Cicadas and similes

The thirteen-year cicadas emerged yesterday, in our woods at least; a few miles away they’ve been active for weeks. We heard their song in the afternoon, and in the evening I found a half-dozen husks hung out to dry on the clothesline like withered garments from an attic trunk. Along the Eno today the woods vibrated with them, a low local chattering backed by the familiar high-pitched drone that I guessed to be the chattering’s more distant echo. I tried, and failed, to describe the sound. A friend said “loud as a police siren,” but that seemed unfair to the cicadas. I thought of the hollow rattling of dice in cups, but more rapid and higher-pitched, as if the Chipmunks were playing Yahtzee. And that being possibly the single worst simile in the entire catalog of Western literature, I thought I’d turn for inspiration to days before police sirens and Yahtzee and 33 rpm records played at 78, when, one would hope, the well-read and literary-minded could invent better comparisons.

Or perhaps not. There seems always to have been a stark difference of opinion about the cicada. The Greek poet Anacreon called them “sweet prophets of the summer,” and his countrymen so admired their music that they named the harp song after them, kept them in cages the better to hear it, and wore their golden likenesses in their hair. A nineteenth-century writer was skeptical: surely he noted, “the Cicadae of Greece must have been musical. No harsh and deafening note could have obtained for it so much admiration.” But cicadas are cicadas, more or less, the world over. Virgil, whose cicadas were certainly those of the Greeks, was unimpressed: “Shrill cicadae all the woodlands tire,” he complained, and I see his point. A million harps strumming in the woods would make me equally nuts.

The nineteenth century also gave us Byron, who wrote of “The shrill cicadas, people of the pine, Making their summer lives one ceaseless song,” but others described that song as “a continuous screech,” and the same century produced the USDA, whose annual reports of the 1860s referred to the cicada’s “jarring noise” and offered advice on how to preserve the insect’s color once you had killed it. Music is, as always, one supposes, a matter of taste, as beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A Victorian entomologist thought the cicada “a neat and handsome insect”; my daughter’s friends called them gross! before filling plastic cups with their spent shells.

I found no one, though, who could offer me anything clever on the subject of what the cicadas sound like. The best descriptions are of what the cicada evokes — namely summer. “All sorts of strong, joyous and beautiful things go with this creature and his song, in the mind of the lover of sunshine,” writes Joseph Edgar Chamberlain — “purple hills, hazy green-blue skies, copious foliage rustling lovingly in the hot wind, the poison-ivy rioting gloriously over the walls, the wild sunflowers gladly holding up their beautiful frank faces to be kissed rudely by their god,” and he goes on like this awhile, but what of the cicadas themselves? Nothing. They are mere harbingers, the bell calling Man to summer’s great sensuous feast.

What I think, on reflection, is this: The cicadas sound only like themselves. If they sing of anything, they sing of my insignificance — not intentionally, of course; for millions of them to sing intentionally of my insignificance would be to prove, ironically, my significance. No, there are millions of these neat and handsome insects in the woods, singing their little asses off in desperate hopes of getting laid, and one of me about which they don’t give an ant’s thorax. And I’m the only creature in those woods arrogant enough to care, or even to notice. The turtles, the toads, the heron, the irritable pair of squabbling geese, the copperhead who slithered quickly off the path at the thump of my approaching footsteps, did not go home to their burrows and nests and comfortable streamside alcoves and wonder what the hell is with those cicadas? They most certainly did not spend half the evening looking up ancient poetry on Google Books and blogging about it. No. They went home and did something useful, or else went to sleep. I should do the same, but I’m going to finish my drink first.