The Secret Life of Cicadas

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This summer’s cicada invasion has provided a curiously biblical book-end to 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, the plague of insects has had little affect on life, limb, or livelihood for those of us living amid their brief and frenetic existence but their presence cannot be missed visually or aurally. In honor of their appearance this summer, it seems that a brief homage to their pervasive presence is in order.

Coming at You

Mowing the lawn the other day, I was struck (figuratively and literally) by cicadas darting across the yard. Though they offered no danger, there was something particularly repulsive about their gripping claws latching onto my clothing or skin. I found myself ducking and dodging repeatedly as cicada after cicada darted from bush, branch, flower, or random blade of grass. Their flight patterns always seemed random, did not appear directed at me in particular, and were made even more sinister as each cicada chattered devilishly at impact – almost as if they were upbraiding me for getting in their way.

In the moment, the darting cicada routine ranged from mildly annoying to maddening depending on the level of surprise or grip they offered. I was reminded of a walk through my neighborhood earlier in the week and watching others fend off the flying insects – their reactions went from a casual swat to a fearful thrashing as the bugs struck various primal chords within. Isn’t that life, I thought to myself. So often, we’re walking along and problems fly at us like random cicadas, seemingly targeting us simply because we exist. Swat as we might, even the slow-moving annoyances always seem just beyond our ability to knock out of the sky – their chaotic zigging and zagging frustrating our efforts for a clean kill.

As the third, or thirtieth, cicada flew into my head, I considered the randomness of the pattern and my innocence in the cosmic intersection of the moment. I didn’t ask for it, prompt it, or possibly even deserve it. Yet, I got hit just the same. My transgression was having the gall to walk forth into a world where these creatures were flying about. True, I could have stayed in and watched them darting about, hitting my neighbors, while I sat safely out of the fray. I would have been safe for a time but, alas, there are other, quieter and more dangerous, things lurking. To live is to engage the cicadas where they are and where we want to be.

Frenzied Existence

Sitting safely inside my comfortably air-conditioned house, I watched the cicadas zipping across my backyard. it was sheer chaos. To my untrained eye, there were no visible patterns. Individuals leapt into the air, flew across the yard and landed on random branches in the trees. They flew up, they flew down. They landed in the yard, they landed on the flowers. I figured their eyesight was pretty bad as I watched them bounce off furniture, house, and wind chime. They flitted about as if their life depended on it. I suppose it did.

Hmm. Isn’t that us? We flit through our days, frenzied with activity, darting to the next something. I suppose we can see the next limb on which to land but our vision starts to blur when we try to look much further ahead. We have imperfect eyesight and frequently lose our way. Sometimes we land in the right spot but that is really the exception; our landings often are more like trial and error. To those watching us, our movements may appear random, frenetic, bereft of purpose. “Why did she do that,” one might ask. Or, if you’re in the car, “What the hell was he thinking?”

Cicadas, really? Sure. Take the lens far enough away and one might say that we are a plague in our own right. Though we do far more damage. Looking on, we might appear as a tree full of flying cicadas, moving randomly, frenzied as we try to get to that next branch. It is really an odd thought considering our abilities to think, discern, and choose. “You chose to do that?” we ask critically. Self-aware, we consider the query and adjust, or ignore, as we see fit. Let the chaos resume.

Piled at the End

Finally building the courage to leave the safety of my temperature controlled, cicada-proof domicile, I walked down the street to the neighborhood pool. The cacophony of the cicadas followed me, threatening me with a billion menacing tones. Approaching the pool gate, I noticed a pile of dead cicadas in the landscaping. Weird. Inside, cicada carcasses were scattered across the deck and several large groupings of cicadas floated lifelessly within the pool itself. I wondered, was their mission accomplished or interrupted by their dip in the pool?

A shriek interrupted my contemplations as a woman (described as “mimi” by her grandchildren) waved her arms wildly as she convulsively tried to avoid a darting cicada. She grimaced and shivered as the threat passed, commenting, “I hate those things.” The mystery of the piled cicadas was soon solved as I watched the lifeguard scoop the lifeless insects from the pool with a dustpan and dump them through the fence into the landscaping. Life mission completed or not, the cicadas’ end seemed ignominious as their dead bodies were tossed in piles for nature’s dismantling. Order restored, Mimi proceeded to play joyfully with her granddaughters in the cicada-less water.

Meanwhile, the roar of the cicada chorus in the trees around the pool rose to a crescendo, dropped like a wave crashing on the beach, and then began again in unison. Wait a minute, I thought, that doesn’t sound so chaotic. Listening more closely, the chattering rhythm became obvious. Still unnerving, but now beautiful in a different way, I heard it. The noise assaulting my ears was chaotic only through my filter, underneath was something far more. There was pattern and purpose in that cacophony. Frenzied. Mysterious. Purposeful.

  • Jennifer Gleckman

    Another refreshing perspective that makes me look at things with a new lens. Thank you Phil!

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