It is the season of the cicadas here in my Southwest Virginia mountain town. I’d never heard of cicadas until moving out East. It is one more thing I love about this part of the country.
My first introduction to cicadas was in 2004—our first full spring and summer living in Maryland, near the D.C. Metro area. I remember running through the wooded trails of Rock Creek Park, listening to their mysterious hum, and counting the dozens of small holes of their emergence on the path in front of me, littered with their left behind exoskeletons. More than once, I’d collide with one mid-run. They would fly directly into my chest or shoulder. I may have even caught a couple in the face.
Now, I’m running with the cicadas once again. Their hum fills the air, lulling me into pace with them. Their song—which is their mating call–is distinct. It’s a swarming sound; but with this strange, multi-layered, resonant depth to it. A rich, congregant tone.
Out of curiosity, I went searching for cicada facts the other day. Primarily, I wondered why it has been sixteen years since I last witnessed their resurgence instead of the seventeen-year cycle scientists say they should be on. I wondered: Is it possible the coronavirus has affected even the cicadas?
Nah. Cicada cycles vary by region. This is the year for the Virginia/West Virginia cicadas. The Maryland cicadas come out in 2021. Which explains why—in my world—the cicadas came one year early.
In my searching for cicada lifecycle facts, I stumbled upon something immensely more interesting: the imaginative, metaphorical power of the cicada in literature and folklore across centuries and civilizations. Just for fun, I’ll share some of what I learned:
- To the Chinese, cicadas are powerful symbols of rebirth and immortality.
- The cicada makes it into one of Aesop’s Fables: The Cicada and the Ant. (the link is to a lovely version of the story presented by the Library of Congress)
- The Greeks also include the cicada in one of their hymns sung by Aphrodite about Eros. Eros begs Zeus to allow her lover, Tithonus to live forever as an immortal. Zeus grants her wish, but because Eros forgets to ask for Tithonus’ eternal youth as well, Tithonus slowly grows old, shriveling down until he eventually becomes a cicada.
- This Greek story inspired Tennyson to write a poem from Tithonus’ point of view, lamenting his fate and begging his own death.
- In Argentina, the cicada is the metaphor in the popular protest song, “Como La Cigarra” (“Like the Cicada”). It is a song about survival and standing in defiance of death.
It doesn’t surprise me the way cicadas have captured the imagination of societies throughout history. Their appearance alone evokes a strange mix of terrified awe and wonder. I’m not sure I would call them “beautiful,” at first sight. But when I see one, I can’t take my eyes off it. Its small, red, bead-dropped eyes set wide, bulging off its waxy head; its translucent wings long and folded back, dragging on the ground and it lumbers slowly along…. The word “alien” comes to mind.
But, then to see one flying through a shaft of sunlight?
If I didn’t know better, I’d think I’d stepped into one of the Grimm Brothers’ enchanted woods, filled with emerald green fairies flying between trees, beguiling the forest with their love song.
Their song beguiles me, too.
Jeremy Begbie, in his book, Redeeming Transcendence in the Arts, quotes Augustine in his meditation of Psalm 33. Augustine’s words capture something of what happens to me as I consider cicadas and its song:
“Sing in jubilation…. Realize words cannot communicate the song of the heart. Just so singers in the harvest, or the vineyard, or at some other arduous toil express their rapture to begin with in songs set to words; then as if bursting with joy so full that they cannot give vent to it in set syllables, they drop actual words and break into the free melody of jubilation…. And to whom doe that jubilation rightly ascend, if not to God the ineffable? … Sing well unto him in jubilation.”
Poet, Malcom Guite, calls it: “A snatch of song, hurrahing in the harvest.”
I’ve needed this season of the cicada’s song. It comes at a time when my own words are consistently failing me. I have spent the better part of the last two years in a hard output of words: pushing, crafting, expressing, and revising. Adding to this are the weeks now drawn into months of isolation, loss of community, trolling fear, and now the downward spiral of national rage.
And yet, all day, the cicadas hurrah. I wake in the morning to their love song. Pull garden weeds to their resonant hum. Stand in my driveway at night just to hear their continued jubilee.
And as I do, a new way opens before me.
Restoring me to words—and to the Word–by their resurrection song.