susurrant songs

Step outside in New Jersey these days, and you will hear the song of the cicadas. 

They are louder in some towns than others. I have found that they gather in profusion in communities that are closer to the mountains and forests. Each day, I drive down a long country road that sweeps over hills and between wide-open farm fields. It also passes through the remains of the old forests, the ones that have hardly been touched in two centuries, which crowd close to the road and whose branches scrabble to take down the powerlines. It is here that I hear the cicadas singing in the heat of the afternoon, as I drive home from work and begin to unwind. 

If you have not heard the song of the cicadas, it is an impossible thing. They gather in trees—which ones, I am not sure, but they definitely have a particular taste for a certain kind—and sometimes on the walls of houses. They creep along and flex their wings, and when they move in the millions they fill the air with sound. Their song is a high-pitched scree, an unceasing whine. Driving along, the song rises in volume as you pass the cicada trees, and then falls away to a mere whisper. Stepping out of the car at work, the song fills the air like the sound of a distant scream, like something great and terrible is coming to life just beyond the screen of the trees. It presses down on you, that song, and makes you think that the world might just be ending. 

When I hear the song of the cicadas, I think of one of the haikus of Matsuo Bashō, who wrote of the unceasing song of the cicada: 

      閑かさや | stillness—

      岩にしみ入る | sinking deep into the rocks

      蝉の声 | cries of the cicada

—Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694)

This is the year of the cicada. After seventeen years of rest, a particular brood of them has awakened and crept into the world. Their song began with a few, and now swells into the millions. They fill the forest. For the next six weeks or so, their song will be the soundtrack to the early summer. In this heat, the cicada thrives. 

As summer approaches and I begin a new story—one that is long and convoluted—I have been thinking a lot about the cicada’s song. It is an eerie sound, for sure. When it fills the air around me, it lends reality the vibe of an oncoming storm. And yet it is also beautiful. This is the sound of millions, perhaps billions, of inhuman voices raised in wild and raucous celebration. These cicadas have been waiting seventeen years for this moment. They are finally free to fly, to live and to thrive. This is their moment. 

The song of the cicadas lingers with me for two main reasons. For one, it is ever-present, and it has the kind of strangeness that turns the real world into a novel, wherein the apocalypse comes slow and steady over the horizon. The second reason is that the cicada’s song makes me me think of the shape of stories, and how they fill space in our lives. 

What I mean is this: there are billions of cicadas out there, just like there are billions of people. The cicadas sing altogether, their voices a strange chorus. They crowd together on the bark of trees, and flit through the air lazily. They shed their exoskeletons when they grow out of them, leaving them scattered upon the ground and clinging to the bark of trees. The cicada shell is a startling thing, both luminous and ugly at the same time. Split straight down the back, it catches the summer sun and throws it back, gleaming the color of amber. 

And as humans, we sing our own kinds of songs, celebrating life in an infinite variety of ways. We create art, writings, architecture. We dance and we shout and we lift our faces up to the bright dome of the sky. The things that we humans create are our own songs of celebration, and like the cicada’s song, they fill the air and break through the stillness. Our songs and our stories reshape the world, cutting through the rock of reality and weaving a new and brighter tapestry. 

To some being on another planet, perhaps our stories are as strange and eerie as the song of the cicada sounds to us. 

This song may vanish in a few weeks, swallowed by the summer storms and the thick curtain of leaves along with the insects themselves. But our stories will not. The tales we craft, the songs we sing, the art we create, will remain.