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Saturday
May072011

They're back

There have been signs for days, but we see a few signs most springs. On Wednesday there were a few in the driveway, but Wednesday it had turned cold. Thursday, they I just saw smaller pieces of the ones I saw the day before. There was still no sign of them this morning, when I went in to town and the farmer’s market. When I got home, though, it was certain. They’re back.

This is now a cicada swarm year in central North Carolina.

Cicada’s are the sound of the south in summer, my mind. On a hot evening in the summer, they buzz in the trees. You can hear them individually, one in that tree, two over there. So-called annual cicada are an every year event, with life cycles of two or three years, they make their appearance every summer, and it lasts all summer.

In the dog days, in the South, the evening air envelopes and caresses you, a thick sensuous mélange, part steam bath, part scents of the honeysuckle and the night blooming nicotiania. Fireflies do their mating dance, the males rising off the lawn flashing until as the females beacon them back down. Dog-day cicada’s are just a part of the enveloping warmth, not really separate, as candlelight might be part of a warm bath, separate, but inseparable when present.

These are not dog-day cicadas, today.

Periodic cicadas com earlier in the year, and they are pitiable creatures. They are slow, they are fat, they are the junk food of the avian world, and no bird can eat just one. They crawl out of the ground, and slowly up the trees, calling for a mate. That slow crawl, and that long mating song means that they cannot hide.

And yet, as slow as they are, as defenseless as they are, they are fashion plates. The have large eyes might be black or bright red., depending on the swarm. They have large iridescent wings, although I never see them fly. It’s a wonder that any survive the one or two days that they are above ground to reproduce.

What these guys do do, is they overwhelm the predators. Because the cicadas do not come every year, the birds do not, cannot, count on them. So many come at once that they overwhelm the ability of the birds to eat them. Nut trees do the same, as they have evolved for good years and bad years so some will escape the squirrels (and others). Nut trees will even communicate chemically at a distance, to align those good years and bad years; this reproduction strategy requires the whole community to participate. But good years for nut trees are not as distinctive as a good swarm of cicadas.

This afternoon, when I returned, it sounded first like the biggest motorcycle rally ever, still miles away, but revving over the hills. One year, I thought that a long threatened development along the river had started, and that dozens of caterpillar bulldozers must be re-arranging the woods. Today, after all the rough weather we have had, it sounds like a tornado, a couple miles away.

Up close, at the edge of the yard, the sound is the same as on a summer’s eve, with individuals calling from the trees. The swarm, though, now that is an eerie sound that does not let up. Yes, they’re back.

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