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Cicada Concert


Do you hear them? I was sitting on my porch in South Georgia talking on the phone to my sister Suzanne in North Georgia when she said, “The cicadas are here today.” And I could hear them in our yard too making music in waves of summer sound. That was probably about the first of August. But the summer sound lasts through September so I’m still enjoying the daily rhythm of music in the trees. It’s a background sound to whatever else is going on, a sound which makes me feel with Browning, “God’s in His heaven All’s right with the world.” (Though Browning was listening to a lark instead.)

But is it really cicadas or locusts or katydids or crickets we hear?

Kaison, three years old, who plays with me on Tuesdays, asked enough questions about the “bugs” that I set out to settle some facts about them.

 First, he found the empty skin of what I used to call a locust clinging to a pine tree where the transformed creature left it. He held that skin tenderly in his hand and asked if he were okay. “He’s gone,” I explained. “No, I have to take care of him.” He examined his eye places, his funny prickly feet and, of course the split in the back where the fellow crawled out and flew away. He babied that skin for two hours before something else got his attention.

 In a week or two, Kaison found the dead body of a winged creature lying by our back door. He picked him up too. It had beautiful transparent wings, some green and black on its body, no signs of why he had died. I told Kaison this was one of the cicadas that had come out of a skin like the one he had found. He was baffled and amazed. Again, he cradled that “bug” in his hand for an hour until I finally persuaded him to lay it gently in the low fork of a susquina tree.

 As I told Kaison his “bug” was a cicada, I wondered if it were a locust instead. And what exactly was a katydid? I decided to do the up-to-date encyclopedia search, in other words “Google” it. I wanted to be sure I didn’t lead this little boy astray!

 So here it is, the truth about the hoppers, Flyers, leg-rubbing, vibrating fascinating percussionists of summer.

 Crickets live in the grass and chirp as they hop about. Any pond fisherman knows crickets. They don’t live in the trees. So when you hear their little songs in the grass, you’ll know it’s crickets. They don’t form bands, either, like katydids and cicadas. Crickets are more ensemble and solo singers. Like “The Cricket on the Hearth” by Charles Dickens.

 Katydids sing at night, that is, they rub their legs together to make their fascinating waves of sound. They look more like a grasshopper than a cicada though their raspy sound is similar. Just know when you sit on your porch watching the stars come out it’s the katydids saying “Katy did, she didn’t, she did.”

Locusts are bad boys. They eat whole crops, take away the livelihood of farmers. Locusts were one of the plagues God sent on Egypt when Pharaoh wouldn’t let his people go. And I think the sounds you hear are the sounds of a million wings buzzing and an eerie chomping sound. At least that’s the way I’ve read about them in western pioneer novels. No peaceful rhythmic orchestra sound. But they do have a cousinly resemblance to cicadas in appearance.

Which leads us back to the cicada. There are, of course, many kinds including the ones you may have heard about this year called the seventeen year cicada. Those have an amazing life cycle. It goes from tiny larvae in the ground for seventeen years, to brown beetles crawling out on God’s time table and climbing trees, to the great transformation, the summer concerts, the mating, and then eggs falling out of the trees to the ground where they wiggle down and do their seventeen year thing again, not sleeping but drinking juice from tree roots. Cicadas, unlike locusts, do not eat foliage. They just drink sap which usually doesn’t hurt anything.

There’s also a thirteen year cicada and then just the regular annual ones which we know. In states where the seventeen year cicada came out in droves people were warned to beware that their pets not make themselves sick eating too many, or get choked on their wings. People do actually eat them too, prepared in many ways–fried, chocolate covered, pickled, you name it. 

When I was a kid my brothers loved to sneak up behind me and place a brown prickly cicada skin in my hair. One of us girls ended up going to church decorated thus, causing muffled snickers in the pew behind. I don’t plan to tell Kaison about that. 

I’ll just tell him again that the sound he hears high in the pines on a hot day are those cicadas with beautiful wings making music for their girls. They have special built-in instruments that vibrate with great vigor. So listen to them as they “sing” tonight. They’ll be gone very soon

What amazing creatures! Do you think God created them to make us smile?

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May Day

The first of May is here, to some remembered as May Day, to others just another day, to some an opportunity for political rallies and protests. When Charles read the date on our devotional this morning, we exclaimed, oh, it’s May Day! My thoughts immediately flew to the happy times when my little sister and I would create small paper baskets, fill them with wildflowers, and attempt to surprise family members with our flowery donations. A great part of the fun was in sneaking up on someone, setting the basket down, and running before they could see who was there. Of course part of the fun also was in peering from behind a curtain or a barrel to see the reaction, hopefully a big smile, on the face of the surprised recipient.

I remember my mother’s sharing her memory of May Day when she was a girl in the early 1900’s. She and her classmates danced around a Maypole, weaving ribbons in and out. That had to be a lot of fun! Mamma quoted poetry while she churned or kneaded bread. In the spring, her poem was apt to be Robert Browning’s “Pippa’s Song” which says: “The year’s at the spring, And day’s at the morn; Morning’s at seven; The hill-side’s dew-pearl’d; The lark’s on the wing; The snail’s on the thorn; God’s in His heaven–All’s right with the world.”

News of severe riots around the country, the earthquake in Nepal, injustice everywhere, fill the air waves till it seems the television might just explode sometime. Yet–God’s in His heaven, aware of every detail on earth, and will ultimately right every wrong. Believing that, I can take great joy from observing the wildlife celebrating May Day in my backyard.

The mulberry tree is a center of attraction. The mulberries are slowly ripening for the enjoyment of browsing humans. But they are totally tempting right now to squirrels and all kinds of birds. Before I could find even one ripe berry, birds and squirrels were so active in the tree, it looked as if it were dancing. Now, whether or not the wind is blowing, the tree’s light, flexible limbs and branches are a-sway with silent music. I can see as many as four or five squirrels at a time feasting happily. I’ve seen them stretch themselves from one limb to another until I’d hold my breath waiting to see whether they broke in two or fell to the ground. The squirrels have a highway in the trees for crossing the yard but there is one space between trees they haven’t found sky passage for, so they have to scamper across the ground. Then they scale a pine tree, leap to limbs of an Indonesian cherry tree, and from there, by way of a Japanese magnolia, they’re in the heavenly mulberry tree.

The birds have it easier. They fly in and out at will. They do have to keep a close watch because fellow birds and squirrels are not always kind. Each one believes God made that tree for him and only him, or her. When it comes to sharing they’re not always any better than the rest of us. I observed a war take place an hour ago. No winners, that I can tell. One squirrel is still fussing.

From the porch I can also see several bird feeders and a bird bath, all very well used. I especially enjoy the little titmouse with his chip-chip-chipping and the tiny black-capped chickadee. They fly in, grab a sunflower seed and then whir up to a tree bough to enjoy their snack.

Our martin house remains empty for another year. Charles has learned that martins, like many other creatures, are choosy about their place of abode. Given a choice, they have been observed repeatedly to rent more natural places, like gourds, rather than sturdy houses made just for them. Ours is a condominium, just the right height, made to order, but–no takers!

Brown thrashers are nesting here. They love thick camellias. What a beautiful, wise bird is the brown thrasher, a really good choice, I think for Georgia’s state bird. Take my advice, though, and do not ever try to look in mama Thrasher’s nest unless you’re ready for a swirl of angry wings around your head and a scolding you won’t forget. Did I say they are loyal? They are ready to go to bat in a heartbeat!

Cardinals are year-round splashes of cheer and they sing so sweetly too. And then there’s my all-time favorite, the faithful mockingbird that tries to re-tell everyone’s story, or song. And the songbird family would not be complete without little wrens chirping busily and making the cutest dwelling places in old boots, every nook and cranny, even (one year, at least), on the backside of the mailbox.

The other day I saw one of the cats ready to pounce on a baby sparrow who was learning with difficulty how to fly. I stopped the travesty that time but can’t say it didn’t happen later. The food chain is quite evident right here in this small acre. Cramer, another cat, sidled up to the door, proud of the lizard, still wiggling, in his mouth.

The wind is up today and the temperature delightfully cool. A great May Day! A great day for walking with other survivors in American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life.. What a privilege that was, not only to walk with other survivors but also with my most precious caregiver, my husband! And, no, I didn’t mention the other May Day, the one you use when your plane or ship is failing. Let’s stick to celebrating a normal, happy day this May First!

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