What’s Up, Cicadas?

We’ve all heard them. Every warm summer afternoon, they’re there. We may not see them, but we definitely hear them. Morning, afternoon, evening, night. But how many of you have ever really looked at a cicada? Not the husk that we often find clinging to a tree, but the insect–full of life–itself. They’re quite beautiful. Look at those wings–fragile panes of glass, yet strong enough for flight. The rich shades of color, varying from blue, green, brown, yellow, and orange.

Not that I spend much time looking at cicadas, mind you. I’ve seen many over the years, but I’ve heard so many more that I tend to automatically block them out (like the crickets chirping outside of my childhood bedroom). That intense, constant, pulsing noise.

But yesterday afternoon, as I left campus, the cicadas were in full song. This morning, the droning of an overhead airplane was suddenly replaced by their monotonous symphony.

Which reminds me of my daughter’s favorite joke, taught to her by my husband:

Kiddo: Knock, knock.
Me: Who’s there?
Kiddo: Knock, knock.
Me: Who’s there?
Kiddo: Knock, knock.
Me: Who’s there?
Kiddo: Knock, knock.
Me: Who’s there?
Kiddo: Knock, knock.
Me: Who’s there?
Kiddo: Philip Glass.

(It usually goes on for quite longer, but I’m sure you get the idea.)

But it got me thinking about noise–white or otherwise.

One of my favorite authors is James Joyce, particularly his Finnegan’s Wake. The best way to experience it, I’ve found, is to just randomly open the book to any page and read it (preferably aloud and in the company of literary friends). There’s so much noise–rich noise–on each page. Of course, this is part of the joke–Joyce apparently used to wake his wife, Nora, late at night with his laughter, for he was busy putting random and bizarre things into the text to keep scholars busy for eternity. But at the same time, reading the Wake is much like experiencing life.

Every second of our lives, we are bombarded with sensory detail. Every second. But we learn to filter out the data which is not meaningful to us. We look for patterns. We look for “meaning.” I’ll look at a page of the Wake and find a thread pertaining to the medieval Grail legend, or the romance of Tristan and Isolde. Another friend, looking at the same page, will see something different. I might even see different things on the same page at a later date because when I come back to the text, I am a different person. (Joyce’s metaphors of water and writing–incredible!)

So the cicadas tend to be an easy noise to block out. It’s repetitive, and since I’m not a cicada, it’s meaningless. I’m not their intended audience.

But today, I’m curious. Why do the cicadas make so much noise? Especially for such long periods of time?

What I learned is that, not surprisingly, the noise is produced by males looking to attract mates. One male can produce a sound as loud as 100 decibels (roughly equivalent to the noise produced by a lawn mower). What was surprising, though, is that there is another purpose to the high-pitched sound. The song is painful for birds–a major predator of cicadas–and so it also acts as a defense mechanism (Source: Luo, C., & Wei, C. (2015). “Stridulatory sound-production and its function in females of the cicada Subpsaltria yangi.” PLoS One, 10[2]). The cicadas tend to cluster together to make their song even louder. According to National Geographic, some can even be heard from a mile away!

Yet why is it such a constant sound? Why so little variation?

I can’t really think of many depictions of insect noise in literature. One that immediately comes to mind is a moment early in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:

The air was full of the smell of flowers, and the buzzing of insects, and the twittering of birds, and there were no people, no wagons, there was no stir of life, nothing going on. (Chapter 1)

I love the onomatopoeia of “buzzing” and “twittering,” and the use of gerunds to convey the action, but still–even for a master wordsmith such as Twain, this description of insect sounds falls a bit flat. Later (Chapter 36), Twain compares the inhabitants of London to insects, but here, with the possible exception of the sheer sound of “swarm,” he focuses largely on the movements:

The populace was an ever flocking and drifting swarm of rags, and splendors, of nodding plumes and shining armor.

Bird song, on the other hand, is richly depicted in the arts. Growing up, I was enamored of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, particularly “Spring” with its evocation of birds. Check out the strings around 00:53 in the clip below.

Not surprisingly, birdsong is a common feature in medieval literature. In the Old English The Seafarer, for example, each bird makes a different sound, and they are pleasing to the narrator (not that they need to be–my point is that medieval people paid attention to and described bird song, but not that of insects–that I’m aware of). I’ve bolded the words that correspond to the sounds made by each type of bird:

                                    Hwilum ylfete song
dyde ic me to gomene,          ganotes hleoþor
ond huilpan sweg          fore hleahtor wera,
mæw singende          fore medodrince. (19b-22b)

[At times the swan’s song
I took to myself as pleasure,          the gannet’s noise
and the voice of the curlew          instead of the laughter of men,
the singing gull          instead of the drinking of mead.] (trans. Sean Miller)

The word “hleoþor” can also be translated as “melody,” but given the pure sound of this word and its aural similarity to “hleahtor” (“laughter”) in the next line, “noise” strikes me as more appropriate.

Of course, if you get too many birds in one place, chaos is the result, as depicted in Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century poem Parliament of Fowls:

For this was on Seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make,
Of every kynde that men thynke may,
And that so huge a noyse gan they make
That erthe, and eyr, and tre, and every lake
So ful was that unethe was there space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place. (309-15)

One of my favorite depictions of bird song in Middle English literature, though, is the twelfth- or thirteenth-century poem The Owl and the Nightingale.

Harley MS 4751 f47r

iherde ich holde grete tale
an hule and one niȝtingale.
Þat plait was stif & starc & strong,
sum wile softe & lud among;
an aiþer aȝen oþer sval,
& let þat [vue]le mod ut al.
& eiþer seide of oþeres custe
þat alre-worste þat hi wuste:
& hure & hure of oþere[s] songe
hi holde plaiding suþe stronge. (3-12)

The narrator comes across two birds–the aforementioned owl (“hule”) and nightingale, and imagines a prolonged quarrel between the two. Of course, it’s all allegorical and very anthropocentric, but I can see how someone, coming unexpectedly across two loud species of birds, could imagine that they were quarreling.

But still, no insects. No cree-cree-cree (or however you would imagine a cicada to sound). To the ancient Greeks and Romans, the cicada’s song was considered beautiful and is often referenced in their literature. One example comes from the Dictionary of Literary Symbols (ed. Michael Ferber, 2000):

Socrates in the Phaedrus praises the setting of his conversation for its fresh air and “the shrill summery music of the cicada choir” (230c). He later warns that he and Phaedrus must beware of “their bewitching siren song” and tells the legend that cicadas were once human: they are descendants of humans who were so enchanted with music when they first heard it that they sang continually, without stopping to eat and drink, until they died.

Given the prevalence of insects worldwide, it’s certain that medieval people experienced insects. So why no mention to them in the literature? Why did the positive associations of the ancients shift? (Plagues and insect-induced famines may be part of the answer. The spread of Christianity might be another.)

The song of the cicada is not actually as repetitive and monotonous as we might think. Our ears are not sophisticated enough to hear the distinctions. While I’m quite sure that I’m not missing out on any hidden fluctuations in the noise from the fluorescent lights in my office, I wonder what melodies I miss out on in the cicada song?


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