On Cicadas

This is the latest installment of El Mirador, an ongoing series curated by Francisco Cantú. Spanish for “the lookout point,” El Mirador collects original nonfiction, translation, and visual art on ...

This is the latest installment of El Mirador, an ongoing series curated by Francisco Cantú. Spanish for “the lookout point,” El Mirador collects original nonfiction, translation, and visual art on the American West, the US/Mexico borderlands, and Indian Country.


I stand outside to smoke a cigarette. I walk from my car to a store. I wait for a stoplight. I eat a Sonoran dog from a truck. At a friend’s barbeque. Reading in my yard. A crack in my window or front door to let hot air hum through my swamp-cooled house. And in early July in the Sonoran desert, I hear the cacophony, a rattling timbre, of cicadas stridulating small tymbal organs (males only) and their wings flapping in crepitation. They arise from the ground after three years of feeding on roots, shedding, growing, in order to mate, hence the summer buzz. I can hear them now as I write this, through the open front door. But when I step outside and scan the limbs of the trees, I can’t see them. I walk under the palo verde in my yard they halt their shuttering—the wait to mate.

About this time of day the early morning cool has burned off and I need to either head to a coffee shop for the A/C or tough a few humid hours out at home under my swamp cooler. In 100+ temps in the desert, saturating the air with moisture only provides more particles for the oppressive desert sun to heat. The briefly cooler, wet air blows on you, but you sweat all the same.

Cicadas extract water from their blood and vibrate it through large ducts to the surface of their thorax where it evaporates. In short, cicadas sweat. They are the only insect known to have sweat pores. While their enemies—birds, lizards, wasps, small mammals—are unable to bear the heat, cicadas keep cool with their own internal swamp cooling.

I also hear they’re delicious, that they boast a nutty flavor. Though to this I cannot attest.

I don’t want to eat the cicadas, just to see them. But I don’t know even how much I want that.


A small note on seeing.

Humans obsess over the cicadas. Personal blogs, travel websites, museum information, tri-fold-visit-the-Southwest fliers all boast the cicada. Many articles describe them as annoying, raucous, and deafening. And now outside my door the cicadas have stopped. Perhaps they rest their quivering bodies, though I know they move from tree to tree in search of mates. But the small orchestral mating song emerges again after a few moments of silence. When it comes, I think I can hear thousands of them in the trees outside, but that is false. There might only be two out there right now, which is why I cannot see them. To hold a cicada to your ear would be similar in decibels to a rock concert, roughly 110. This would cause permanent hearing loss and for the rest of your summers the cicada would sound a bit further away. A cloud of cicadas is a façade of shape and sound. They are there, but also not.


A note on listening.

While the journal articles I read disregard the creatures as frightfully ugly and irritating, Plato wrote in a dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus as they sat under a tree that “must be a spot sacred to Achelous and the Nymphs,” a place where “there is a sound in the air shrill and summerlike which makes answer to the chorus of the cicadae.” I’m asking, now, for the cicadas to impose on me some sense of reverie. I want them prevalent in my background, their drone sonic force as accompaniment while I pour over truths of the loved and non-loved.


And so, I want the charred insect with its weathered exoskeleton and translucent wings to elude me. I want it to be sweetly romantic and crackle with indifference when I walk under its perch. I want it to mean something to me more than the desert does in the summer. Because the desert is a massive entity, by geographical scale and myth. It’s a place down there on a map, rife with oranges and reds, swirling lines of meteorological design. A place to avoid in the summer, but enjoy in the winter. But to imagine a place always in its near future or recent past is to never actually examine the present, to be beside one’s self, to examine all current phenomena in juxtaposition to a potentially worse or better time. To live in the desert is to live exclusively with either aspirations or regrets.


As Pascal writes: “All unhappiness of man stems from one thing only: that he is incapable of staying quietly in his room.” The cicada is my temperature-based alarm for being confined to this room. When they grain the summer air, I know it’s getting too hot to be out there. Today is a cool day, a high of 95. In the heat, the cicada’s electricity attenuates to half strength, and then swells again. They sing and then they move on. Around here, we call them cactus dodgers. They do not stay put on a favored perch. They do not remain in one room.

In this way, for their singularly strident call, I am thankful for their multitude.


A note on change.

To strive for a kind of constancy that will result in a kind of change, so change might beget constancy. Changing into the same thing, the same design, the same intention, is the same act as remaining in a fixed fluctuation. Paul Auster—“What happens today is merely a variation on what happened yesterday. Yesterday echoes today, and tomorrow will foreshadow what happens next year.”


For three years, the cicadas in this area remain in the earth, shedding their husks and feeding on roots and grime. They damage reedy tree limbs by laying their eggs in thin cracks. The eggs hatch and the nascent insects make their way to the soil until maturity. Some genus and species will remain in the earth for 13 or 17 years before emerging to mate. And they will live for four to six weeks. If they aren’t eaten, diseased, lame, or growing mold, a male cicada will die of exhaustion from sapping his own blood for water to keep cool in the desert.


The cicada does not live with regret. It does not lament the summer heat. Instead, it has evolved to withstand it. For those that emerge out of the earth this year, there is no remnant of the past, no longing. But perhaps they anticipate. I wonder if they shed their skin and know, lying near to the two- and three-year-olds in the earth next to them, that some day they might take that shape, might shed into that form.


A note on growth.

Intellect can never split and shed its own shell, cannot expand and morph into a new entity. There is knowing, and then knowing something else, all while letting slip something else. I want to be mesmerized by my own thought. Instead, I imagine a grandiose re-representation of something I once knew, forgot, and then learned again. I want to move beyond my own knowing, to something else. Thus, I am both somewhere in the past wanting to be in the future. Auster, again—“Only one thing is certain: he cannot be anywhere until he is here. And if he does not manage to find this place, it would be absurd for him to think of looking for another.”


Cicadas are anomalous creatures in their consistency, in their stasis of flux. They exist only to draw water from plant roots, emerge from the earth, mate, and die. In short, they exist only for themselves. I have known the word cicada for as long as I can remember language. Where I grew up kids called katydids cicadas because of the associative timbre in the hard C. I corrected them, not because I’d ever seen a cicada, but because I’d seen and held a katydid. I still haven’t seen a living, vibrating cicada, but I hear them even now. And when I stand and go outside to smoke again, they will quiet at my presence like I’m a predator, and wait until I leave so they might continue their progression, their death.


A note on belonging (epilogue).

I have been in this desert for forever how long, and this is the first time I’ve heard the cicadas. When I arrived to the desert, their amber husks clung to trunks of trees, burnt and dried, soaked in the monsoons, a shell of enduring death. They were also in the soil feeding and growing, a community of subterranean anticipation. But those shells were a tangible mythology of resurrection and immortality in reverse. And it occurs to me that I may have arrived at the desert too late, or too early. It’s hard to tell.


Original art by S. Jordan Palmer, who was born and raised in Prescott, Arizona. Coming from a small mountain town, there was ample time to spend alone drawing, reading, and thinking of crazy shit. This pastime quickly became a passion, and is now more than that. A regular studio practice is the only thing keeping him out of trouble. icon

Featured image: Cicada. Original artwork by S. Jordan Palmer