Singularly, words tell you a lot.

Cicada is Latin for "buzzer." To Classical Greeks, tettix; modern Greeks, tzitzikas. All onomatopoeic.

I was fortunate enough to fall in love for the first time during the emergence of the magicicada. This is a periodical genus which, famously, appears for a frenzy of activity once every thirteen or seventeen years. The summer became thick with them and I imagined that their sound was carried more readily through the humidity of New England. I imagined a lot of things. Accompanied by the buzz of cicadas I changed shirts three times a day — twice at least for her.

Naming things onomatopoeically is like anthropomorphizing. It is a way of defining something you cannot fully understand. Usually neither is a misrepresentation. Poets use onomatopoeia; scientists — good ones — anthropomorphize.

We spent much of our time outside. I did not understand cicadas. Later I learned that their sound was that of a brief courtship that ran so hot it would not cool enough to touch again for another decade and a half, when the new generation would emerge from the earth and again fill the humidity with their sound.

"What's all that noise?" I asked at the beginning.

"The sound of us," she said. At the time it was cute.

The things I can't fully understand grow in number.

An imago is an adult-stage insect. Pluralized, it becomes imagines. The term is used in other disciplines and always suggests finality. Imago Dei refers to the creation of man in the image of God. I prefer the bugs.

Biologists use the term "predator satiation" to describe the cicada practice of molting in huge numbers. Note that cicadas are not predators. In one way, this exploits law of averages. Naturally, predators overwhelmed with prey are able to consume only so much. On an individual basis this is good for both predators and cicadas, many of whom survive to mate. But it's more complicated than that.

Periodical cicadas molt after thirteen or seventeen years underground. Both thirteen and seventeen are prime numbers. The birds that eat cicadas frequently fall into a three- or five-year life cycle. Divide five into seventeen. Neither can the birds.

Imago Dei. They should have been looking at the cicadas.

Desert cicadas sweat.

Cicadas court in the summer. The lives of adult cicadas are, at most, a month and a half. While they are notorious for damaging plant life, this is done for reproduction rather than sustenance. Adults don't eat — no point. They sweat like us, court like us. The difference is that for us life continues after this courtship; usually this is a blessing.

In some species, the male's courting call is different from the mating call and is used once the female has expressed interest. This call is different because it is more gentle. The cicadas probably do not experience hunger.

Our lives are good even after a courtship has cooled enough to touch. I think of cicadas to remind myself.

New England will be seeing cicadas this year. These are not periodical cicadas — those won't be seen again for over a decade — but annuals, which appear each summer. This is misleading. The life cycle of an annual cicada is not one year, but several. Broods are staggered so that one appears every year. Imago, etc.

Those who don't pay attention see the summer influx of cicadas as a plague. You can purchase netting to protect your carefully-planted saplings from the bugs' nesting instincts.

After their courtship, cicadas die en masse. They fertilize the earth, facilitating new growth. Damage they cause to new branches encourages fruit. The plants know what to do, and in their way, so do the cicadas. The plants, fed over a decade and a half by the old generation, hold the eggs for the new.




Online Knowledge Base. "Cicada insect information and pictures."

The Gardener's Network. "Cicada 2008: Control of Periodical Cicada Insect."

Wikipedia. "Cicada."

The University of Michigan Museum of Zoology Insect Division.
"Periodical Cicada Page."

Britannica Online. "13-Year Cicada."

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