Bug Music

How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise

David Rothenberg

St. Martin's Press

The Seventeen-Year Pitch
It’s the slowest sonic beat in the animal world. It’s a sound that can be used to mark the phases of a human life. It’s a mathematical conundrum, an unearthly wonder of animal sound. The cloud of insect music you can barely recall. When you last heard it, you were just settling down. The time before that, you were a teenager. Before that it was the year you were born. The next time you will hear it you might be a grandfather.
This time the song arrives, you are smack in the middle of your journey through life.
“You are a Cicada Boy,” my friend John P. O’Grady insists. Once an English professor, he is now a photographer, flaneur, and part-time astrologer. “Believing that the stars affect us is a useful fiction,” he smiles. “One might also believe the appearance of cicadas every seventeen years touches us in a similar way.” He looks up the year 1962. It was one of those years that the great thrumming insects arrived en masse in the trees of late spring in the Northeast. One month later I was born in July. The cicadas were back when I graduated high school, and again when I moved from the city to the country. That last time back in 1996, O’Grady took me out to the Mohonk Mountain House to experience the great emergence. At the time I wrote these lines about them, part of a longer poem that dealt with my own inability to rigorously mark the passing of time:
Seventeen years
to those that note the passing of time:
They’re back!
The crunching of footsteps over carapaces underfoot
The slow swelling, the rhythms of the one-time forest
Crzzzzzzzzzzzhh Chrzzzzzaahhh …
What are these insects for?
They sit, bewildered, on fence posts, with glaring red eyes.
They can barely fly, like puffins falling from rocks,
Sparrows try to catch them but can’t get their beaks around ’em.…
Every seventeen years I’ll check in on what happens.
I’ll trace the memories of their return.
Seventeen years from now it may all make sense.
Certain situations will be resolved.
There will be other, outward problems to face.
I will not be able to solve them alone.
There will be low soft whooms in the trees.
Fluttering wings struggling to lift us between the trees.
We will stare up again and wonder:
who else has had to wait so long to face the air?
No reason to go on except the only reason that matters:
there is nothing else to do
this is the plan
this is our place in the plan
this is the sound.
In the years since then I have been making music together with all kinds of animals. It has humbled me a bit and taught me to appreciate many more kinds of sounds. Now I am even more in awe of this longest animal rhythm, a great beat that emerges out of silence only once every seventeen years. It is only a North American thing, nowhere else has this kind of wave of cicada appearances, following these strange great cycles of prime-numbered years.
Most cicadas all over the world come out in large enough numbers every year to enthrall people with their volume, energy, and roughness of sound, and annoy us as well, especially those who would wish that nature was closer to silence. Anacreon, in the first century BC, was fascinated by this great energy from the top of the trees:
We praise thee auspicious Cicada, enthroned like a king
On the tree’s summit, thou cheer’st us with exquisite song …
Old age does not oppress thee O good little animal,
sprung from the bosom of the earth, loving song,
free from suffering, that hast neither blood nor flesh—
What is there prevents thee from being a god?
The earliest naturalists knew that this insect was an amazing symbol of love and music. The cicadas having eaten enough underground emerge for just a few weeks for nothing but revelry, music, and sex. They party on thinking nothing of their rapid, impending doom. Leave it to the great poet Basho¯ to make deepest sense of that in 1690:
Cicadas sing—
know not how soon
They all will die.
Each shrill, whining, or whooshing song is a call to the endless nature of love. However fast love goes we know it will return, the one sure thing that will never be exhausted as all the rest of nature gets spent, used up, or destroyed. Cicadas on the branches, eternal optimists, lovers of the moment.
Most species of cicadas, even those that come out every year, grow underground for at least two to five years, and many nonperiodic species may have longer life cycles, whose length we know little about because this is information very hard to find out without these big, coordinated emergences. We cannot easily watch what these larvae do underground for so many years. We might never know.
Too many people confuse cicadas with locusts and fear some great scourge upon the crops at once when they appear. But cicadas hardly eat at all, having stored up enough energy to live after all those years underground. What modest damage they do to leaves on trees comes when the females lay their eggs near the end of branches, and the branches split and die after the eggs hatch.
So inhabit the mystery, even as you try to delve deep. Do not shun science as you listen to the swarm. Why not imagine they are talking to us, pleading for their lives? A ninth-century anonymous Greek wrote this:
A man wanted to eat a cicada but the insect suddenly spoke up: “O human I beg you, don’t kill me so vainly for nothing. I harmed no corn crop and did no insult to anyone; By uttering sounds, I entertain you travelers, and you will find no voice as fine as mine.” And so the man let the cicada go free.…
Let us praise not only the cicada but the great entomologist Keith Kevan, director for many years of the Lyman Entomological Museum at McGill Unversity in Montreal, who in his spare time compiled and self-published five 300-page volumes of every reference to singing insects he could find in the classical and modern literature of many languages, from ancient Chinese, Japanese, Greek, and Latin to Sanskrit and Russian as well. It is the best compendium in existence on references to the sounds of insects in the world’s literatures, and I was surprised to discover that hardly anyone seems to know about it. I found an old obituary online that said “copies of these volumes may still be found in the basement of the Lyman Entomological Museum,” so immediately I wrote to the current director, Stéphanie Boucher, and she was suspicious.
“How do you know about those books?” she asked.
“Like most of us, I waste a lot of time on the Internet. I found all the old issues of a 1980s journal called Cultural Entomology on a website somewhere, and just read through them one by one, looking for something on the music of bugs. The obituary for Keith Kevan was so fascinating I read it all the way to the end. And there, the five mysterious volumes were mentioned. So I want them. As soon as possible,” I said.
That sounded like a good enough reason for Ms. Boucher, and now I’ve got those big books on the floor of my office, and that’s where I found most of these incredible cicada and cricket poems.
Possibly the greatest poetic work on cicadas in all of Kevan’s thousands of pages is the “Song of the Cicada,” composed in the Year of the Great Flood 1056 at the Wine Spring Temple by Ou-Yang Hsiu, where he was doing his best to pray for better weather. These excerpts were translated by Arthur Waley nearly a century ago:
Here was a thing that cried upon a treetop,
sucking the shrill wind
To wail it back in a long whistling note—
That clasping in its arms
A tapering twig perpetually sighed,
Now shrill as flute, now soft as mandolin;
sometime a piercing cry
Choked at its very uttering, sometimes a cold tune
Dwindled to silence, then suddenly flowered again,
a single note, wandering in strange keys,
An air, yet fraught
With undertone of hidden harmony.
Are you not he, cicada,
of whom I have heard told you can transform
Your body, magically molding it
To new estate?
Are you not he who, born
Upon the dung-heap, coveted the sky,
Found wings to mount the wind?
Again your voice, cicada
Not grave, not gay, part Lydian,
part Dorian, your tune that,
as suddenly as it began
suddenly ceases.
Now there is a great paean to the wildness of insect music, all tunes and tones we cannot quite place, of melodies and harmonies beyond the scales and chords of human sense. It’s not Lydian, it’s not Dorian, whatever those ancient Greek modes were really sounding like we really don’t know, but any musician who has tried to jam along with insects knows we struggle to place the sounds we like together with this essential but alien noise.
Throughout history, we humans have wanted to embrace these sounds as music, however they differ from our own rules and structures of melody. It is as if we have always intuitively known that the sonic declarations of animals make much more sense to us humans if we consider them to be music rather than language. Music is immediately meaningful even if we cannot translate it, so once heard as music, the world of animal communication is immediately accessible, emotional, and interesting.
When did people first notice the prime-numbered cycles of cicadas, something that only happens in the New World of North America? Certainly the early Pilgrims experienced an emergence a few years after Plymouth Rock. They were not always sure just what to call the insects they were astonished by. William Bradford wrote in 1633: “all the month of May, there was such a quantity of a great sort of flyes like for bigness to wasps or bumblebees, which came out of holes in the ground and replenished all the woods, and ate the green things, and made such a constant yelling noise as made all the woods ring of them, and ready to deaf the hearers.” Music indeed. He goes on: “They have not by the English been heard or seen before. But the Indians told them that sickness would follow, and so it did in June, July, August, and the chief heat of summer.”
Naturalist Paul Dudley was the first to study the emergence in detail. His research took a very long time to get going. He incorrectly called them locusts, and first observed them in 1699, then again in 1716, but he waited until 1733 to make sure they really were emerging every seventeen years, when he submitted his results to the Royal Society of London. Science papers had a somewhat different tone in those days, and rather creative spelling:
… They are in great numbers in our woods, the noise is loud to the degree that our farmers have not been able to hear their cowbells tho in sight. I have myself been traveling thro the midst of thousands of them, and the noise was such that there was no conversing for some miles together, & it carried even some terror with it. That which seemed to me some what strange was that tho the Locusts were close by, and all around me, yet their noise was, as tho it had been distant & come from far.
This agrees with the Prophet Joel when he alludes to the noise made by this animal (Joel ch. 2 v. 5: As the noise of the chariots upon the tops of mountains shall they leap, like the noise of a flame of fire). Here it must be noted, That ’tis only the male makes the noise, & it is not formed with the mouth as some of our People at first imagined, nor yet is it by the percussion of the air, or meer vibration of the wings, as Pliny & the Poets would have it (Tanto volant permarum stridore), but by the striking of the upper wings upon two tender drums, as I may call ’em, situated between the neck and the body, where there is an opening, and a tremulous fold of a whitish purple color …
So, detailed observation dovetails with scripture and classical literature in the words of one of the colonies’ first scientific naturalists. What wonders of nature did God prepare for us to puzzle over! The great Finnish-Swedish naturalist Pehr Kalm felt the same way in 1749. He thought they were grasshoppers:
It was unbelievable how many there were of them now. There had not been anything like it in 17 years. The many holes in the earth that you can find all over in this country, of the size that you can put a finger in them, now became the haunt for the nymphs of these grasshoppers before they came out. I saw several of these nymphs sitting in the opening of these holes, but I did not know what kind of animal would come out of them. Mostly they came creeping out during the night, wandered up trees, branches and plants, took off their nymphal skins which split on the top. After they had crept out, they sat for a while and dried their wings and started then trying to fly. The nymphal skin remained sitting on the tree or plant, where the grasshopper left it. It was then blown to the ground or swept away by rain.… Hens were very clever catching the grasshoppers as they came out of their holes. They ate them with pleasure, and so did other birds. This might be the reason for the Creator to make them come out at night, so they will not be all eaten by birds before they hatch and are able to fly …
The Creator, in this century before the idea of evolution, must have thought of everything. Today we are still trying to find out why and how this strange periodic rhythm has evolved. And even though these tasty morsels seem to be a gustatory gift for whoever dares to taste them, some biologists believe the simplest way to understand this occurrence as a strategy is that there are just so many cicadas that they will simply exhaust any predators’ attempts to consume them. Too many chickens and dogs get sick to their stomachs by not knowing when to stop eating this sudden periodic feast!
Observe how they emerge from wingless nymph to flying adult:
In 1839, Nathaniel Potter, professor of medicine from Maryland, scoffed at the notion that this noisemaker could have anything to do with the musical insects praised by the ancient Greeks. There must have been some mistake:
The cicadae of Greece must have been highly gifted with musical powers to have been celebrated by Homer, who compares the strains of his orators to the sweetness of their notes. How differently would the ear of the imperial poet have decided had he been condemned to listen to the monotonous, protracted twang of the American locust! He would have been as much pleased with the scraping of a scissor grinder, or the grading of a file.
I beg to disagree. I still believe people like the sound of all this white noise in the forest. It is like begging to listen to the call of the ocean in a conch shell, or the repeating peal of waves on the shore, or even the pleasing flow of traffic on the highway below the city window. We have long appreciated the washes of pitchless rhythms crashing in from this noisy world. And now more than ever we can praise the musical value of noise as never so much loved before. Think of it, Potter, Homer actually loved this noisy sound of the cicada, as it is clamorous and whirring all over the world, never a pure or calm cricketesque tone. The bard loved noise, arrhythmic noise, a wash of sound that could confound his beats. Inside all that noise he must have heard the potential for beauty, as a wash of sound contains all perceptible sounds, as a solid block of marble contains all sculptures that could be honed out of it.
D. L. Phares in 1845 had another theory: “The sound produced by the commingled notes of the whole tribe of cicada seems loud and harsh, but on closer examination, and distinguishing one individual voice from the whole mass it will be found the softest, sweetest, languishing notes of true love ever produced.” This must be why the Greeks kept them in cages! Not only to enjoy their songs passively, but to practice along, to “improve their own voices by imitating the sounds of their insectile teachers.”
And let us not forget that ancient legend of Eunomos and Ariston, competing for a prize in playing the harp. Eunomos broke a string during the contest, and a cicada, who had been listening to the whole thing, flew right to the instrument and attached itself to the soundboard, shwooming exactly the note that was required in place of the missing string. Of course he won the prize. There is an ancient illustration of this legend below:
No wonder that in 2011 a group of Columbia, Missouri, alternative musicans released a compilation album called Cicada Summer with eighteen tunes inspired by the emergence of the Brood XIX thirteen-year cicadas, with titles like “The Great Southern Brood,” “Still in Love in 2024,” and “Why Do You Keep Me Up at Night?”
By the end of the nineteenth century, scientists were getting most meticulous in their observations of periodical cicadas. First Benjamin Walsh with Charles Riley, and then later C. L. Marlatt, had finalized the list of the various “broods” of periodical cicada that come out at very definite times over 17- and 13-year intervals, in very specific locations only in the Eastern United States. Nowhere else in the world has evolution organized such a pattern of vast cicada emergences. There were originally fourteen 17-year broods, numbered I to XIV. Today brood XII is extinct. There were four 13-year broods, numbered XIX to XXIII. Today brood XX is extinct. The most extensive broods are II, X, XIV, and XIX, which will next emerge in 2013, 2021, 2025, and 2024 respectively. So if you don’t catch ’em this year in the Northeast it may be a while before you get to see them. However, intrepid periodic cicada hunters can find Brood III in Iowa in 2014, Brood IV in western Missouri and eastern Kansas in 2015, and Brood V in eastern Ohio in 2016, and you might run into me there if I get addicted to this rare and total wash of sound. Now here’s where to look and listen this year for the great Brood II cicada emergence of 2013, as noted by Marlatt ninety years ago:
Since Brood II is the one that is most prevalent in the New York metropolitan area, it is no surprise that this is the one that has gotten most attention in the last 130 or so years of the New York Times, that venetable institution with all the news fit to print. These days it takes but a few strokes at a computer to pull up everything the paper has ever published on singing periodical cicadas, and there is much interesting stuff. Every seventeen years the same fears of mass destruction, loud annoyance, and the occasional voicing of love for this wonderful phenomenon comes through the old, scanned letterpress pages.
The overwhelming din of a forest full of phaaaaaaarohhh-ing seventeen-year cicadas seems to frustrate all journalists who write about them while usually barely remembering the last time they heard such a sound. In 1894 a New York Times editorial hoped we could find a use for these creatures:
Nervous people who become exasperated by its ceaseless drone during the hottest part of the day will hail with savage delight any discovery that may allow them to “get even” with an insect that adds to the injury of our ornamental woodlands the insult of a noise peculiarly shrill and mechanical. There are people who keep cicadas in cages and ask them to sound their rattles, notably Spaniards, but it is evident that Spaniards must lack American nerves—to stir them properly they need bullfights, and to keep them from sleeping all day they require cicadas in their darkened rooms to “stab the noon silence with a sharp alarm.”
The article goes on to suggest we find some use for this boon of protein … cicada biscuits perhaps for dogs and cats? Would the ASPCA approve?
Already in 1885 the famous cicada biologist Charles Riley was spotted breakfasting on the tasty freshly emerged morsels. “The visitor was served with a spoonful of dark objects like very small fried oysters … ‘Don’t be afraid of them,’ stated Riley, ‘They are only the quintessence of vegetable juices, and everything in nature feeds upon then ravenously.’” So why not us?
In fact, in 2011 the Missouri Department of Conservation whipped up a feast for humans featuring four cicada-heavy dishes. Cicada pizza. Cicada-portobello quiche. “El chirper” tacos, and Emergence Cookies. Mike Arduser, conservation biologist, suggests this approach if you are adventurous in your food gathering: “You want the cicadas that are just emerging, the tenerals. They’re soft for just a few hours. Go out early in the day and find cicadas at the bases of trees. They will be white or pale yellow. Ideally you want females. They have more meat. Female cicadas will have a sharper, pointier bottom. That’s the appendage they use to lay eggs.”
The Anderson Design Group of Nashville offered up a special cicada invasion Web page with the following self-explanatory banner:
Sing, fly, mate, die—all those reasons we admire them so much. These guys recommend cicada satay, or stir fry, and present their taco recipe for our testing:
2 tablespoons butter or peanut oil
1½ pounds of cicadas
1 onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 tomato, finely chopped
1½ tablespoons ground pepper
1½ tablespoons cumin
1½ tablespoons oregano
taco shells
1 handful cilantro, chopped
sour cream
shredded lettuce
shredded cheddar cheese
Cooking instructions:
1. Heat the butter or oil in a frying pan and fry the cicadas for 10 minutes, or until cooked through.
2. Remove from pan and roughly chop into ¼-inch cubes and place back in pan.
3. Add the chopped onions, chili powder, and tomato. Season with salt and fry for another 5 minutes on medium-low heat.
4. Sprinkle with ground pepper, cumin, and oregano to taste.
5. Serve in taco shells and garnish with cilantro, sour cream, lettuce, and cheddar cheese.
Again, make sure you use freshly gathered, white young morning nymphs. And if that all sounds like too much work for you or you’ve already eaten dinner, cicada ice cream is available once in a while at Sparky’s in Columbia, Missouri:
The Missouri Board of Health advised them against making a second batch … they had no rules about how to deal with the public safety of cicadas as a protein source. But they can’t stop you from serving your own freshly emerged cicadas at home. Get ’em while they’re white and juicy, don’t wait until they start to sing and get crunchy!
A lavish, two-page illustrated spread by Donald Prattie from a 1936 issue of the New York Times maintains that the periodical cicada is “still the most misunderstood insect on our continent.” He reminds us, as the newspapers always seem to do every thirteen or seventeen years, that these cicadas are not locusts, they do not eat crops, they do not sting babies to death, and they will not harm your fruit trees excessively. He urges us to respect the cicada, to think of all the dangers it must face in its short, few weeks of life aboveground: being chased by birds, eaten by dogs, cats, and foxes; struggling to have a chance to mate; and get the most out of their brief time singing and breathing in air. At the time it was believed, even by the naturalist Jean-Henri Fabre, that cicadas couldn’t even hear this incredible din. But today we know they just hear with organs we weren’t able to recognize back then as being able to take in sound. But Prattie sure hears the giant, swirling noise: “To me the din is one of the most depressing and unnerving ever heard, not only because of its monotony but because of its suggestion that something terrible is going to happen.”
Something terrible? What? One day, all of a sudden, the sound will stop, and we will have seventeen years of Magicicada of silence. It is a humbling thought, with a touch of the sublime. The great entomologist H. A. Allard had this to say after the emergence of Brood XIX in eastern Virginia in 1920:
I felt a positive sadness when I realized that the great visitation was over, and there was silence in the world again, and all were dead that had so recently lived and filled the world with noise and movement. It was almost a painful silence, and I could not but feel that I had lived to witness one of the great events of existence, comparable to the occurrence of a notable eclipse or the visitation of a great comet.
This is truly the writing of a great scientist, who, while trying to rationally explain a mysterious phenomenon of nature, is not afraid to reveal to us, in a scientific journal, his true feelings on being in the midst of such an awesome experience. Would that more science as it’s written today retain this quality! I get the sense Allard is not far from the view of the Maori, who tend to speak of their native Aotearoa/New Zealand cicadas as “the insect people.” In a well-known chant first written down in 1853 they speak of what it means to connect to these other beings:
Ki ouru
Ki owhawha
Kia kata noa mair to Kikitara
To join
To feel
The cicada’s cry
All of us who have tried to make sense of this awesome sonic phenomenon have wanted to find a way inside the sound, to become part of it or make it a part of us. And yet it is so hard to remember, so many years in between these emergences, to know what it means to live deep inside of noise. To know it, not to fear it. To find it wonderful, and not be afraid.
Even Bob Dylan caught a whiff of this as he was picking up an honorary degree at Princeton University in 1970, smack in the middle of Brood X, New Jersey’s greatest cicada moment. While the Princeton Alumni Bulletin described the incident as nearly biblical in proportion, Dylan wrote the song “Day of the Locusts” that appeared on his New Morning album. Over a high, distant organ sound that resembles the high whine of the seventeen-year cicada, Dylan calls their song chilling, sweet, and—like so many of us human commentators on nature—he felt the sound of the insect orchestra was there just for him. Like all those early scientists, he called these critters “locusts.” Sure, “locusts” scans much better than “cicadas,” and is all the more ominous, too. Who can blame Dylan for making the same mistake that most who encounter the great emergence do? He thought they were a plague of crop-destroyers, as opposed to harmless lovers and performers.
As we move closer toward the present day, the science of periodical cicadas gets more precise. In 1925, William T. Davis decided these strange beasts deserved their own genus, which he named Magicicada to distinguish them from the more prosaic annual Cicadae who come out dutifully every year, usually later in summer, at least in the temperate Northern Hemisphere. It is a perfect name for a being whose behavior still seems like magic, no matter how often scientists enjoy the rare opportunities they have to study them.
The three basic sounds made by the magic cicadas were first enumerated by Charles Riley in 1885. By the twentieth century these were identified as belonging to three distinct species of Magicicada, all of whom emerge simultaneously when their seventeen or thirteen years are up.
The sounds described in mnemonic words are nothing like a birdsong. I am impressed by entomologist Richard Alexander’s very elegant schematic sonogram drawing of the differences, where he tries to symbolically draw the structure of the three main sounds abstracting from the sonograms scientists were just beginning to use in the 1960s, images that graph frequency on the vertical axis and time on the horizontal. Such technical pictures give drawn shape and form to the sort of unpitched noise that is impossible to transcribe in musical notation.
You may note these species’ names are slightly different. Why? Alexander determined that, in those very rare occurrences when thirteen-year and seventeen-year populations appear simultaneously, the different-cycled insects would not mate with each other in sufficient numbers to suggest that they are all one species. He and his collaborator Thomas Moore put a bunch of these overlapping bugs in a cage and tried to get them to mate, but most of the time they refused. So Alexander named three more species of Magicicada: tredecim, tredecassini, and tredecula, who sound exactly like their seventeen-year counterparts. (I know it can get confusing, but that’s what happens when you start to listen closely to the insect world.) Alexander and Moore also noted that the different species tend to vocalize at different hours of the day:
This might also help you identify which type of Magicicada you’re hearing, though I’m not sure this pattern works universally with different emergences in different regions. Tredeculas and septendeculas are far less common than the others, and also much quieter.
Studying such a creature is quite a curious vocation. Think how long you have to wait for them to turn up once more. Or, you roam the country year by year, looking for their next appearance. At least such things are well documented for the last century, and regularly updated online, on websites such as www.magicicada.org and www.insectsingers.com. But the world of science, and especially those bodies that fund research, often question the validity of such an obsession. Nevertheless, the two leading former students of Alexander, John Cooley and David Marshall, have a fantastic track record of coming up with more discoveries during the more recent Magicicada emergences. In 2000, they found yet another species of thirteen-year cicadas with a higher-pitched phaaarooooah song, which were attracting specific females. They are genetically very similar to the seventeen-year cicadas, suggesting that in the course of evolution some part of a population may have made the leap from seventeen to thirteen years, then distinguishing themselves into a separate species. The new species with a higher-pitched tonal call was named Magicicada neotredecim. So, for all the latest details, here we go:
Even more significant a discovery by Marshall and Cooley was deeper insight into the extremely complex mating behavior of the periodic cicadas. As with most insect species, in the case of periodic cicadas only the males do the singing. It used to be thought that the male cicadas gathered in great numbers to sing in trees to attract the females en masse, the lek model of mating that’s like a giant dance club where the females approach, attracted by the whole great music of the males. This is why frogs sing in large choruses, crickets as well. The females were supposed to select males with specific visual cues. But Cooley and Marshall discovered, after years of observing the insects at work in the field, that at the very end of the male’s call, the female makes a tiny, wing-flick sound, and if the male hears that, he moves just a bit closer and responds with a slightly different song. If the female gives another wing-flick, the male gets closer with yet a third song, and if he reaches the female while she’s still interested mating begins. Far more complicated than we originally thought. Here is a schematic diagram of the process in Magicicada septendecim, adapted from Marshall’s dissertation of 2000:
Through a series of experiments, Cooley and Marshall were able to determine that the precise timing of the wing-flick is the crucial bit of signal information:
Only simulated wing-flicks produced right after the downslur caused male M. septendecim to respond positively. Males usually responded to such stimuli by walking toward the stimulus while calling. In this behavior, termed “call-walking,” males stopped walking for approximately one second immediately following each downslur. This pattern is distinct from chorusing behavior, which involves bouts of stationary calling alternating with flights or silent walks.
An absolutely amazing advance in insect-mating studies, cutting through the fear of all this cicada noise and confusion in the midst of the great whoosh of sound to discover a courtship process that is the most complex known in any acoustical insect. When you go out to listen to the vast chorus of cicada song armed with this knowledge of the subtle differences in courtship song, the whole thing sounds like a complex orchestra, not just a wash of white noise. The beauty of nature seems all the more intricate and amazing once science gives you some details to make sense of the strange and the rare.
In addition to these three different songs, there are nonacoustic anomalies, like a special male foreleg vibration that occurs right before the moment of mating. Marshall and Cooley achieved something quite significant with their tandem thesis research: finding a new species of periodical cicada, and revealing complexities of mating in insects hitherto unimagined, a magnificent display that has been made famous by David Attenborough’s Life in the Undergrowth on the BBC and many other television productions.
And yet, neither of these intrepid researchers has a tenured job as a scientist today. I find this truly shocking, and I was fortunate to spend some days together with Cooley and Marshall during the latest emergence of thirteen-year cicadas in Missouri in 2011. I ask Marshall how he decided to devote so many years of his life to a creature so anomalous.
“I used to joke when I first finished my thesis, that I had spent so many years, a really embarrassingly large number of years, studying an organism from which one can generalize nothing. Because it was arguably this unique, one-off thing that happened in the corner of the world. But of course that is not true. Because evolution occurs so slowly, over such large time scales, the kinds of evolutionary processes that lead to complex adaptation occur too slowly to be observed in the lab. Most of what we have learned about evolution has come from examining correlations of traits of organisms and their environments across the broad spectrum of living things. This is the comparative method.… It might be the strange species, the apparently odd things that are the most valuable to study because they might be most likely to falsify our pet theories and really move us along,” he replies.
“And what do you think of all this noise? Do you truly appreciate this sound now that you’ve found out so much from studying it?” I ask.
“It is almost a nostalgic sound to me by now, because I have experienced more than a full seventeen-year generation worth of cicada emergences. But just the other day I almost felt intimidated by them. Two days ago down in southern Illinois, coming up through a road through Paducah, I came back from town during the peak time of activity for the cassini, the ones that are really loud. And the road kind of closed in so the trees were right in close to this small, two-lane road, and even though I am whipping along at sixty with the windows open, these things were synchronizing and they’re just at peak right now down there, swiiiiiishhhh swiiiiiiish swiiiiishh, all swelling and fading in unison like a great wave. With the heat in the air, and the sunlight perfect, no wind, they were just surging. I think it was louder than I have ever heard it, and I got this little jolt of almost this primal fear, like—this is a scary sound. It was intense enough to make me kind of just clench up a little bit inside. Even though of course I know exactly what this sound is all about, the sound can get so strong, there is a hint of that primal fear that sneaks up even on me,” he says.
A little hint of the primal scream perhaps. “Now, do you think these sounds are music?” I ask.
“Music for whom? I don’t know what music is for people. What are people doing with music in the first place? People are using music in courtship, aren’t they? Look at how the young women swoon over rock stars. It just seems to be tied up in the mating game and we can get technical about the songs of cicadas and crickets and katydids and say, ‘Oh, this is species recognition,’ but what it boils down to is an individual of a particular species trying to convince, in a sense, another individual to mate and trying to mess around with its sensory responses and push the buttons in the right way that it will induce the response that it is after: mating success. So certainly in a biological sense it is music.”
Why do they all need to be together in one tree? Wouldn’t it be easier for a female to find one alone somewhere? Why are they all together?
“Because they gain from being in close proximity to as many other cicadas as possible, because it is safety in numbers. It is just a selfish herd. A female who flies into a group of males, is not going to have to wait as long to be found when she is ready, she can flick and pretty soon she gets that business over with and gets on to the lengthy task of laying her eggs in the trees. There are costs to it as well. We don’t yet know enough about the movements of the females after mating—it could be that there is some dispersion somewhat away from those choruses because the females don’t want to be harassed by the males all the time, either. And the males will pester them while they are done mating, lying in wait to lay their eggs. He will walk up and give it a try, try to climb on. A female might have to bat her wings to dislodge the male and say, ‘Go away, I’m no longer interested, and am on to the next step here.’”
“Do you remember how you felt when you first discovered the female’s wing flick?” I ask.
“How could I forget my surge of excitement? Actually at that point, as is often the case in science, I was looking for something else, trying to figure out if older females, those a few weeks old, mated more vigorously than younger ones. When they get two weeks old they do start doing very bizarre things, like laying unfertilized eggs or trying to mate with other females. I introduced a male to a cage with several females in it, and closed the bag, and began watching with my notebook and pencil. ‘Time three thirty-eight: male approaches a certain female and is looking, “Oh, what’s going on here, do I see the female doing anything, what is going on?”’ And I remember after having written some notes about a particular male, that he suddenly turned in the cage while singing and went straight across the cage and mated with a female in the far side of the cage. It was completely startling because he had other females right near him—they were all unmated, why did he choose that one that was further away?
“What was going on? I did it again, and the second time exactly the same thing happened in no time whatsoever. And then it became obvious to me. I could see that the female twitched quite obviously right after each of several songs as he moved across the cage toward her. I realized it was precisely timed, and that was the critical thing. If you watch periodical cicadas in cages or whatever, you can see them flicking their wings constantly and it is usually a negative sign. A flicking of the wings, whether it is a male or female, means, Go away get off me. A male trying to climb on another male gets wings flicked at him. But what I saw here was a positive, encouraging response. I told John Cooley right away and he immediately grasped the significance,” Marshall says.
On the next page is a mating pair, oblivious to the photographer’s intruding lens.
“Right away we reorganized what we were doing and started looking at the other species and figured out what we had to do to demonstrate this well enough, with the timing and acoustical and visual components. Just a little simple fact like that, and that was before we could even begin to appreciate the doors that would open for looking at other aspects of behavior with these cicadas and other cicada species as well. We never would have found any of it if we weren’t tuned into these little timed clicks.”
“And how long did it take you to figure out that precise timing was essential?” I ask.
“I could see that right away. One of the things I began doing was making my own little flick signals, just by flicking pieces of paper. John, who is more mechanically inclined, was inventing devices that make exact, repeatable clicks. So we did experiments, clicking during songs and during long durations after the end of songs, just to demonstrate what was obvious from watching the cicadas. First we had to realize that the wing-flick didn’t always mean, go away, that, if timed precisely, it means, come here.”
“So, when you hear these cicadas, what do you hear that other people don’t hear? Are you some kind of cicada music connoisseur?” I ask.
“Before I studied these things I was screening them out as well. We learn to pay attention to the sounds that we decide are important to us. Insect sounds don’t matter to people, so it is remarkable how effectively we screen them out. I was pulled over by a policeman in central Illinois during one of these emergences, somewhere near Champaign. I was mapping, working out details of the distribution. I am in my little car that is not from Illinois, putzing along, slowing down in front of people’s houses. So of course the cop pulls me over, ‘Whatchya doin?’ he says, and I say, ‘Oh, I am mapping these periodical cicadas that are out right now.’ He could see I am for real, with all this recording equipment, maps everywhere, so he was just sort of bemused. But he did say, ‘Oh, there are cicadas out around here?’ And half a mile back is this screaming population of thousands of thirteen-year cassinis, like you hear around here now, and he hadn’t even noticed them.”
So what exactly can we learn about evolution from these three concurrent species and their distinct songs?
“I am interested in what those different songs mean, because those different songs mean different species, and it means different species that are in the very earliest stages of evolving apart from one another. Behavior seems to change faster than morphology. It is common for us to find populations that have some geographic coherence and distinctive songs, distinctive in some minor way but still diagnostic. When we put specimens next to each other we can’t find anything in the morphology that clearly separates them. I don’t know if it is technically correct to say that the behaviors have all evolved faster or it is just that the sounds come in such nice, conveniently packaged, and measurable units that they facilitate diagnosis. Where average, complex morphology doesn’t. The songs are really valuable to those biologists interested in what drives diversification. I want to see where diversification is happening, so I have to travel all over the country and observe what is different, what is the same.”
Marshall and his wife, Kathy Hill, a cicada biologist from New Zealand, have actually traveled all over the planet searching for the sounds and rules guiding the world’s cicadas’ behavior. He does not laugh when I ask him if insect sounds might influence human music. Instead, he plays me two recordings—one from Argentina, another from China—intense cicada soundscapes that resemble nothing I have ever heard. “I don’t know if Chinese music has overtly learned from cicada sound,” Marshall muses, “but something just sounds Asian about them. What do you think?”
The recording has a strange, grating whine; like someone playing a cymbal with a cello bow. It is a jarring, intense sound, though not unlike Peking opera. When I slow it down a few octaves it starts to get beautiful to my human ears, like an unknown species of whale. Marshall’s Argentinian recording has rhythmic, shaker-like sounds, just a tiny nod to the rhythmic lilt of Latin music. Though I’m not sure … maybe I’m hunting for meaning where I wish there would be some. But how else do we move forward to the next pattern, in science or in art?
That is the same thing that drives Marshall to make use of discoveries in cicada life that surprise: “People usually don’t bother checking the things that already make sense, and they are the most insidious studies of all, right? A bad fact can lie there unchallenged for decades.” Without questioning assumptions, we’d never learn that a wing-flick can sometimes be positive, not always negative.
And the deep investigation of cicada song and dance goes on.…
The voice “ta-te-te”:
How do you produce the call?
The cicada’s husk—
How can I leave my body?
I do not believe I know!
 —Fusatai Susume, c. 1186
John Cooley arrives a few days later to the International Meeting on Invertebrate Sound and Vibration, the largest gathering of insect acoustics scientists ever attempted, smack dab in the middle of the 2011 Midwestern cicada emergence in Columbia, Missouri. I am honored they’ve allowed me to speak on the influence of insect sounds on human music (no ornithologists have ever invited me to talk about bird song and music, mind you, so thanks so much to the entomologists). Cooley’s been driving across the country keeping tabs on Brood XIX, trying to collect the most accurate data possible on how the range has changed since thirteen years before when he was finishing up his dissertation and discovering the new species and the newly realized mating behavior with his colleague David Marshall. But since neither of them has landed a tenure track job, he is understandably somewhat bitter.
He agrees with Charles Darwin that exceptions in nature often teach us the most important things about evolution. Though mainstream biology has other ideas today. “Nobody in their right mind would try to develop something like a periodical cicada as a model organism. You want to use something safe like a fruit fly, because you can get funding. The fundamental drawback with this kind of work is that it is cheap. It does not cost millions of dollars, and generate millions of dollars in overhead for universities. It doesn’t generate that kind of excitement or buzz,” Cooley explains.
What about David Attenborough and Life in the Undergrowth?
“OK, the TV cameras come by, they do a couple of BBC episodes or Animal Planet shows up, but that doesn’t translate to actual money for the research. Fifteen minutes of exposure and then it’s all over. That is why no one does this kind of work anymore,” Cooley replies.
And this is why so many of the pioneering works describing animal communication, whether in bird song, whale song, or cicada song, were all done as far back as the 1960s. Cooley is fairly pessimistic about research into the big questions of biology today: “Research today is not driven by the interesting evolutionary questions, but instead by what is fundable. These tend to me more applied kinds of questions. Places like Donald Borror’s lab in Ohio in the 1950s, and certainly the Museum of Zoology back in Michigan. Those were big question places, where they asked about evolution, about origin of species.”
“Yes,” I look around where we’re sitting. “This is the Monsanto Atrium.” We’re in the middle of the agro-industrial complex. Bugs are something to get rid of, preferably with a copyrighted product that requires corporate-owned seeds that won’t germinate so you’ll have to buy more from The Man next year. It seems such a shame that corporate interests dictate even what pure scientists choose to study in their noble quest to figure out just how life works.
“I’ve just about had it,” shrugs Cooley. “I’m going to have to leave academia. I have a family to support, I’ve started business school.”
I don’t believe it. “Frankly, I’m shocked that you guys don’t both have prestigious positions, for the remarkable cicada discoveries you’ve made.”
“Well, thank you, but the academic system is really broken today, especially in the sciences. Academia is broken in this way. It should be encouraging people in their own way to go out on a limb and test hypotheses and take risks. But the way it works now, you apply to NSF for funding, and you better have the project figured out before you submit the grant. If I apply for a research job and say, ‘I am going to do something really risky and I don’t know whether it is going to work, but it is going to be innovative and interesting,’ then you can just kiss the job good-bye. You would never get tenure. It is good to come to a meeting like this and see that there are students coming up in the business, but it is tough to know what is going to happen to them. It is a sad fact. It is a problem I have with academia and maybe that is why I don’t have a job, because I sit here and call it like it is.”
The Monsanto Atrium looms around us tall and round. Cooley goes on: “That was how I was raised. I came out of Yale, I interacted with Evelyn Hutchinson, who never got a grant in his life. He invented modern ecology. At Michigan I was Richard Alexander’s student at the Museum of Zoology—the guy got only one grant in his entire career. The rest of it was just cassette tapes and staples. One of Dick’s daily rants was, ‘Why the hell are you graduate students going over to the four corners of the world, spending all this money to look at things that are in somebody else’s backyard, when there are a million questions right in your own backyard that you could be answering, and nobody has ever bothered to do it?’”
“And didn’t Hutchinson spend a lot of time at Linsley Pond right there in Branford, Connecticut?” I remember.
“Exactly. There is so much we hardly know right outside our own homes. Is there any reason for the specific differences in the sounds the concurrent periodic species are making?”
I say that I still want to know.
“The reasons that they tend to have different sounds are to avoid having hybridization. The species groups are old, so if we peel away the question of periodicity in broods and just look at the species groups, they are old on the order of say two-ish million years or so, and the songs change over time. Certainly one scenario is it started out much like this tredecim-neotredecim business, where here are two species that are quite recent, no more than ten thousand years old, the songs are different but still quite similar, well imagine as you will a movie, and you play that forward two million years, as those species get pushed into different glacial refugia, and subjected to different conditions and experiences and histories, there is going to be selection or even just drift on their songs, and their songs are going to diverge. So it is possible that say the difference you see between cassini and decim is really what happens to these subtle difference between the decim species two million years later.”
“Is it important that the tredecim sound of phaaaroooah comes through the wash of noise?” I ask.
“Well it does and it doesn’t. I don’t think anything cuts through the cassinis. You know I think that the female cicadas face the same problems that we do—they cannot hear individual males unless they are right on top of them. You are hearing that wash of sound, but they are certainly able to detect the right males. The cicadas that Paulo Fonseca and I have been looking at are extremely sensitive. If you dropped just a pin over here, their peripheral nervous system would respond.”
What would it do?
“Well, the cicada would be all wired up—you just get an electrical signal on the nerves. It is glued down to a stick, it is not going to do much. It is going to stay right on the stick. You know if you try to catch normal cicadas, if you are chasing them in the forest and you step on a twig and crack a twig, you have pretty much blown it, because they will stop singing or fly away. Cicadas have very good hearing. They can detect these differences; they can certainly hear the chorus. Whether that has any function in preparing them for mating, I don’t know. There is a lot of stuff that is said in literature about the background chorus increasing stimulation, getting the female ready, but that might all be wishful thinking. We really don’t know.”
Is there a wing-flick behavior in other, nonperiodical cicadas?
“Oh, yes. Much more highly timed. All these New Zealand cicadas the males call and the females answer with a nice little timed wing-flick.”
“And nobody knew about this before you and Dave Marshall saw it?” I ask.
“Just little hints of it in literature. Kathy Hill said she had seen it when she was a kid in New Zealand, ‘Zip, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.’ You just get those clicks in there, they all respond, but they don’t have the complex courtship that Magicicada does. Magicicada are unusual. You snap your fingers, and they come to you. I’ve gotten out of the habit of bringing nets with us when we collect them, because you can just walk the cicada in, walk them in with the clicks. One day I’ll take you out in the field and show this to you.” (He would show me in Virginia about one year later. And I would have my clarinet ready.)
“Has anyone attempted a complete review of all these connections between sound and clicks, like a whole catalogue of musical phrases, where all the possible relationships are analyzed?” I ask.
“We are working on that with the New Zealand and Australian species, where we are cataloging species and their wing-flick responses. Surprisingly, for something that was discovered and published over a decade ago, every time we tell the whole wing-flick story, it is like new news to people. The story never really got around.”
“Maybe that’s because cicadas are only on people’s radar every thirteen or seventeen years,” I suggest.
“Insect songs have always been popular and useful to study because they are not learned. The problem with many birdsongs is that they are learned, and the songs are incredibly plastic. In some of them, sexual selection has gone off on this tangent where there is a benefit of having more elaborate and more unusual sounds. In insects the songs are very stereotypical.”
“So they are like little devices, little machines or objects of software?” I wonder.
“Well, I do like to think of insects as running basic little computer programs. Their behavior is very simple. You trigger this little routine and that routine goes to completion. It is not the same as the old behaviorists who would talk about learned and innate behavior, but it is a statement that is very stereotypical and broken down into very simple components, even if it looks complex. Watch the cicadas; you see the program really is a good metaphor for understanding their behavior. If they lose tarsi on their front legs, they have a hard time walking. Why? Because when they walk they kind of go forward and test the surface, and then do it with the next leg. The front tarsi are used for getting information about the nature of the surface they are walking on. If a cicada is missing that claw, it just paws endlessly as if it were stuck in a loop.” Cooley moves his hands as if he’s swimming the dog paddle. “It is behavior broken down into very simple components.”
“So what is the biggest reason to study this kind of simple nonlearned behavior?” I ask.
“Often beginning students will ask, or be asked in textbooks, ‘What is the most successful group of species?’ There actually is only one answer to that. A species is an evolutionary lineage going back to the origins of life. Everything out there that is alive has succeeded in that task. There is an unbroken lineage connecting every one of these species back to the origins of life. Therefore they are successful when that lineage has persisted for four-and-a-half billion years. And all those things that are extinct and so forth, they didn’t. Usually textbooks are angling for something else, like a number of species or biomass or something like that. But in the end, if you want to talk about success in the evolutionary sense, it is what works.”
So Cooley is saying we need to learn as much as possible about those remarkable evolutionary strategies that somehow seem to work.
A loud buzzing is heard to our left, and a cicada alights on my chair. Cooley picks it up.
“See, that is a disturbing cicada.” He is not pleased.
“What is wrong with this guy?”
“Well, you see by its size it is a tredecassini, but he has got little orangey stripes, like the tredecula.”
“So this one creature is messing up our neat characterizations,” I ask.
“Ah, well, they just get like this out here in the West. You know we like to categorize things and fit them into slots, but nature doesn’t always work that way. Not in the least. Cassinis are always described as having a black abdomen, but it is not really true—let’s call it a blackish abdomen.”
Somewhat bitter and a bit burnt out, Cooley talks at length about his journey across the Southeastern United States, trying to keep tabs on exactly where his beloved cicadas are and whether they are coming out the way they are supposed to. “My cicada trip is about more than just cicadas. In the course of this I will drive almost twenty thousand miles across all parts of the U.S. I have almost seen everything. A lot of it is thought-provoking. I don’t think most people who tune into TV for three hours a night, those who travel only by interstate, I don’t think they have any clue that all this exists.”
I tell him he should be writing about all that, the human side of his hunt for cicadas. This can only help the public’s respect for the research. But it wouldn’t be science now, would it? And it might not help him get tenure. But then again, it just might.
Magical cicada
how come I always know
just when you will arrive;
no way to explain it
impossible to divide the years
into each other beyond the primes?
Only your music counts such beats
no one else alive can feel them.
 —Cicada Boy
Unfortunately there is no ancient Chinese or even Native American poem that talks about the mysterious prime number cycles of the Magicicada. This remains a deep part of their magic. Honestly, we really have no idea why these insects come out when they do, why they have such a great inscrutable rhythm that emerges rarely but precisely over the years.
I am trying my best to conceive it as a vast natural rhythm, whose downbeat I can barely remember. It was there when I was born, in 1962. Then I had a pale glimmer of awareness of it in 1979, when I was just starting to care about music in nature. Then in 1996, is swirled around me at my first home in the Hudson Valley and prevented me from thinking about anything else. Then I began to think that by the next round I would write a book about it, since no one had thought of this whole slow measure as music ever before. Now, in 2013 we’re here.
In between, I’ve sought out a few other cicada broods just to practice for this one, but it is hard to prepare for such a thing. It slows down our whole sense of time, makes us wonder if anything in our life connects to these vast cycles of nature. I seem to remember a film on Mark Twain from my childhood where he is born under the reign of Halley’s Comet in the sky, and dies exactly seventy-five years later when it next returns. What can we learn from such coincidences? My father suffered a massive stroke on the day of the great blackout in 2003, and died exactly eight years later when the catastrophic Hurricane Irene struck the coast of Connecticut where I grow up. At his funeral the rabbi said it must mean something, and he assured us the power would soon return.
Scientists attempting to explain why periodical cicadas return every thirteen or seventeen years often seem to be doing little more than my examples here—tracking coincidences, tossing out possible explanations, and hoping for the most interesting thing that can be said.
In fact, if you read the popular science literature, sometimes it seems that this issue is completely settled. It even appears as one of the first examples in The Math Book, a beautiful, coffee-table volume on what makes mathematics cool. The book proceeds by date, from the earliest to the latest, and the third entry, timed at 1 million BC, is the description of periodical cicadas as nature’s prime number generators. There are, it seems, relatively few prime numbers in the world of natural cycles, so the example of the cicadas having cycles of both thirteen and seventeen years is most notable and unusual. A simple explanation is often given, and it is one suggested by biologists for decades, and made popular by Stephen Jay Gould in Ever Since Darwin, one of his popular collections of science essays. The idea is simple, and that is to suppose that the cicadas appear in prime number cycles simply because no predators appear in such cycles: Most animals that have cyclical rises and falls of population do so in more regular numbers of seasons like every two, four, six, or eight years. And since prime numbers are defined as numbers that cannot be divided into other numbers, such other cycles would hardly ever line up with the cicadas’ emergences. Voilà! A perfectly ingenious and reasonable explanation, one that is repeated in many biology textbooks and all over the media.
Only problem is, there is absolutely no evidence for it whatsoever. No one has ever identified even a single predator of the periodical cicada whose population follows such a cycle. Of course such a predator cycle still might exist, but we haven’t found it, or even spent much time looking for it. This explanation might fall into that category of “just so” story that science puts forward because it sounds like it should work, and the public is so intrigued by the idea that hardly anyone seems to notice that there is little evidence for the hypothesis in the first place.
Although the predator/prey story sounds pretty cool, there is no predator that follows a periodic cycle of a more even number of years. Besides, there are so many cicadas that emerge during the brood years that the sheer number of the insects overwhelms any possible predators; it is a much simpler strategy that doesn’t need prime numbers for it to work. It’s a simple situation of the enemy being overrun by the horde!
Much of the work on trying to decode the prime number periodicity has been a kind of bioinformatic mathematical modeling based on theory and running computer models, rather than collecting any evidence. Mathematical biologists have tried to see if there is something inevitable about the prime number cycles that appear simply by running the numbers through hypothetical situations of competition. Although such models are basically simulations that depend entirely on their assumptions, it seems that a likely hypothesis is starting to emerge. Whether or not there are actual predators who are foiled by prime number cycles, it seems that when the math is done the predation model alone is not enough to generate prime number cycles. One has to also add the variable that different populations of cicadas inherently contain a mechanism to avoid hybridization, that is, they want to ensure that as a species they are kept separate. This is also coupled with a tendency that a small number of individuals in the seventeen-year broods have of emerging four years early. So it is believed this tendency might have originally led to the establishment of thirteen-year species at the start.
It also appears that the establishment of prime number cycles may have something to do with a population that is nearly decimated, such as the few remnants of a species remaining after a catastrophic ecological event, like the advance of glaciers during an ice age compromising cicada habitat except for a few isolated pockets. It turns out that in such situations of very small populations, the reproduction rate increases with high population density, as opposed to large populations where if things get too dense, there is too much competition for resources and the population is no longer able to increase. This might explain why many animals congregate in leks, or concentrated groups for the purpose of mating, and that this may have evolved especially with very small populations who have to work hard to find each other when their habitat has been stressed.
This situation was identified by ecologist Warder Clyde Allee in the 1920s and is today called the Allee Effect. In a mathematical model devised by Yumi Tanaka and Jin Yoshimura in Japan together with Chris Simon in Connecticut, prime number cycles were observed to develop over just one thousand hypothetical years, only if the Allee Effect is considered. Though still a purely theoretical exercise, it does give some clues for how these cycles might have evolved in a situation where the cicadas became nearly extinct and then had to congregate in order to find enough of each other to survive. In a second paper the authors suggest that “Our results indicate that prime number selection is a very rare event, occurring at the verge of extinction. This is probably why the evolution of prime-numbered periodicity was likely only in what is now the Central and Eastern United States, where glacial advances created many refuges during the uneven Pleistocene glaciation.” The model is based on the idea that a small population of insects, sequestered in the few available habitats that remain during glaciation, congregate in order to best survive. The even-year gestation periods tend to disappear because the insects hybridize with each other when they emerge, losing the species’ distinctiveness. After even 150 hypothetical years only prime number years remain, 13, 17, and 19. Perhaps 19 is just too many years of development for an instinct. No matter—keep running the model, and after 500 years only the 13- and 17-year cycles remain. The graphs of the model’s runs show some cool images of rhythm. Note that all these other periodical cicada possibilities are completely imaginary, they exist only inside the theory that proves they would not survive:
The latest mathematical thinking on the mysterious prime-numbered cicada cycles thus suggests that the predation idea is not enough to lead to such neat prime results. We also have to have competition within the species to avoid hybridization, and then also the Allee Effect of the small, concentrated populations. The specific glaciation situation might help to explain why this phenomenon is only found in Eastern North America, with its peculiar glacial history. Then there is also the strange fact that a certain number of seventeen-year cicadas do emerge four years early, more than two, three, five, six, or any number of years early. Thus the thirteen-year species could have evolved from the seventeen-year species. Mysteries, mysteries.
Think of what it feels like for a cicada to emerge early. Sixteen years underground … now where’s the party? He’s all up on a tree singing alone, and not likely to find a mate. But sing he does, on and on, lonely and continuous, because that is what a cicada does. All dressed up, and nowhere to go. But no sense of futility, no sense of loss. Only humans worry about such things.
Singing in the morn from autumn trees it sounds clear.
It wears diaphanous silk
lives in cool air
looks like the shade of a woman’s hair
It drinks but the free wind and dew
Morning til night, morning til night.
Occasionally it cries,
and sorrowful it sounds.
Always a tiny sound remains—
All of a sudden
from one tree to another
it will fly.
 —Chou Yuan, 1230
People want unclaimed sounds to convey the greatest of emotions. Is it not remarkable that mysterious noises can evoke the greatest power? This is why music always has the potential to take us far beyond words, and if we find music in the tones of species far from ourselves, their sounds and their lives become all that much closer to our own.
Really, what do I have in common with a cicada? Well, the same as so many other living things, we will both be born, grow, eat, survive, mate, reproduce, and die. Is that not enough to share so much of life’s joys and troubles? Can I not find immediate emotion in the sounds you make, sounds I know were never destined for my ears? This is what keeps nature close to us, and hearing such things does make us ever more alive. Nature’s sounds are for us, if we want to understand our world and how it works. You can enter information into mathematical codes, and run the numbers to convince you there is clear reason for the mysteries. The program may satisfy your curiosity. But it won’t remove the mystery. The best science opens up clues to deeper mysteries, and the world gets ever more wonderful as we go.
Or, just listen to the cicadas, the white noise of memory and time. Strive to inhabit the sound long after it is gone. Use it to mark the great passages of time. But how to even conceive of being able to keep track of such a long, odd length of time? What would it mean to mark such a long period underground, hidden away, apart from life in the air and the comfort of all the rest of your species, singing so intently in the trees around, a great experience you will only know for the brief few weeks that climax your life? Can any human ever feel what it would be like to experience time in that way? How does one feel seventeen or thirteen years as a moment of sudden transformation?
I thought I would pose this question to my friend Tim Blunk, who spent almost exactly thirteen years in prision for being part of the Resistance Conspiracy, an underground group who bombed the Capitol in Washington and the Army War College in Baltimore in the 1980s, part of a general protest against the activities of the U.S. government in Central America and elsewhere during the Reagan years. Blunk was initially sentenced to fifty-eight years in prison for the charge of illegal weapons possession. This is the longest sentence anyone has ever received in the United States for such a crime. So unlike the cicadas, when he went in he had no idea how long it would be when, or if, he got out.
It was with trepidation that I mentioned to Tim I wanted to connect his terrible ordeal to my entomological story. Since he had accompanied me on some of my earliest forays in playing music with birds at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh (recounted in my earlier book Why Birds Sing), I thought he might appreciate the connection. I really wanted to know what it felt like to experience time, both underground, and in incarceration, and especially what it felt like to finally experience the light of day, after seventeen years locked up mostly in the dark.
“I think about that a lot actually. You know, periodicity,” he said. “I think one of the problems for me talking about, looking at that period of time was for me, those thirteen years was—I didn’t know that there was an end point. Today with determinent sentencing, when most people go to prison they are told, you’ve got a seventeen-year sentence, or you’re going to do thirteen. For them then there is a start and a finish. I don’t know what that is like. I was given fifty-eight years, which I could be doing; I have comrades still in prison doing every bit of seventy-five years. How do you get your mind around that?”
“You became a musician when you were in prison, right?” I asked.
“I learned saxophone and actually the thing that was the most compelling for me about learning music had to do with time, and with rhythm. It was another way of marking time, counting time. I wanted to count time in more interesting ways, I wanted to play jazz. I didn’t do my time in prison on straight 4/4, I did my time on 5/4. So I wanted to do “Take Five,” I wanted to do Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck, I wanted to do interesting rhythms where the downbeat happens at different measures. So what I mean by that is, I was determined when I got locked up that my life wasn’t going to be over, and that I was going to live as full a life as I possibly could, as creative a life as I possibly could.”
So much of Tim’s life consisted of marking the time, counting the days. To no certain end.
Tim is not the only one imprisoned for his politics to have considered the song of the cicada and hunted for a connection. In 658, Lo-Ping Wang, commonly known as Luo Binwang, wrote the poem “A Political Prisoner Listens to a Cicada”:
While the year sinks westwards, I hear a cicada
Bid me to be resolute here in my cell.
Yet it needed the song of those black wings
To break a white-haired prisoner’s heart …
His flight is heavy through fog,
His pure voice drowns in the windy world.
Who knows if he be singing still?—
Who listens any more to me?
After I showed Tim that poem, he sighed and said, “Now where did you find that, David? We prisoners always look for signs of hope out through our narrow windows.”
“Did you ever hear things? What did you see out the window of your cell?” I asked him.
“Paradoxically the most beautiful place of the various prisons I was moved around to was Marion, one of the roughest. It is located in a large swamp in southern Illinois. At the perimeter there would always be deer, especially in the springtime. And then there were the killdeer sandpipers who were always laying eggs and making nests on the yard where we had recreation, so those were two of our most important animals. That was the little bit of nature I could get, because during that period I was in solitary confinement because of my previous infraction revealing an FBI entrapment scheme at Leavenworth where they were trying to coax prisoners into planning an escape. I wasn’t going to let that happen. For ratting on the feds I got seven years of solitary confinement, and could only go outside once a week. If only I could have been as resigning as an underground cicada.”
Three of Tim’s codefendants pleaded guilty to conspiracy and destruction of government property, but charges against Tim and two others were dropped because they were already serving long enough prison terms. In 1999 Tim was released on parole, after years of “good behavior.”
How to make sense of those long, solitary years Tim Blunk lived through? How does a person keep track of such hollow time? How does a cicada do it?
“I can look back at my time in prison and it is a very defined, very circumscribed period. I don’t think that I am about to write a letter of thank you to the Bureau of Prisons but, I know I became a better person as a result of those experiences, these different prisoners, these different inmates. We were all reduced to a very common level. I don’t know, like some vast insect society. The experience of prison eradicates distinctions of class, of race even, although the media does everything it can to come up with the opposite viewpoint, but in my experience it was a very leveling experience.
“I was on a tier with John Gotti, I was on a tier with people who had done hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of business in their lives. Manuel Noriega was downstairs from me. We were all dressed in the same exact uniform, we all ate the same slop every morning, we all had the same bad relationship with the so-called councilor who cuts short our visits. So we end up not fighting each other. Instead we fight the same inner struggles. We were there for each other in different ways and we listened to the football games on the radio, and this was us gnawing at the roots of these trees while we were underground, we were all going about the same business. It is when the doors fly open that everybody goes their own which way, everybody goes different directions. I’ve avoided contact with anyone I was close to when I was inside.”
“The first day I got out of prison, I was driven to my parents’ home in Cleveland, Ohio, from Pennsylvania. Before I got to my house my one request was to stop at the shores of Lake Erie, a couple blocks from their home. I desperately wanted to go to the lake. At the shore I realized this was the first time I had been able to look out and see a horizon in thirteen years! It was the first time I had seen the moon, or the stars. No matter where I was, either buried in solitary confinement in some dungeon somewhere or in a regular cell with the searchlights around the perimeter of these prisons so bright, they had obliterated any possibility for me to see anything in the night sky. I remember quietly weeping. I still clutch up when I talk about this—I had been so out of touch with the world! I used to camp, climb rocks, go ice climbing. Holy fuck, look at the sky, looking across Lake Erie toward Canada. I can still see this. I feel so sorry for that man on the beach, all those years that he missed. I emerged back to this world with such a whoosh of emotions and noise within me, like the hiss of a million cicadas back in the sunlight after thirteen years underground. I don’t know how the insects experience this, but I feel after what I went through I might be able to understand it in a way not everyone can.”
Tim was lucky to get out before his hair turned white, like the ancient Chinese prisoner in the poem above. He worked for years at the Puffin Foundation to help political artists get their work out in the world. He went on to earn an MFA and develop his own visual and performance projects. He’s written a fine screenplay based on his years inside, and he can be found most days at his flower shop in a small New Jersey town. And he remembers the hordes of cicadas as a boy in New Jersey, but seventeen years ago he wasn’t around to hear them.
Soon I will take Tim out to hear the cicadas again, since he missed the last round seventeen years ago. Then we’ll see what the wash of insect noises and rhythms will mean to someone who has also had to count so many long, dark monotonous years. Those bewitched by the cicadas’ call will realize, as H. A. Allard did in the 1920s, that this is one of the great natural cycles we are privileged to find our way within. I may not hear them so many more times in my life, but each time will be important, and special.
To confront the insects on my home ground I had to prepare. So in 2011, I embarked on a journey to make music with the great Brood XIX of the Central States. I needed to get inside the noise of it all. But before that I had to learn as much as I could about what made the sounds of more common insects anything like music at all. What about the far more familiar bug music of crickets? I had to go to Sweden to meet Mr. Fung.

Copyright © 2013 by David Rothenberg