An August Chorus


08/07/2009 - The sound that most captures summer for me is the chorusing rise and fall of cicadas on a bright, late afternoon, when even the shade is hot. There is a poignancy in their song. They mate, lay eggs and they die. Autumn follows close behind.

A cicada looks a bit like a small green frog whose skin has been wrung dry and its jumping gear replaced with six spiky leg posts best suited for hanging from the bark of trees in any position. Add a pair of long, translucent wings and those bug-eyed critters can fly. They can strike up choruses intense enough to drown conversation and out-roar lawn mowers if the song tree is close by.

Cicadas can also reach deep within the recesses of memory and emotion. Some people hate them. For me they evoke an emotion akin to that I experience while watching a gorgeous sunset and wanting it to linger and linger and linger - and then it slips away and I feel both intense sadness and great joy.

The image a good cicada chorus always brings to me is that of an August afternoon pulling into a small Nebraska town, our caravan of blue Ford trucks pulling trailers with dusty green combines headed back south from wheat harvest in the Dakotas. A hot summer afternoon on the road - a truck with no radio, no air-conditioning, and then through the open windows shade of tree-lined streets, a small town square and a park with giant elms and the summer song of cicadas.

Another summer about to end. School was about to begin. The friendships and adventures of a summer on the road were in the final hours of slipping away. The cicada song rose and fell and rose again.

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, in a recorded interview, tells an audience member that seeing the word cicada in a poem will send him quickly buzzing on to a different poem.

"I'm sick of them," Collins said. "That word is a stop. It's a deal breaker."

The summer singers do have their detractors, especially in the years the trees are crowded with the arrival of the 13- and 17-year species.

But when I sip a glass of iced tea on the patio on an August Sunday afternoon, it is the song of the cicada that makes a poetry of summer.

According to Wikipedia, the male cicadas have noisemakers called timbals on the sides of their abdomens. The singing comes from rapid contractions of these timbals amplified by hollow abdomens. The chorus is modulated as each member wiggles his abdomen toward and away from his choir stand tree. They prefer most to sing when it is hot.

The females do not sing, but have membrane structures called tympana that serve as ears. The males also have tympana, but sometimes close them while they sing.

When mating has resulted in eggs, the female plants them in a slit she cuts in twig bark. Tiny nymphs emerge and head for the underground where they live for a couple of years before emerging to shed earth skin and celebrate with the windblown choruses in the trees.

Summer nights have the sparkle of fireflies, the mornings the chirp of a pair of molting Cardinals, a summer's nest-work of fledglings nearly finished. The afternoons sing with ratcheting chorus of cicadas that rise and fall and rise again and ricochet suddenly to a tumble of summer silence before a concertmeister starts the whole performance rising and falling, rising and falling all over again.

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