The Seventeen-Year Pitch
It’s the slowest sonic beat in the animal world. It’s a sound that can be used to mark the phases of a human life. It’s a mathematical conundrum, an unearthly wonder of animal sound. The cloud of insect music you can barely recall. When you last heard it, you were just settling down. The time before that, you were a teenager. Before that it was the year you were born. The next time you will hear it you might be a grandfather.
This time the song arrives, you are smack in the middle of your journey through life.
“You are a Cicada Boy,” my friend John P. O’Grady insists. Once an English professor, he is now a photographer, flaneur, and part-time astrologer. “Believing that the stars affect us is a useful fiction,” he smiles. “One might also believe the appearance of cicadas every seventeen years touches us in a similar way.” He looks up the year 1962. It was one of those years that the great thrumming insects arrived en masse in the trees of late spring in the Northeast. One month later I was born in July. The cicadas were back when I graduated high school, and again when I moved from the city to the country. That last time back in 1996, O’Grady took me out to the Mohonk Mountain House to experience the great emergence. At the time I wrote these lines about them, part of a longer poem that dealt with my own inability to rigorously mark the passing of time:
to those that note the passing of time:
The crunching of footsteps over carapaces underfoot
The slow swelling, the rhythms of the one-time forest
Crzzzzzzzzzzzhh Chrzzzzzaahhh …
What are these insects for?
They sit, bewildered, on fence posts, with glaring red eyes.
They can barely fly, like puffins falling from rocks,
Sparrows try to catch them but can’t get their beaks around ’em.…
Every seventeen years I’ll check in on what happens.
I’ll trace the memories of their return.
Seventeen years from now it may all make sense.
Certain situations will be resolved.
There will be other, outward problems to face.
I will not be able to solve them alone.
There will be low soft whooms in the trees.
Fluttering wings struggling to lift us between the trees.
We will stare up again and wonder:
who else has had to wait so long to face the air?
No reason to go on except the only reason that matters:
there is nothing else to do
this is the plan
this is our place in the plan
this is the sound.
In the years since then I have been making music together with all kinds of animals. It has humbled me a bit and taught me to appreciate many more kinds of sounds. Now I am even more in awe of this longest animal rhythm, a great beat that emerges out of silence only once every seventeen years. It is only a North American thing, nowhere else has this kind of wave of cicada appearances, following these strange great cycles of prime-numbered years.
Most cicadas all over the world come out in large enough numbers every year to enthrall people with their volume, energy, and roughness of sound, and annoy us as well, especially those who would wish that nature was closer to silence. Anacreon, in the first century BC, was fascinated by this great energy from the top of the trees:
We praise thee auspicious Cicada, enthroned like a king
On the tree’s summit, thou cheer’st us with exquisite song …
Old age does not oppress thee O good little animal,
sprung from the bosom of the earth, loving song,
free from suffering, that hast neither blood nor flesh—
What is there prevents thee from being a god?
The earliest naturalists knew that this insect was an amazing symbol of love and music. The cicadas having eaten enough underground emerge for just a few weeks for nothing but revelry, music, and sex. They party on thinking nothing of their rapid, impending doom. Leave it to the great poet Basho¯ to make deepest sense of that in 1690:
know not how soon
They all will die.
Each shrill, whining, or whooshing song is a call to the endless nature of love. However fast love goes we know it will return, the one sure thing that will never be exhausted as all the rest of nature gets spent, used up, or destroyed. Cicadas on the branches, eternal optimists, lovers of the moment.
Most species of cicadas, even those that come out every year, grow underground for at least two to five years, and many nonperiodic species may have longer life cycles, whose length we know little about because this is information very hard to find out without these big, coordinated emergences. We cannot easily watch what these larvae do underground for so many years. We might never know.
Too many people confuse cicadas with locusts and fear some great scourge upon the crops at once when they appear. But cicadas hardly eat at all, having stored up enough energy to live after all those years underground. What modest damage they do to leaves on trees comes when the females lay their eggs near the end of branches, and the branches split and die after the eggs hatch.
So inhabit the mystery, even as you try to delve deep. Do not shun science as you listen to the swarm. Why not imagine they are talking to us, pleading for their lives? A ninth-century anonymous Greek wrote this:
A man wanted to eat a cicada but the insect suddenly spoke up: “O human I beg you, don’t kill me so vainly for nothing. I harmed no corn crop and did no insult to anyone; By uttering sounds, I entertain you travelers, and you will find no voice as fine as mine.” And so the man let the cicada go free.…
Let us praise not only the cicada but the great entomologist Keith Kevan, director for many years of the Lyman Entomological Museum at McGill Unversity in Montreal, who in his spare time compiled and self-published five 300-page volumes of every reference to singing insects he could find in the classical and modern literature of many languages, from ancient Chinese, Japanese, Greek, and Latin to Sanskrit and Russian as well. It is the best compendium in existence on references to the sounds of insects in the world’s literatures, and I was surprised to discover that hardly anyone seems to know about it. I found an old obituary online that said “copies of these volumes may still be found in the basement of the Lyman Entomological Museum,” so immediately I wrote to the current director, Stéphanie Boucher, and she was suspicious.
“How do you know about those books?” she asked.
“Like most of us, I waste a lot of time on the Internet. I found all the old issues of a 1980s journal called Cultural Entomology on a website somewhere, and just read through them one by one, looking for something on the music of bugs. The obituary for Keith Kevan was so fascinating I read it all the way to the end. And there, the five mysterious volumes were mentioned. So I want them. As soon as possible,” I said.
That sounded like a good enough reason for Ms. Boucher, and now I’ve got those big books on the floor of my office, and that’s where I found most of these incredible cicada and cricket poems.
Possibly the greatest poetic work on cicadas in all of Kevan’s thousands of pages is the “Song of the Cicada,” composed in the Year of the Great Flood 1056 at the Wine Spring Temple by Ou-Yang Hsiu, where he was doing his best to pray for better weather. These excer