave—aplenty.

We walk a few blocks down to Amanda’s. Tegan looks gorgeous in her pretty purple dress. Once at the Township restaurant, we decide to sit inside. The interior is simple but the food is delicious. Their vegetarian chorizo scramble with an Indian twist is one of my favorite things in the whole of Chicago. The waitress is nice and chatty. Waiters in the United States are usually much nicer than in London. Tipping helps, but people seem generally more open to chat and entertain over here, and the exchange of pleasantries, despite that silly old European prejudice about American superficiality, seems very genuine.

Tegan quickly becomes the center of attention. She truly is a charming baby. It isn’t long before the waitress holds her in her arms and plays with her. But Tegan is more interested in the propeller-fan slowly spinning up on the ceiling. Because of our amusement over Tegan, the conversation quickly turns to children and their ability to find the most mundane things enchanting.

The waitress tells us she has a four-year-old child named Tommy. Immediately an iPhone pops out of her pocket and pictures of Tommy wearing a cool t-shirt and heart-shaped pink sunglasses are duly flashed under our noses for review. The waitress says, “He’s a really cool kid with a fervid imagination. Sometimes, we are astounded by what he says.”

She continues, “Last week, for example, we were driving around Chicago, and Tommy pulled the car window down. He told us to be quiet and to listen.”

We said, “Listen to what?”

“Listen to this sound…”

“What sound?” I said.

“This sound,” said Tommy, “It’s a very special sound.”

I said, “What? The cicadas?”

“Yes, listen to it,” said Tommy. “It’s a very special sound…”

Shaking her head, the waitress muses, “I told him, it’s bugs, Tommy, only bugs! But he kept listening on. He gets strange like that, sometimes.”

We smiled, cordially. The story was sweet and invited implicit agreement. The waitress left with our orders and the conversation moved on. Yet, what she said stuck with me. That “It’s only bugs.” …Only bugs?

*     *     *     *

I, like Tommy, have listened to the cicadas repeatedly this summer, and the summer before, and the one before that… Their sound is still a novelty to me. Cicadas are very rare in the United Kingdom. For as much as I have grown fond of the lush, mild, idyllic, and peaceful British countryside, the rare but warm sunny summer days are uncannily silent to my Italian ears.

I was born in Milan and used to spend childhood summers in Calabria—Italy’s deep south, aka the closest thing to Sicily. Summer in the south always meant intensity—warmth, the smell of ripe fruit, the fragrance of dry hay toasting under the relentless sun, and noise—plenty of animal noise. Not so much from birds, but insect noise: rattles, rhythmic clicks, and metallic chirps that filled the air, reminding me what a special season summer is. Like Tommy, I’ve never doubted for a second whether the sound of cicadas was a “special sound.” That sound became even more special to me when I realized it was absent from my summer walks in London parks or further out in the English countryside. As I learned to love Chicago and its high contrast extremes of summer and winter, the summer choruses of cicadas not only sounded delightful as a natural phenomenon but they acoustically bridged my childhood and adulthood.

There are two things about the sentence “It’s only bugs!” that annoy me. The first is the word “only.” Thus located, before a noun, it reduces, limits, oversimplifies, and restricts. Nothing in our world is “only” anything. The second thing I find annoying about the sentence “It’s only bugs,” and this may not come as a surprise, is the term “bugs.” Colloquially, as we all know, the name applies to all insects as a pejorative and reductive label. The word’s use in this sentence, and in its common use, connotes that insects are superfluous and unnecessary. Something that arrives on the scene to “bug me.”

Mosquitoes, ants, flies, wasps, cockroaches, termites, and so on, though fascinating, can indeed “bug” people. But the term is often used to describe any group of insects. It has even been appropriated by natural history museums around the world as a label for entomology collections. My heart literally sank years ago whilst visiting the entomology collection at the Natural History Museum in London when I found out it had been renamed “Creepy Crawlies.” The word “bugs” was scrawled everywhere in the exhibit in different “creepy” fonts. What is the educational value of an exhibit that instead of inducing a healthy sense of curiosity for insects panders to the abysmal survival reality TV shows in which insects are the epitome of disgust and get crushed or eaten alive for the amusement of audiences?

At the same time, a relentless exposure to what can be called “hyperanimals”—wild, elegant, brave, ferocious megafauna—diminishes or entirely extinguishes interest in anything humble, small, or visually lackluster. Yet it is the small and not very glamorous creatures that are in fact essential to the balance of many ecosystems. These non-sublime animals are part of complex and interconnected ecologies that are not separate from us and are essential to the lives of many plants and other animals too. In the face of a sixth mass extinction, more than ever, being interested in nature is an imperative. How are we going to change the course of events if we can’t muster an interest in the real complexities of nature, in that which is not showy, not elegant, and not sublime?

Tommy was right, the chant of cicadas is magical. If by “sublime” we mean something awe-inspiring to the degree that it overwhelms one’s senses, then the term includes much more than the showiness of aesthetics. The otherness of nonhuman creatures helps us expand conventional definitions of the sublime. The dog-day cicada is a good example of what I will refer to as the new sublime.

The dog-day cicada is not celebrated by the media as is the magicicada or periodical cicada, which every 15 or 17 years captures the headlines and news reports because of its mass emergence in towns across the United States. The magicicada is sublime in many obvious ways. It incorporates the notion of greatness through sheer numbers—it overwhelms, visually and acoustically. The length of its life-cycle creates expectation and momentum.

Dog-days cicadas, in contrast, emerge more sparsely, every year without much fanfare. But that does not mean that there’s nothing worth paying attention to. The new sublime—that which deeply engages our attention—need not be aesthetically showy. It’s overwhelming beauty derives from the complex interconnectedness of every being and environment, as well as their fragility and intricacy. We just need to attune our perception to different rhythms and new aesthetics in order to envision this sublime.

*     *     *     * 

The sound of each individual cicada can be seen as a mark of unbelievable success. Every dog-day cicada spends four to five years underground, digging tunnels in search of roots from which it sucks sap. The body of the nymph is very different from that of the adult. In fact, the two look like completely different insects. The nymph molts its skin numerous times before reaching the mature stage. It spends its existence in total darkness away from anything that happens above ground. Yet, one summer night, when the soil has reached a constant temperature of 65F, the nymphs will begin to dig upward until they reach the outmost layer of soil substrate. They are tireless and determined—they have accumulated plenty of nutrients during the time they spent underground, and they have a mission to accomplish. Whether they know about what lies ahead is a mystery. Yet they do it. Each and every one knows what to do although they have not been taught or shown how to do it. Isn’t that amazing? 

Coming out of the soil is only the beginning of the most complex and dangerous phase of their new lives. Once fully emerged from the ground the nymphs begin to crawl in search of a vertical surface. They need it in order to molt one last time. This is when they will metamorphose into adult cicadas and gain their wings, leaving their underground existence behind forever. But the task is not easy. They have never crawled above ground. They have had a long life already but everything is suddenly new and different. I can only imagine that, in a sense, simply coming out of the ground is some sort of rebirth—and there’s no way back.

Like newborn turtles on a beach, the cicada nymphs crawl to complete their journey. But unlike turtles on a beach they don’t really seem to know where safety will be found. They crawl using eyes they have never used before, and in fact they can probably see next to nothing. At this point, they are more vulnerable than they have ever been. Their fleshy bodies are exposed to nighttime predators like mice, birds, or cats. The sooner they reach a vertical surface the better. In this endeavor, many will get squashed by unaware passers-by. Some nymphs end up crawling towards roads and will never make it to the other side. Their time is limited. Their metabolism has changed. The countdown has begun. They either complete the metamorphosis process within a certain time frame or they’ll die.

Those who crawl up a tree-trunk or wall will at some point stop. There does not seem to be an apparent reason as to why they stop where they do. Some of them stop a couple of inches from the ground. Others go all the way up to the top of tree branches. Regardless of where they set up camp, within a few minutes of that decision being made, their outer skin hardens like never before and a long and neat crack opens on the back of the thorax. The head of the nymph will have to squeeze through that narrow passage and then the rest of the body will follow.

Crawling out of their skins, by simply climbing upward, would be a challenge already, but dog-day cicadas perform a much more dangerous acrobatic number. They have to backflip before they can fully abandon the old hardened skin. For over a quarter of an hour they hang horizontally—still anchored by the tip of their abdomen to the inside of their old skin. They push away from it and, then, right when it looks very likely they’ll fall, comes the final thrust. They arch that new body and grip to the old skin for dear life. They now look like one insect on top of another. But they are not safe yet.

This is the point at which the hollow feet of the nymph skin might detach from the wall—that could spell the end. If everything goes according to plan, however, the newly emerged cicada will stretch its new wings.

At the beginning of the molt, they look like wet, used tissues. But they quickly expand and harden as fluids are pushed from the thorax to their extremities. They take roughly an hour to dry. The whole body will harden and darken. The adult cicada has new eyes, a new mouth, and new legs, having left behind the front legs that were built for digging.

Has it lost its memory of a previous life spent underground in complete darkness? Scientists are still unsure about what changes and what remains the same through the mysteries of the metamorphic process. If the adult cicada is lucky enough not to be eaten by a predator, at some point, in the middle of the night, it will spread its wings and try them out for the first time. Being eaten by a predator before they can even take their first flight still would be a kind of success—the success of the ecosystem, which includes cicadas, along with trees, the soil, and all the other living organisms that constitute our urban reality.

The new sublime surpasses the notion of tragedy by focusing on the bigger picture—one that may not be easy to grasp in its entirety. The cicada skin is the only visible trace of this epic, transformative journey that is connected to many other plant and animal lives. It will hang on the wall or on a tree trunk for a few days. Hollow. Abandoned. A ghostly reminder of a previous life. The sign of a short-lived and yet essential link in the ecosystems of Chicago’s astonishing animal and plant biodiversity.

Are dog-day cicadas “only bugs”? There are sublime reminders clinging to the trees in your neighborhood that tell a different story.


The three photographs in the post are by Giovanni Aloi, from the “Exuvia series” 2015-16.

  • Giovanni Aloi

    Giovanni Aloi is an art historian in modern and contemporary art. He teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sotheby’s Institute of Art New York and London, and Tate Galleries. His first book titled Art & Animals was published in 2011 and since 2006 he has been the Editor in Chief of Antennae, the Journal of Nature in Visual Culture.

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