On Staten Island, cicadas only make their presence every seventeen years. I had no idea they were native to this place when I first moved here. I had heard of cicadas in poetry, but when I came across one on a page I read right over it as another of the million insects I had no real knowledge of. There is the ancient Greek myth of Tithonus, a musician who is granted eternal life by the Aphrodite but who forgets to give him eternal youth with eternal life, and so forever grows older and older until he is transfigured into a cicada. I knew the insect were associated with music or sound or such but I had no idea when in 1996 they came out. I was overwhelmed with the sound. I went out to learn about these creatures, which after birth hibernate for seventeen years (less in other parts of the world) and come out to sing their mating song and then die. And then not heard of again for seventeen years.
2013 is my second cicada cycle. I have to say I was disappointed at first this year. It seemed like a dud of a cicada year, but this has been an unusual spring, cold and rainy. I remembered from the previous time the sound being louder than an orchestra. This year for a while it sounded like tweets. The newspapers had written them off as they write off losing politicians or injured or aging athletes. Apparently the weather delayed the cicada peak, and so they have been in full song now for two weeks. I can’t say they are as loud as in 1996, but either their habitat has shrunk or the weather has staggered their lives for a more muted crescendo.
Staten Island, despite being part of New York City, still has a good portion of green area, not just as parks but as natural wooded habitat. It’s protected as part of the Staten Island Greenbelt, a preserved natural landmark that keeps kinship to our past and is more than three times the size of Manhattan’s Central Park. It’s ideal for the cicadas if not to thrive to at least survive. They must have been at one time throughout the land masses that comprise New York City. Over in Brooklyn where I grew up I had never heard them or of them. I assume they’ve been pushed out of the city, though I wonder if in some of the other large parks they may still subsist.
The past few weekends in the early mornings when I take the dog out for an extended walk, I hear their choric chant, a rhythmic mantra of “ahhh—uum, ahh—uum, ahh—uum.” The Greenbelt woods are just a couple of blocks from my house, and as I walk up to the perimeter the sound doubles in intensity. How do people that live right here deal with this, I wonder? Scattered on the street are a score of dead or dying cicadas. Their wings are transparent, like angel’s wings. A host of them is flying, ungainly and bumbling, out of the woods and into trees, houses, and parked cars. They are klutzy flyers; one flies into my head, and I watch him collapse to the ground like a stalled airplane falling out of the sky. He is on his back, wings and legs flailing, trying to flip himself over as if he were a tortoise. The dog approaches him with caution, extending her neck and bringing her nose to him. He is buzzing. Up close his buzz is conspicuous to the whole. They are harmless; they don’t bite nor sting. I bend down and with my flinger flip him over so that he stumbles to his legs and regains flight.
There is a feeling of pathos for these little creatures. As insects go, they are not ugly. Actually I find them gawkishly cute, sort of like the chubby shy girl in class who has a handsome look to her. They buzz and stumble, gather and disperse, blossom and die. They live too short a life. Their sonorous chant, their dead bodies on the ground, the fact that they are defenseless creatures that harm no one, the sense that they will not return for another seventeen years like clockwork, like from a divine command, makes this moment feel holy. I mutter a Glory Be and walk the dog home.
Here are a couple of educational videos on cicadas.