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Cicada’s Song Has Tied Columnist’s Life Together
Cicada singing on Pic Saint-Loup, Hérault (France).

It’s funny how a song or a sound can take you back and put you right there in the middle of your past.

We all can think of at least one tune that, whenever heard, throws us into instant mental time travel. I could rattle off a dozen ditties right now - rock and roll or bluegrass, classical or love songs - that take me back to places all over the country and remind me of people and events, good times and not-so-good times.

For me, it’s the same with sounds - outdoor sounds, songs from nature. The chirping of birds, bugling of an elk, girgling of a stream, howling of coyotes or wolves or even sled dogs: these sounds evoke memories just as rich and real as any man-made melody on the radio.

I came home to help my 75-year old aunt move out of a house she has lived in for most of her life. My now-deceased grandparents lived in that same house for most of their lives. Downsizing two generations of belongings so my Aunt Dot can live comfortably in her new one-bedroom apartment has been a time-consuming challenge.

One night after a full day of going through stacks of ancient files, I decided to set myself down in front of a small bookshelf in the hallway. I pulled books and papers off the shelves a few at a time, dusting and stacking and boxing it all as I went along.

The sun was going down outside - a hot and humid evening in the midwest. As soon as it was truly dark, the cicadas began their familiar song, filling the thick air with their loud buzzing, humming, pulsing chorus. A chill came over me; goosebumpsraised all down my arms. There aren’t many songs sweeter to me than the constant trilling strain of the cicada on a sticky summer night.

I thought about the difference between summer evenings in Montana and Indiana. Where I now live in the mountains of Montana, the nights are sweet with a pure silence. Occasionally, I hear birds or bugs or coyotes calling but overall Montana is a magical place at night because of its unusual silence. And I cherish those rare quiet times.

Summer nights in the midwest are different; they are loud, active, bustling. As a child, the noise of the natural world sang me to sleep like a lullaby; the humidity and constant chatter of insects made me dream of jungle scenes like I saw in the movies.

Cicadas sounds are among the loudest of all insect-produced calls. They don’t use stridulation (where two structures are rubbed together) to produce the singing like crickets do; they have noisemakers called tymbals.

The strong muscles of cicadas vibrate these membranes, and their body serves as a resonance chamber, amplifying the sound. Cicadas move their bodies toward and away from the tree they are perched on, creating varied, rising and falling sounds. Just one cicada can make a big racket.

The clamoring song of the cicada stirs up memories for me just like any old Dylan or Dead tune does. Throughout most of the first 23 years of my life, the cicadas calling was the soundtrack for all of my summer nights.

The cicadas serenaded me through the windows as I went through my grandparent’s things. Those small shelves were a mini treasure trove. I found photos of my grandmother with the beloved family terrier named Spot; me being a dog-lover is genetic. I found my grandfather’s rotted leather billfold that bulged with every year’s hunting licenses from 1920 to 1960. And then I found a letter with oddly familiar handwriting.

Dear Aunt Dot,

I am having fun at camp. Tomorrow night I get to sleep in a tent.



When I sent that letter from the woods of southern Indiana, I was just eight years old - my first year away at camp. And that was the first time I ever spent the night in a tent. I remember it well.

A squad of giggling girls and I were packed like sardines into a tent that had mesh on the top so you could look out and see the stars. I lay on my back with my pink and yellow and orange flowered sleeping bag zippered up to my chin.

The July night was hot with stifling humidity but I resisted opening up my bag because I feared insects and snakes might crawl in. Instead, all night long, I sweated like I was in a sauna - my bag was soaked with perspiration.

But us girls laughed and talked and looked at the stars. And we finally fell asleep, listening to the songs of the cicada.

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Added: August 02, 2009. 08:20 AM CDT
Cicadas don't sing at night
Cicadas are almost exclusively daytime and dawn/dusk singers. You were probably listening to katydids. (Other big nighttime singers are crickets and frogs.)

E.g., https://www.entnem.ufl.edu/walker/buzz/141a.htm

(This is a very common misconception.)
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