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Virgil

Cicadas on Staten Island

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On Staten Island, cicadas only make their presence every seventeen years. I had no idea they were native to this place when I first moved here. I had heard of cicadas in poetry, but when I came across one on a page I read right over it as another of the million insects I had no real knowledge of. There is the ancient Greek myth of Tithonus, a musician who is granted eternal life by the Aphrodite but who forgets to give him eternal youth with eternal life, and so forever grows older and older until he is transfigured into a cicada. I knew the insect were associated with music or sound or such but I had no idea when in 1996 they came out. I was overwhelmed with the sound. I went out to learn about these creatures, which after birth hibernate for seventeen years (less in other parts of the world) and come out to sing their mating song and then die. And then not heard of again for seventeen years.

2013 is my second cicada cycle. I have to say I was disappointed at first this year. It seemed like a dud of a cicada year, but this has been an unusual spring, cold and rainy. I remembered from the previous time the sound being louder than an orchestra. This year for a while it sounded like tweets. The newspapers had written them off as they write off losing politicians or injured or aging athletes. Apparently the weather delayed the cicada peak, and so they have been in full song now for two weeks. I can’t say they are as loud as in 1996, but either their habitat has shrunk or the weather has staggered their lives for a more muted crescendo.

Staten Island, despite being part of New York City, still has a good portion of green area, not just as parks but as natural wooded habitat. It’s protected as part of the Staten Island Greenbelt, a preserved natural landmark that keeps kinship to our past and is more than three times the size of Manhattan’s Central Park. It’s ideal for the cicadas if not to thrive to at least survive. They must have been at one time throughout the land masses that comprise New York City. Over in Brooklyn where I grew up I had never heard them or of them. I assume they’ve been pushed out of the city, though I wonder if in some of the other large parks they may still subsist.

The past few weekends in the early mornings when I take the dog out for an extended walk, I hear their choric chant, a rhythmic mantra of “ahhh—uum, ahh—uum, ahh—uum.” The Greenbelt woods are just a couple of blocks from my house, and as I walk up to the perimeter the sound doubles in intensity. How do people that live right here deal with this, I wonder? Scattered on the street are a score of dead or dying cicadas. Their wings are transparent, like angel’s wings. A host of them is flying, ungainly and bumbling, out of the woods and into trees, houses, and parked cars. They are klutzy flyers; one flies into my head, and I watch him collapse to the ground like a stalled airplane falling out of the sky. He is on his back, wings and legs flailing, trying to flip himself over as if he were a tortoise. The dog approaches him with caution, extending her neck and bringing her nose to him. He is buzzing. Up close his buzz is conspicuous to the whole. They are harmless; they don’t bite nor sting. I bend down and with my flinger flip him over so that he stumbles to his legs and regains flight.

There is a feeling of pathos for these little creatures. As insects go, they are not ugly. Actually I find them gawkishly cute, sort of like the chubby shy girl in class who has a handsome look to her. They buzz and stumble, gather and disperse, blossom and die. They live too short a life. Their sonorous chant, their dead bodies on the ground, the fact that they are defenseless creatures that harm no one, the sense that they will not return for another seventeen years like clockwork, like from a divine command, makes this moment feel holy. I mutter a Glory Be and walk the dog home.

Here are a couple of educational videos on cicadas.



You're only allowed one embedded video on Lit Net, so here's the other one. It may be the better one of the two.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ICDdTBgqYt0


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Updated 06-16-2013 at 11:32 PM by Virgil

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Comments

  1. Dark Muse's Avatar
    I live in rattlesnake country, and these bugs can be quite disconcerting when hiking because they make a sound that is very near to the sound of a rattlesnakes rattle. They pysche me out sometimes.
  2. Virgil's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Dark Muse
    I live in rattlesnake country, and these bugs can be quite disconcerting when hiking because they make a sound that is very near to the sound of a rattlesnakes rattle. They pysche me out sometimes.
    Yikes, I can see how that could be a problem. But I thought cicadas were only an east coast insect. You have them in California?
  3. Gilliatt Gurgle's Avatar
    Fascinating. I'm somewhat familiar with the 17 year Cicada from reading and from a Paul Harvey commentary years ago when I was younger, his description of the event thrilled me.
    Cicadas are quite prevelent here as well each summer typically around August, though I'm referring to annual Cicadas aka "the dog days Cicada".
    It is pretty amazing that something can remain in larval stage buried for 17 years only to emerge for a few days to take care of business then die.
    I'll have to tell you my delinquint antics with releasing a few dozen Cicada's in a shopping mall.
    Thanks for sharing.
  4. Dark Muse's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Virgil
    Yikes, I can see how that could be a problem. But I thought cicadas were only an east coast insect. You have them in California?
    Yes, actually we do have them in California
  5. Buh4Bee's Avatar
    Virgil, It does seem like a strange phenomenon that the cicadas know when to emerge. Were there any weirdos that saw this event as the apocalypse?
  6. Virgil's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Gilliatt Gurgle
    Fascinating. I'm somewhat familiar with the 17 year Cicada from reading and from a Paul Harvey commentary years ago when I was younger, his description of the event thrilled me.
    Cicadas are quite prevelent here as well each summer typically around August, though I'm referring to annual Cicadas aka "the dog days Cicada".
    It is pretty amazing that something can remain in larval stage buried for 17 years only to emerge for a few days to take care of business then die.
    I'll have to tell you my delinquint antics with releasing a few dozen Cicada's in a shopping mall.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Thanks GG. I didn't realize there are annual cicadas too. I had only heard of the 17 and 13 year kinds.
  7. Virgil's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Dark Muse
    Yes, actually we do have them in California
    Thanks. Are they the annual kind that Gillette mentions above?
  8. Virgil's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Buh4Bee
    Virgil, It does seem like a strange phenomenon that the cicadas know when to emerge. Were there any weirdos that saw this event as the apocalypse?
    No, I didn't hear that but it wouldn't surprise me if there were.
  9. qimissung's Avatar
    Great blog entry, Virgil, and beautifully written, to boot.

    Thanks, also, Gilliatt, for giving a name to the cicadas. I grew up in Oklahoma, and cicadas are, to me, the sound of summer.

    Here's a little bit about them:

    https://insects.tamu.edu/fieldguide/aimg82.html

    And here's what they sound like:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_a9mHfZOOH4

    Also, great pic, Virgil.
  10. Dark Muse's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Virgil
    Thanks. Are they the annual kind that Gillette mentions above?
    No I do not believe California has the annual kind as mentioned above.
  11. Virgil's Avatar
    Thanks Qimi and DM.

    You double posted Qimi and I don't know how to get rid of one.