Every Instant a Pinprick of Eternity

Tempus edax rerum

Time the devourer of everything 

-Ovid

You know the high point of summer has come when you start to hear it.  Starting slowly, it becomes a constant backdrop of the season.  The high-pitched whine begins low with a growing crescendo, and tapers to silence.  It’s the love song of the cicada, and in some ways it marks the beginning of the end of summer.

cicada insectA cicada has a lot of work to do before it can start looking for a mate.  So it takes the better part of the summer to get rolling.  Also, the soil needs to warm up enough to inspire them.  They start out as eggs laid into twigs, but they soon fall to the earth and make their way underground, where they suck moisture out of the roots of trees as they mature.  Some cicadas, known as periodical cicadas, spend over a decade in the ground.  They can be a real nuisance when they all pop out of the ground at once.  But the ones here in Farmington are the yearly kind, known as “dog-day harvestmen”.  They just spend the winter sleeping under the soil.  The “dog-day” part comes from the fact that you generally don’t become aware of them until summer is good and hot.

After snuggling up to tree roots over the winter  they scrabble their way toward the surface using oversized front legs.  Climbing out of the soil, they head for the nearest tree, telephone pole, deck siding-whatever is high and handy.  There, they split out of their pupal skin into all their adult finery.cicada pupa

They are one ugly bug.  Some people are petrified of them.  They’re big and they have prominent raised eyes.  Wings extend the length of the body and they make a terrific buzzing sound while flying.  Even the shells of the split skin that remain on tree trunks and telephone poles freak people out.  But they don’t bite.  They’re one of the big, harmless lugs of the insect world.

Perhaps the most notable thing about them is that crazy sound they make.  At a decibel level of 120, it’s close to causing pain in human ears. It even puts birds off trying to eat them.  Different kinds of cicadas have their different songs, so that females can choose someone from the same background.  Male cicadas cluster together to increase marketability, and to keep predators away with the cacaphony.

big eyed cicada

I think the cicada song is mournful.  It signals the passage of time, the subtle change in seasons.  “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” it seems to say.  It is the dying length of day, the sweet passing of spring’s newness.  Nature gives way to the ripe, lush time right before harvest.  It is the vigor of middle age before  an inevitable decline.

This is even more true for the cicada itself.  The adult stage is brief.  It will mate and die in short order, and by the end of September the woods are quiet. Go out soon to enjoy the love song of the cicada.  Time is already short.

I heard my first one today (July 5, 2009).  It is about two weeks later than I usually start hearing them, which is no surprise given the weather lately.  You can hear them earlier or later depending on how early or late it warms up.  So, there’s plenty of time to notice the urgent whine and savor it before the end of summer.

See you on the trails,

Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

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8 Responses to “Every Instant a Pinprick of Eternity”

  1. Ratty Says:

    I never thought of them as sad before, but you’ve changed my perspective. It’s actually not a bad feeling though, just one that makes me think of the quiet end of summer.

  2. ccinnkpr Says:

    An ugly bug indeed, but a beautifully written piece. Thus far I’ve not heard any cicadas on the Cape, of course I don’t think the temperature here has broken 80°F more than three times this year. The bugs are probably still underground thinking it’s April.

  3. hillsteadnatureblog Says:

    Thank you, ccinnkpr.

  4. johnny Says:

    Hello. Thank you for this great info! Keep up the good job!

  5. molamola Says:

    Didn’t understood the last part :s could you explain better please?

    • hillsteadnatureblog Says:

      Thank you for the question-I am sorry I wasn’t clear. What I meant to say is that the cicada has to find a mate quickly, so the singing is very important. They don’t live long once they are in the adult stage, so time is of the essence. I also meant to encourage people to notice the cicada’s song, since summer is nearly over. I hope that answers your question. Please write again if not. Regards, Diane

  6. machoman Says:

    thank you! I really liked this post!

  7. teinby Says:

    thank you! I really liked this post!

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