The Call of the Cicadas

Even though I first witnessed this miraculous phenomenon of nature 21 years ago this month, the memory of that anachronistic metamorphosis still lingers in my mind and was relived, albeit very briefly, just a few days ago.

In 1993 fourteen gigantic loblolly pine and other trees graced our yard, two to the right of the house and the largest and tallest, Master Loblolly, stood defiantly in peacock fashion, displaying his majestic canopy to preside over his underling kindred in the backyard.  Two inches shy of a six foot diameter and barely seven feet from the living room windows and some fifteen feet from the front entrance, Master Loblolly had every right to crow in prideful swagger.

Though dwarfed by their prissy-like flamboyant front yard patriarch, the lofty eleven backyard unassuming mature trees were haphazardly rooted in an L-shape along the left and back perimeter of the property’s 69×140 foot backyard. This clustering provided ample open lawn space for our two boys and their friends to stretch their 25 foot Slip’n- Slide water yard toy to slither across its slippery surface, to play ball, and to retreat into the two-tiered treehouse, a play fort of sorts, positioned at one corner along the back fence.

While ninety-five per cent of the back yard was reserved for the children’s mostly warm-weather hours of frolicking fun, the remaining five per cent (barely an 8×10 foot area) was allocated for my garden space in which I planted vegetable plants as a lingering hobby I began in graduate school as a diversionary stress-relieving routine that distanced me physically and mentally from reading, writing term papers, grading undergraduate papers, studying for my comps, and writing a dissertation.

Since the house sits atop the crown of a frontal incline, Master Loblolly’s height, akin to an admiral’s topmast on the lead armada’s ship, dwarfed everything within sight. And, while the stormy weather fumed havoc with all the other trees, for some reason Master Loblolly reacted to the sometimes violent southwestern storms as though they were merely teasing puffs breezing through its forest of branches.

In their younger days the boys enjoyed helping in the annual ritual of raking pine needles and leaves. In fact, to turn this chore into a play activity, the pine straw and leaves were raked into large mounds so as to give the children the opportunity to roll, dive into, and somersault over these fleetingly spongy mounds of mixed fragrant piney straw, oak, and sweet gum leaves. The mountainous piles were usually left there for two or three days, and, after the new wore off, they had to be bagged and hauled off.  While the mandatory task of raking (sweeping the yard, as they say in these parts) and disposing of this admixture of organic materials dampened the play activity and transformed frolic into a dreaded and cumbersome chore, the incentives and rewards were a tray-full of mother’s fresh-baked cookies and milk and, of course, some spending money to purchase comics or a coveted toy.

Fall in Arkansas is a beautiful time.  The trees acquire their rich fall mantle of yellow-golden red hues; the weather gets cooler; the days get shorter; lush green lawns begin to acquire their dark, yellowish brown winter covers; acorns, sweet gum balls, pine cones and brown-gold-red’n yellow leaves camouflage the ground in lush carpeting of tinted organic materials, more like richly ornamented Bruges tapestries and thick, ornately patterned and richly colored Isfahan Persian rugs.   Eventually the leaves are bagged and deposited on the curb for trash collection, or they are burned, assuming no burn bans are in effect. I have always opted to use the pine straw in azalea beds or for ground cover, and I have always deposited the leaves in the compost pile where the decomposition process of the winter months helps recycle the debris into rich nutrients for the following year’s spring seedlings.  I call the residual humus my black gold.

During the fall season everything in nature signifies that time of year when man and beast instinctively begin to prepare for the inevitable brooding harshness of the winter season.  Shouldn’t the cicada, then, like most species in the insect world, be looking for a safe sanctuary in one of nature’s numerous magical and mystical crevices?

Even though over the years I had observed the synchronized cycle of regeneration of scores of 1.5 inch cicada skeletal carcasses clinging tightly onto pine tree bark, bricks, cedar siding, window screens or any available textured surface, I had never witnessed the emergence of a cicada from its shell.  Sometime during late September, 1993, I had the opportunity to behold this magical metamorphosis, that transformative shedding off the old for a newly acquired form, one that is more vibrant than its previous self.

Thus, while sweeping the backyard on this particular late September Saturday afternoon, I noted an abundance of deserted cicada skeletons whose distinctive features are hollow shells, four jagged,  saw-like legs firmly attached to the tree bark, and a skeleton with a dorsal straight-line incision. This conspicuous aperture accentuated the interior void once tenanted by internal organs. Enticed by a slight motion on one of the many seemingly deserted shells (and perhaps because it seemed odd that a shifting bean-sized pale nodule contrasted sharply with the dark bark),  I soon noted a tiny set of  stained, droopy wings gradually stretch out from the torso of a just-emerged cicada.  This event was to mesmerize me for a period of well over an hour.  So great were my awe and curiosity and armed with a 35 mm  camera, I gave up watching my favorite college football team compete in a nationally televised game to observe a magical transformation unfold before my very eyes.

I soon discerned several skeletons on that Saturday afternoon, each of which was at a different stage in this annual metamorphic process.  I noted that the cicada’s chrysalis began to emerge, dorsal segment first, through a tiny fissure in the anterior dorsal section.  Its incremental squirming soon pared through, much as a scalpel does, the coarse shell to expand the fissure into a wide enough aperture through which an unsightly larva emerged. After resting for a brief spell, the larva utilized its old shell to anchor itself and utilize its older self as a launching pad to build both momentum and inertia to make the final arduous effort to extricate its soft oval-shaped torso out of its hard shell.

Once the cicada protruded sufficiently, the head, characterized by two bulging eyes, emerged.  Soon a synchronized set of slow kinetic gyrations set in. The front right leg, heretofore inconspicuous and compacted tightly to the side, emerged, unfolded, and extended itself into a jagged saw-like anchor that attached itself firmly to the exterior of the hard shell.  The process was painstakingly repeated for each of the remaining three legs, and the unattractive grayish-white oval-shaped pupa proceeded to the next phase of its existence.

Soon two triangular-shaped masses commenced to symmetrically and systematically unfold themselves into two droopy, wet-looking wings that hung limply to the sides. I soon discovered why the cicadas chose the east in the mornings and the west in the afternoons. As the tissue-paper-thin ashen wings began to unfold and stretch out, the creases, much like the creases on a tightly packed parachute, commenced to disappear; the sun’s warm rays no doubt desiccated the moisture from the by-now fully stretched wings.

Within fifteen minutes the wings became fully taut and stretched in a symmetrical configuration; the pallid grey soon morphed into coppery brown, perhaps to blend in with the color of the brown pine bark as a means to distract potential predators.   Approximating the image of a space shuttle perched atop its jetliner transport, the locust quickly dislodged itself off its old shell and relocated itself in a more suitable and protective crevice in the pine tree bark to both, rest from the excruciatingly stressful ordeal of rebirth, and to seek shelter in its first lesson about survival  in a tough world.  Within a forty-five minute period the locust was ready to fly, leaving its old shell behind, and setting off, in an audible buzz,   on its new life cycle.

On that Saturday afternoon I also had the privilege of seeing nature’s healing powers at work.  On a neighboring tree I observed a cicada whose damp wings drooped; its front right leg was in the firm grip of a sizable carpenter ant.  In the struggle, the lower half of the leg was sheared by powerful incisors, and the ant hurriedly scrambled off with its prize.  I decided not to interfere with nature’s course, and I wondered what I could have done to help the cicada.  Soon a translucent liquid formed itself at the severed joint and increased in size to form a stump-like tip which soon turned into a hardened auburn crust.  Once this was accomplished, the wings, arrested in their limp position perhaps because of the locust’s need to redirect its energies elsewhere, began to stretch into fullness.  I was truly moved at nature’s ability to help the various species adapt to the daily adversities of life.

On that late September afternoon I resolved to never look up any information on the Hemiptera Tibicen Pruinosa  Cicadidae,  excuse me, the “dog day” cicada, in an entomological encyclopedia.  I was content with my own observations, and I did not want the dignity of this metamorphosis to be degraded by scientific minutia; I was quite happy with the larger picture that had preserved, even to this day, the mystery and magic of change and regeneration that are taken for granted.

How ironic, I thought to myself on that Saturday afternoon 21 years ago. For after teaching English and Humanities classes for twenty-three years I took a much needed sabbatical to study Art History in Rome, Italy.   Not only was I taking a sabbatical at the halfway-point of my career, but I had also decided that at age forty-seven I wanted to take a diversion; I wanted to try something new, something that would recharge and energize me, and something that would also allow me to remain in the field of education, the avocation to which I had long ago dedicated my life.  In formal conversations I would tell colleagues and friends that I was retooling, and in informal conversations I would jokingly state that even though I had acquired a high powered 1969 convertible Datsun roadster, my new acquisition was actually an excuse to deal with mid-life crisis.

And thus it was that just about the time I was heading to campus only recently, I saw this metamorphosis play out on the periphery of a stone wall outside our garage. Even though I knew I was going to be late for school, I stopped to observe, yet again, this mysteriously magical phenomenon of nature unfold on the grey native stone. And even though twenty-one years ago this fall I observed several cicadas go through this entire process, I was once again drawn to the singularity of this exhilarating and affirming act of nature.   Should I linger for a few very precious minutes to watch this autumn rite?  Or, should I head to campus?  With no regrets whatsoever, I opted for the former.

As I hurriedly sped to campus I thought of the many metaphors and symbols that punctuate our lives.  In its metamorphosis, the cicada must shed its old crust to emerge into a new form in an anachronistic fashion.  Fall is the season of ripeness, maturity, and fruition, while spring is the season of the powerful procreative force that heralds birth, youth, continuity, and dynamism.  And I couldn’t resist drawing a parallel between my decision of 21 years ago to retool in the late summer of my life, and the cicada’s need to acquire a new form in the late September of its own brief life.

As I think about the life cycle of the cicada, I can’t resist the temptation to draw yet other parallels between the cicada’s life and mine; the essence of spiritual renewal involves a shedding of the old and the acquisition of an inner peace whose essence is a search for higher truth, truth that translates into myriad beautiful anonymous  gestures of love and kindness across the globe, these intimations  that help ameliorate the oppressive presence of daily ghoulish indignities hailed on the weak, the dispossessed, the orphaned, the widowed, and the destitute refugees and others across the globe  in a more brutal, more vengeful, more spiteful, more  angry, more greedy, more destructive, more fanatical, and  more murderous world.

After a long spell of bitterly cold weather and an accompanying destructive ice storm some fifteen years ago, Master Loblolly and his chorus of  badly disfigured companions had to be cut down and hauled off. While the scruff was hauled off to the city dump, hundreds of linear feet of seasoned lumber metamorphosed into building materials which no doubt made their way to new homes.  While the symbiotic guest/host relationship between our Loblollies and the visiting cicadas is history, the cicadas are no doubt finding neighbors’ trees to persist in their metamorphic life cycle. The new quickly wore off the1969 Datsun roadster, that concocted palliative, that fix for a made-up midlife crisis used as an excuse to navigate curvy roads in thunderous  speed — and it was soon sold to a collector of vintage cars. The custom made license plate hangs on our garage wall and reads: “Prof’s Toy.” It is a reminder of a more agile, and perhaps more foolish, younger days.   No more young boys, our two sons have grown into outstanding young men who give us an abundance of pride and joy. And now that the nest is occupied by two older love birds and the back yard has ample sunlight, the 8×10 foot garden has metamorphosed into a most productive 30×45 foot garden whose produce is shared with numerous neighbors and friends across town. In August of this year a boxful of egg plants, green bell peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers accompanied us to Seattle, WA, to be shared and enjoyed at a family reunion.

While the metamorphosis (this synchronized cycle) of the cicada is not an engaging Duccio altar piece, an enlightening Giotto fresco, a Raphael tondo portrait of the Madonna and the infant Jesus, or a magnificent Michelangelo sculpture, the dynamism of its metamorphosis expresses the essence, that mystical magic of drawing one just a bit closer to comprehending what it means to be human – and to grasping on to the import  of that fragile thing called life, that precious thing breathed into every human being, better defined as “in the image of… .”  I have no regret for having recently designated a few precious minutes of my day to observe a timeless rite whose mystifying elements defy a scientific analysis or polemical explanation.  What I witnessed on both occasions is art in its purest and most pristine form — and man-made art is merely a weak attempt at copying the natural world.

Raouf J. Halaby is in his 42nd year of having fun teaching English and Art at a private university in Arkansas. He is a sculptor, writer, photographer, an avid gardener, and a peace activist.

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. He is a writer, photographer, sculptor, an avid gardener, and a peace activist.