Mack Williams column: The cicadas’ song takes me back

  • Posted: Monday, July 29, 2013 6:29 a.m.

Sunspots come in 11 year cycles and they may cause a little static on the radio, but something much closer crawls up out of the ground in year cycles, and from the “sound” of it (no intentional pun) their line on the graph once again crested some weeks ago, with scientists telling us that the current “racket” being produced comes from the “annual” brood.

Before you rush to quick judgement of them, just consider how much “homier” a place the moon would seem if the cicadas were making their call there (and also how much homier it would be if there were enough atmosphere there for them to be heard).


The cicadas are commonly referred to as “13 year,” “17 year,” and “annuals,” and when I was a child, living along the Old Concord road, I remember hearing them every summer between the mid-1950s and early 1970s (my whole time there, starting from the time I was old enough for memory). Instead of more technical words, if those previously mentioned scientists were to use something reminiscent of Broadway terminology, they might say that only one or two “performances” during my years there included those 13-year and 17-year “special guest stars,” while just the “regulars” reliably put on the “show” the rest of the time.

One of our workers at the science museum where I work has set up an information cart about the 17-year cicadas and the yearly ones, including some examples of the below-ground “husks” from which they emerged after digging their way up out of the ground and attaching themselves to the bark of trees. They do that in order to “get a grip” on something to hold on to while they shed, exposing fresh, new “skin” and an added bonus: wings.

No matter the frequency of their cycles, cicadas spend practically all of their lives in the ground, living off of the juices of tree roots. We all know someone whom we consider to have led a sheltered existence, but none quite so much as these, being “sheltered” for the greatest portion of their lives from sound, sunshine and sky.

As a child, I was fascinated by those shed cicada exoskeletons, still “clinging” to the tree bark. Like the detective, trying to pry open the dead, clue-grasping fingers of a dead man’s hand in a murder mystery, I had to unclasp each shed cicada “shell’s” clawed feet one by one to remove them from their grasp of the tree. A quick tug would have resulted in just the main body of the husk coming away, leaving the feet and legs still stuck in the bark.

Those little discarded skins were so fascinating to me that I “couldn’t collect just one.” I had a butterfly collection in one of my father’s Tampa Nugget cigar boxes. The opening of its lid revealed one species of each butterfly which I had caught and pinned, but when another Tampa Nugget box’s lid was lifted, a veritable “pile” of cast-off cicada exoskeletons was revealed. There was only one species represented in that box, but a lot of it!

When I recently walked down Danville’s West Main Street, I encountered the cicadas’ song as I passed each tree. Perhaps I shouldn’t refer to it as a song, because that tune is just about as unpleasant as a look from Medusa (minus the resulting rigidity).

As a boy, that sound was not doled out as it was when I walked down the sidewalk the other day, with measured gaps in it between the planned plantings. The many great oaks in our yard concentrated the cicada sound into a maddening, close-up, aural frenzy! It was also present in the woods behind our house, at first seeming like a distant echo; but it wasn’t an echo, it was “first hand” sound all they way, for hundreds of yards into that cicada-filled forest.

I always associate the cicadas with hot summer nights and the noise of a window fan. The day had its chorus of sounds, like music, in many “parts,” but on summer nights the vocal ensemble consisted of just cicadas singing in unison. Not having air conditioning, my bedroom window was open, with the fan drawing in the air. Since sound waves travel on air, I guess that fan did its part to help bring in the sound of the cicadas with it (although that sound needed no help to be all-pervading).

The fan’s pitch, dependent upon the blades’ speed, also went from low to high, but even at maximum speed, its pitch was still lower than the pitch of the cicadas, so just like a tenor or soprano “sticking out” in a chorus or choir, the cicadas could still be heard above all else.

Just the other night I was coming back from Yanceyville from having dinner with my son Jeremy, daughter Rachel, and late wife Diane’s mother Doris. All the way to Danville I had the windows down because the air conditioning isn’t working in my old Lumina. I heard cicadas “singing” from both sides of the road, all the way up U.S. Highway# 86 North to Danville, except in one area where an extensive amount of logging had taken place. In that area, and for a fraction of a minute, “stereo” cicada became “monaural” cicada. It may sound strange, but through the whole 11-mile trip, it sounded as if the cicadas were in unison, all on the same beat, though miles apart, with no off-beat “syncopation” occurring at all.

One day recently, not far from the steps of our natural history museum housed within the old Danville train station, I heard something buzzing, intermittently and weakly from the paved walkway. It was a cicada in its final hours of life, and that faded “buzz” particularly identified it as male. In the anatomy of the male cicada, it has what is referred to as a “sound organ,” composed of muscles which vibrate and make tymbal membranes produce a high pitch repetitive “snapping” noise which is magnified by some hollow sacks.

The grounded cicada lying on the sidewalk would soon be dead, kind of like a whistle lost by a child, but refusing to be silent. Sadly (yes, sadly, even despite the continuing, but fading “racket”), in that cicada’s case, more than just the “whistle” was soon to be lost.

We have cicadas which have been preserved and mounted here in our natural history museum of the Danville Science Center (only an hour-and-a-half from Salisbury! Forgive my plug, but I saw the recent article in the Salisbury Post about “day trip” vacations, so come see us! My weekly schedule changes, but just like Bob Peeler and Bill Galland at Dunn’s Mountain, I’m always here on the weekends, and just like they, will be glad to give you the “grand tour”). Since the hard parts of insects last for a very long, one time I wondered if a hole could be cut in a dead cicada to provide a “mouthpiece” for air to be blown through to make it “buzz” again. That was before I learned that instead of being air-produced, the sound was produced by strong muscles vibrating certain parts of the cicada’s anatomy. Besides, whereas a lost-and-found plastic whistle can be blown again after the sanitary precaution of some hot water and soap; there isn’t really anything that would make a dead cicada “palatable” to me musically (but in some countries, the cicada is considered palatable dietetically).

Thinking about the classic cycle of the emergence of the 17-year cicadas reminds me a little of leap year. Leap year comes every 4 years, so if I had been born on February 29, technically, I would now be 15 (looking somewhat worse for wear for a 15-year-old). If our calendar were based on the 17-year cicada cycle, and I had “emerged” during one of their years of emergence, I would now be just a little under 4, having some chance of reaching 5, very little hope of attaining 6, with arrival at 7 being regarded as a miracle (and making me a mini-Methuselah)!

I wouldn’t fare much better if the life cycle of the 13-year cicadas were used instead of that of the 17-year ones, so I am perfectly content for our calendar year to continue to be measured by what it has been measured with for a good long while now: the emergence of the “annual” cicada!

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