By Joshua Gibbs and Jamey Bennett
The average man knows little of cicadas, thinks rarely of cicadas. And yet on the rare occasion he hears the word “cicada,” his mind invariably drifts off into those few truths about the insects which he was taught in grade school: the cicada lives underground for seventeen years, emerges briefly, dies. A certain kind of man cannot recall such claims without immediately thinking of himself, staring into the distance, and wondering if he is truly a man, or if he is, in fact, a cicada.
The life cycle of a cicada appeals to a man.
When I was a child, I was taught that cicadas slept for all those seventeen years. Sadly, not every naturalist is still convinced of this, though poets yet carry a torch for the truth. To sleep for seventeen years, to wake briefly, soon to die…how sweet would life seem if it had been anticipated in dreams for so long?
The poet is neither convinced that nature has commanded the cicada to spend so long underground. The poet knows the cicada has chosen to stay underground all these years, and that he might emerge from the earth when he pleases. The cicada has said, “It is better this way,” though his residency with the dead, in Hades, is not obligatory and not tenured. The cicada is free and stays underground by choice. It is purely coincidental that seventeen years is the given term of these cicadas.
Someday, these cicadas will have their Che Guevara, their Óscar Romero, their Picasso…and he will sleep for thirty-six years, or fifty-nine, or ninety-one years. We suspect the creature who makes company with Hades himself for seventeen years might be capable of doing so interminably. Have we numbered every cicada emerging from the ground? Have we truly kept track of their departures, their arrivals? Have we only said they sleep “seventeen years” because we tired of putting hash marks on the cell walls? “No one will count longer than this.” Who can say? The death and lust rattle you hear this summer’s eve might be a millennium in the making.
The life cycle of a cicada appeals to a man.
The man wants to believe that he, too, might only have been sleeping up until now, and that the emergence from the death of sleep this very morning might be the inauguration of a brief, golden age. “Will I now truly live? Has it always been a slumber and am I only now waking?” The man wants to believe this is true. He has long been underground, and no matter his activity, he recasts all his labor as nothing more than a patient biding of time. A man interprets patience into the long haul of his already-lived life. “I was always waiting.” A man longs to see the light of day as though he were a cicada, fingers emerging from the dirt, and then hoisting himself out. A man longs to see the world as a kind of egg from which he hatches after a beginning-less gestation period.
“It will all end soon,” says the cicada man, although the cicada man is forever caught between the contradiction of a thing beginning and a thing ending. Is this the seventeen year slumber or the two months of waking? The question cannot be answered, and every bottle of wine might be the last before death; and every bottle of wine might be opened, poured, and break on the tongue as a revelation— not the end, but the beginning of the end. After a thousand years of sleep, what kind of death is possible for the cicada? The cicada is the resurrection creature. The chasm between life and death narrows to crossing points suddenly, unpredictably.
While science has said the cicada wakes only to procreate, the poet knows the cicada wakes simply to live. Is a life of sixty days less meaningful than a life of sixty years? Meaning is not discerned in quantity; a moment in the soul is without end. The man who imagines the cicada emerging only to procreate falsely intuits sudden verve, anxiety and desperation in the cicada. How could such be true of a creature with the patience to wait forever? The sixty days of a cicada’s life are the sixty years of a man’s life. The creature which spends so long in preparation for life accomplishes much living once he has begun. A man needs sixty years to accomplish so little because he prepares for nothing. He is thrown into life and he does not know what it is about. The man longs to live a year as thoroughly as the cicada lives a single day.
The cicada reviews its life many times as it begins to die. Death comes as a surprise to the cicada, just as it comes as a surprise to a man. The cicada has not counted on going to sleep again, so soon, but his eyelids are heavy and the day is late. From the cool shade of the branches of a tree, Thanatos comes to the cicada in the same solemnity with which he approaches a man. The weightless, spiritual scythe of Thanatos passes through the cicada’s legs and then his arms and then his head, and then the cicada body enters his eternal stillness as the dry machine-like fruit which clusters about the limbs of a summer tree. His soul returns to the earth, and he knows sleep again. He will emerge again when it suits the Spirit. Like the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, like the Shulamite, the cicada will rise and go about the city and present himself to the King. And the King will be overwhelmed.
Joshua Gibbs teaches great books, collects records and jogs to work. He and his wife have two children, both of whom have seven names. He tweets at @joshgibbs and blogs for the CiRCE Institute.
Jamey Bennett is a member of the unconventional rap outfit, Royal Ruckus. He claims that their latest project, The Summer of the Cicadas, is his magnum opus.
Seventeen Cicada Notables
- There are annual cicadas, which appear every year, and periodical cicadas, such as the ones emerging in the northeast United States, which appear in 13- and 17-year life cycles. Seventeen year and 13 year cicada broods sync up every 221 years. Periodical cicadas are only found in eastern North America, though there are cicadas in many parts of the world.
- Periodical cicadas emerging every 13 or 17 years, emerge according to prime numbers of years. This makes it difficult for predators to synchronize with with their patterns. Annual cicadas fall victim to a specialized predatory wasp, but periodical cicadas so far have avoided such predators.
- Periodical cicadas that emerge in years before they are supposed to emerge are called stragglers. These are the hipsters of the cicada world, coming out before it is cool.
- Adult cicadas spend their time in trees looking for a mate. Males sing, females respond by flicking their wings, mating begins, and the cycle of life begins again.
- Cicadas begin mating in earnest after only a few weeks of life above ground. Not all cicadas get a chance to mate, however. Some are stuck in their shells, and others have trouble sprouting wings. Many others are devoured by predators.
- Most 17 Year Cicadas have red eyes, but they can also have white, gray, blue, yellow, or multi-colored eyes. Cicadas have two, obvious, large, compound eyes, and three ocelli. Ocelli are three jewel-like eyes situated between the two main, compound eyes of a cicada.
- At the end of their life cycle, each female cicada will lay hundreds of eggs into a tree branch. Soon, the eggs hatch into nymphs the size of a grain of rice. The cicada nymph crawls out to the edge of the branch, and lets go in order to free-fall to the ground. Instinct drives them to seek refuge underground, where they burrow and disappear from sight for a very long time.
- Cicadas live very full lives while underground. They dig tunnels, build cells, and feed on roots. The long period of time spent doing these things prepares them for their eventual emergence to the eyes and ears of all. Not all that exciting from a human perspective, but it must be fun for them.
- Many animals enjoy munching on cicadas. Squirrels will eat them like corn on the cob. Fish go crazy for them too—you can use them as bait, or use lures that mimic them.
- Cicadas don’t eat solid foods, but rather drink tree fluids. We’re guessing it’s tasty like beer. It also makes them pee. Some people call this “cicada rain.”
- Cicadas are among the greatest ruckus-making insects known to man, and a swarm of them can produce sounds up to 120 decibels. That’s louder than a rock concert, and comparable to the noise from a chainsaw.
- Insects are a highly nutritious form of protein. Cicadas can be grilled, boiled, fried, and peppered. Why not consider cicada tacos?
- Adults are typically 2.4 to 3.3 cm (0.9 to 1.3 in), depending on species, slightly smaller than the annual cicada species found in the same regions of the United States. Mature females are slightly larger than males.
- Only male cicadas make the sound they’re famous for, though females makes their own sound in response to males. Males make different calls for different reasons, and each species has a unique sound. You can actually trick a male cicada into calling for a female by simply snapping your fingers.
- Cicadas need to be warm to sing and fly around, but they’re cold blooded. Their dark skin absorbs the heat of the sun, which helps to warm them up.
- Both males and females can mate multiple times, although most females seem to mate just once. After mating, the female cuts V-shaped slits in the bark of young twigs and lays about 20 eggs in each, for a total of 600 or more eggs. After about six to 10 weeks, the eggs hatch and the newborn nymphs drop to the ground, where they burrow and begin another 13- or 17-year cycle.
- The sixty days of a cicada’s life are brief—like the sixty years of a man’s life. The creature which spends so long in preparation for life accomplishes much living once he has begun. Could a man live a year as thoroughly as the cicada lives a single day?