by David Brooks
Early October and it’s uncommonly warm. September’s average maximum was six degrees higher than the long-term average and this month seems as if it will be no different. Last summer was longer and warmer than any I can remember here in the mountains, and it seems as if this one will be a repeat. In the chemist’s, the greengrocer’s, the hardware store, the bank, and when now and again you stop to talk with some friend or acquaintance in the street, everyone agrees that the climate is changing. It seems incredible that so many politicians are still denying it. The resources are running out and the natural world, such as we know it and has produced us in the first place, is in severe distress, but we march on on our destructive path as if incapable of doing anything about it, so locked into our rapaciousness and our species selfishness that it seems as if the Dark Ages have never left, as if nothing short of metamorphosis will change us. But how on earth will we manage that?
And the cicadas are out. My almost-totem. Earlier this year than I remember them. I wrote about them in my notebook three years ago, when I last noticed them emerging, and I see that, then, it was at the end of October. This is just the beginning. So it looks as if they have been fooled too, or just adjusted. After all they’ve had millions upon millions of years to learn to read the signs. The first I noticed was just on a week ago[i]. Something stirred at my feet at the foot of the steps, and flew-hopped a couple of metres, a large cicada in the grass, golden-backed, bright red eyes, so striking and unexpected that I went inside for the camera, took a photograph. Whether a pisser (female) or a drummer (male) I couldn’t tell (nor am I responsible for the schoolyard slang, but the names it’s come up with for the different species are wonderful: greengrocer, double drummer, black prince, whisky drinker, yellow Monday). And then, heading out to the car, saw a carapace, which of course I thought was its carapace, on the fence-post by the letter-box, beneath the cherry tree. Back split open, tiny white threads emerging from the opening and visible inside where it had pulled itself free – where it had removed itself from itself – as if these had been ties of some sort, holding it on, or in – but of course they are veins, sinews of some kind: I’ll have to ask someone.
The carapaces intrigue. I remember staring at one, those three years ago, on the top of a tomato stake, feather-light when empty, the image of fragility, and yet its claws – the shells of its claws – clinging so tightly to the wood, in the ghost of the effort and the agony of that separation, that even the previous night’s high wind had not dislodged it. I remember taking it personally, as in taking this thought in. I remember turning it about, in my mind, in the early hours, in the dark of what must have been the next morning, or the morning after, as if it were some image beyond itself – which may be just (‘just’) to say that it was or may have been an instance of that mysterious way the natural world and the human mind communicate, the way the one has in-formed the other, for if we think we are anything other than creature – have crawled very far beyond it – we are kidding ourselves. A book, a text, a poem, is like that, so my thinking then went (but it was a moment of realisation, and my thinking still runs in this direction): the shell of something that has emerged, gone. We writers work very hard at those shells, but when we have finished them we are not there any longer. A cicada, I note, sheds multiple shells before the one last shell that we see clinging to the bark of a tree or to a fence-post. And humans, too – human animals – have to shed carapaces, create shells, whether they are authors or not, if they are to mature, and that can be agony, pulling oneself out of oneself.
I was wrong, of course, thinking that the carapace on the fence-post by the letter-box belonged to the cicada that had stirred by my foot at the bottom of the stairs fifteen metres away. Once they’ve emerged they have to sit a long while, drying their wings. That short flight from my foot in the grass was probably that cicada’s first flight – hopefully not too premature, fleeing me. Most likely the cicada from the carapace by the letter-box was much closer by, drying itself, getting used to its utterly new world. Coming back from my shopping I noticed a hole I hadn’t seen before in the bare-earth path that our feet have made, on their way from the front gate to the car. A wolf-spider, I thought, or trap-door spider. But I was wrong about that too. Of course.
The next day, out by the letter-box again, checking on the fence-posts I had put into the post-holes I’d dug the day before, I put my hand on the top of a post, to straighten it before the concreting, and something moved beneath my fingers, startling me. Another cicada. Luckily I didn’t seem to have hurt it. And, looking around, I realised that there was a carapace somewhere on every one of the four fence-posts. And the next day, coming out to begin to attach the railings, now that the concrete had dried enough, dozens more. I counted nearly twenty on the trunk of the cherry tree alone. Gone warriors, they seemed to me then, a ghostly army, frozen mid-stride. I thought of the Iliad. And looking at the path a while later, where I had seen the wolf-spider hole two days earlier, half a dozen holes more, and others everywhere I looked in the grass. Cicada holes, it suddenly dawned on me, where they had tunnelled up from the roots they had been drinking the sap from, as larvae, for however long it had taken them to develop, all together, to their final stage. Later I took a piece of bamboo and tested the depth of them. Most were between twenty-eight and thirty centimetres deep. Clearly the depth of the root there. But apparently they can be up to two metres deep. And the line that these holes made on the path was the root-line. This particular species of cicada – these are the ones they call greengrocers – spend between two and five years in the larval stage. A way of avoiding predators, it’s been suggested. Any potentially cicada-dependent predator who develops a taste for them one year will go hungry the next; and hopefully its life-cycle and the cicadas’ will be out of synch. It makes sense but no one really knows. Apparently in the United States there’s a species of cicada that spends seventeen years in the larval stage. That astonishes me. Even David Attenborough, in the YouTube video, throws up his hands.
In thinking about cicadas, as you might already have noticed, I’m also thinking about writing. It’s hard not to. Writing, and other things. A writer’s obsession. And of course one of the things any writer has to be particularly careful of is language itself. We can never do without it but it trips me up so often I have come to think of it as a kind of carapace of dangerous notions, something that will restrict us, hold us back, if we don’t learn to use it with much greater care, much greater respect. And yet every now and then a word will open up, emerge from its carapace, golden, or jewelled with emerald. You stop. Gaze. Wonder. As if some of the things we are looking for might be already there, beneath our tongue.
This morning, coming back to the house after watering the vegetable garden – planted early this year because of the warmer weather, though I have to keep an eye out (the eye of the skin, actually, if I can hypotesise such a thing, for you can tell from a particular kind of cold in the dusk) for frosts – I found what I thought at first was a fresh cicada carapace in the grass at the foot of the broken birch tree. Its upper part – the face – was almost black, though, whereas the carapaces have all been a uniform grey-brown, which is hard to dissociate from the soil they have just tunnelled through. And shinier, this one, too. And I realised that it was a larva, dead now, that had been unable to escape from its carapace. A victim of yesterday’s – and last night’s – high wind, blown from the tree it had tried to cling to in order to be able to pull itself out of itself. For October is also a month of winds. I wonder how many others might have been blown from their trees this year. Perhaps if the cicadas had waited until the end of the month they might have avoided it.
The wind blew all day yesterday – gusts of up to 106 kilometres an hour, I heard – and I could hear it blowing long into the night. The mention of the 106kph gusts was in a report of a terrible accident on the Mona Vale Road, down in Sydney. A petrol tanker had overturned on a steep slope, exploded and slid down the road, igniting cars as it went. The wind was so strong there were fears that the fire from the truck would burn down neighbouring houses and start a bushfire. I thought of Les Murray’s poem “The Burning Truck” – how could I not? – and of things that come to change us. There were some acts of true heroism, people have since said, and clearly there are many who will never be the same again.
I went out just now to look again at the dead larva. Surprisingly no bird has eaten it yet. Now that its un-shed shell has dried a little I can see the beginnings of a split – it is more like a scar – on its back. Cicada/cicatrice. Scar. Wound. I wonder. The female cicada lays her eggs in cuts she has made in the branch of a tree, a process which produces a scarring of the bark. There are secrets embedded in language which seem to testify to an old covenant with the world which we have long broken.
At the beginning of this essay I called the cicada my almost totem. All I had in mind at the time was my tinnitus, which can sometimes seem – in fact almost always seems – as if one has one’s own colony of cicadas, deep in one’s brain. Some days the sound is even and constant, some days pulsive, like a heart-beat, and on some days – rare days – almost totally silent.
And why, today, are those so silent, those other cicadas, out there? Perhaps it’s a matter of temperature. I have always associated the sound of cicadas with the summer heat. Two days ago it was warm and, after they had dried and tried their wings, they burst into their incredible, penetrating, familiar roar of sound (Christopher Brennan’s “torture point of song”). Millions, it seemed, though it may only have been thousands, or just hundreds, since this particular species, the greengrocer (Cyclochila australasiae), they say is amongst the loudest cicadas in the world. But then the wind came, and the temperature dropped dramatically, and although I know they are out there I cannot, now, hear a single one. When I think of cicada-sound the questions only multiply. How is it that they can all appear, or seem to appear, at the same time – cicada season, October – and have, apparently, only a two- or three-week breeding span, and yet their sound continues all summer long? Are there generations of cicada all through the summer, the October generation just the first of them? Does every cicada-tree – for clearly our cherry is a cicada-tree – have its own timing? How is it that one minute a whole forest can be the one intense roar of cicada sound and then, instantaneously, in what seems a split second, stop? And how is it that sometimes the roar of the cicadas can be the one continuous, unvarying pitch, and sometimes have the rhythm of a heart-beat? Hopefully I will find answers to some of these. Hopefully the Dark Ages will end. Hopefully I will come back, one day, and this will seem a shell.
A Postscript (October 7th): Four days later and I’ve already worked out at least one answer. That is, the cicadas have continued to emerge. A slow fountain, from the earth, from themselves. The secret of the summer-long sound. When I began to write they were around me in their dozens; now there are hundreds: on the veranda boards – we have to tread so carefully – and in the grass, on all available wooden surfaces, even inside the house. The twenty gone warriors on the cherry tree are now sixty-three, and the Japanese maple turns out to be a cicada-tree too. I have seen for the first time a cicada in the process of emerging from its shell, and seen another, just out, with its wings still unfurling. Shorter than the greengrocer, and a deeper reddish gold – but I suspect it’s just that the wings are not yet full-stretched, and that the gold will turn to green as it dries – I want to call it the Golden Goblin.
[i] This blog was first drafted on October 3rd.