On a day like today, August is the mildest month. Yes, even here in the Washington, DC, area, where a recent rain washed away the stickiness. Morning swept in on a breeze. My windows are wide open, and fresh air and cicada music fill my house.
I love the raspy, ringing hum of these annual little musicians. I remember them singing me awake when I was a child; my bedroom windows, always open in our unairconditioned house, were surrounded by leafy tree branches full of these bright-eyed creatures. Cicadas suggest a particular sort of breeze, because to hear their song the way I do today, so clear and loud, means the windows are open to receive cool, stirring air. It heralds a sunny, slow, delicious day.
The cicadas’ song combines art and industry. They’re busily at work, calling for mates, but their sound is exhilarating and inspiring. They’re absorbed in a creative act of courtship, the first step to bringing about new life. Their lush sound means they’re in the flow. It’s the sound of thriving.
But why is that insect song so pleasing to us humans? It’s hardly a smooth sound. It’s rough and buzzy. If you love it as I do, perhaps it’s because of that shimmering urgency. The sound is surging rather than monotonous; it rises and falls in waves of gentle excitement, with just enough variation to hold the interest.
Poets and mythmakers have long been fascinated by cicadas, with their lifecycle and the way they transform from earthly grubs to winged musicians. In the ancient world, cicadas were linked to resurrection, spiritual awakening and joy. Apollo revered them. So did Aristotle. (He also ate them.)
According to Greek myth, cicadas are transfigured humans. They started out as folks who became so moved by the Muses that they sang and danced themselves into bliss. They entered the flow, losing themselves in art-making, to the point where they stopped eating and died, without realizing it. They were too happy to notice.
I can’t imagine a more wonderful way to go. The Muses agreed. They rewarded their devotees with the gift of existing only to sing. In return, so the story goes, cicadas watch over humans, keeping their bright eyes especially on those who are doing their best to honor the arts and creativity.
I think of them as selfless givers, in the tradition of graceful people everywhere. Cicadas are quite distinct from locusts, the crop-destroying pest. Cicadas don’t feed on vegetation, though they do sip a little tree sap. They don’t bite or sting. They emerge from the earth simply to sing, find a lover, lay eggs and die. In the process, they congregate in choruses, making these very vocal mating calls and offering us a free outdoor concert.
Theirs is a full-body art, more of a dance than a song, actually. It’s a little like tap dancing; movement that makes music. The males produce the sound by buckling the “timbals,” a special membrane on the underside of their abdomen. They sing in the trees, not while flying but from a position of rest. They sing in sunshine. They offer a lesson in entering the flow, in existing with graceful ease and joy, in starting every day with music and hope.