The hum of cicadas

Cicadas sing the music of my summers. They are the soundtrack of the hot afternoons when the distant noises of the town sound dim compared to their loud buzz. If you turn a careful ear to their repetitive hum, it’s not really so monotonous. There are variations in intensity, speed and pitch that constantly change the tune.

If two cicadas are rubbing their wings at the same time, the resulting buzz is obviously stronger. You would not believe that two insects could follow each other in such perfect harmony. But this unison does not last long, and each cicada soon continues the music according to its own rhythm, creating a symphonic effect as if an orchestra of different instruments was playing for an open-air theatre audience. Then, one of the cicadas catches up with the first, and their buzz overlaps perfectly again for another short while.

When one insect stops buzzing, the hum of the other sounds faint, all of a sudden. After a while, the only one left is also overcome by fatigue – or may it be boredom? Its pace slackens, its beats become paused, and finally the sound breaks off. Silence weighs heavy in the atmosphere after such cheerful company.

I am happy when cicadas arrive in the trees around my house and enliven the muggy summer afternoons. They are the harbingers of the dog days, the triumph of this greatest seasons of all.

Tradition has painted them as happy-go-lucky fellows who enjoy the summer without a hint of  prudence, contrary to ants which trundle provisions all along into their anthill to make their rainy day. Come the winter, the cicada, without food or shelter, will be bound to face the consequences of its inaptness to anticipate the future. The ant, on the contrary, will be well stocked after all the hard work it did when food was available, just as the cicada was whiling its time away heedless of the good advice from the sensible ant. The cicada will call on the ant for help, but this time it is the showdown. The ant will slam its door on the cicada’s face, leaving it to starve in the cold, and die.

To be true, I have never looked at the cicada as the good-for-nothing creatures that children’s fables make them out to be, maybe because I like to take the side of the weak. I’ve always pitied the cheerful insect who has rejoiced people with its good mood without getting ahead of itself fearing the bad times. These will eventually come and affect the cicada more than the ant, but the ant will never have lived a single moment of joy in its drudging existence.

I’ve never seen a cicada, by the way. A Chinese friend said they used to catch them with a chewing-gum fixed at the end of a stick, but I would be too respectful of this creature to hurt it or make it captive. In Cambodia I heard the loudest cicadas in my life. Their buzz was so strong that it sounded like a fire alarm gone mad with nobody able to control it. That was not relaxing music, and it revealed the mysterious power hidden in the tropical jungle.

The sweetest cicadas of all were the ones I heard singing on the Greek island of Delos. I was standing at its highest point admiring the stone lions below me and the blue waters all around. Suddenly, I was in rapture. The landscape seemed eternal, redolent of strong Mediterranean smells, impregnated of the thousand myths of gods and mortals, recounting Ulysses’ adventures, making me believe that those classical times were deep inside me and alive around me. And the cicadas, singing now as then, were lulling me in oblivious daydreaming.