Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cicadas

Talking with a couple of friends last night I was reminded of a section of Annie Dillard's amazing book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The book was written while she lived beside Tinker Creek in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and in it she records her thoughts on the flora and fauna she observes. She speaks of sitting under a tree and considers the activities of life going on beneath her.
The insects and earthworms, moles, muskrats, roots, and fungal strands are not all. An even frailer, dimmer movement, a pavane, is being performed deep under me now. The nymphs of cicadas are alive. You see their split skins, an inch long, brown, and translucent, curved and segmented like shrimp, stuck arching on the trunks of trees. And you see the adults occasionally, large and sturdy, with glittering black and green bodies, veined transparent wings folded over their backs and artificial-looking, bright red eyes. But you never see the living nymphs. They are underground, clasping roots and sucking the sweet sap of trees.

In the South, the periodical cicada has a breeding cycle of thirteen years, instead of seventeen years in the North. That a live creature spends thirteen consecutive years scrabbling around in the root systems of trees in the dark and damp – thirteen years! - is amply boggling for me. Four more years - or four less - wouldn't alter the picture a jot. In the dark of an April night the nymphs emerge, all at once, as many as eighty-four of them digging into the air from every square foot of ground. They inch up trees and bushes, shed their skin, and begin that hollow, shrill grind that lasts all summer. I guess as nymphs they never see the sun. Adults lay eggs in slits along twig bark; the hatched nymphs drop to the ground and burrow, vanish from the face of the earth, biding their time, for thirteen years. How many are under me now, wishing what? what would I think about for thirteen years? They curl, crawl, clutch at roots and suck, suck blinded, suck trees, rain or shine, heat or frost, year after groping year.

And under the cicadas, deeper down than the longest tap-root, between and beneath the rounded black rocks and slanting slabs of sandstone in the earth, ground water is creeping. Ground water seeps and slides, across and down, across and down, leaking from here to there minutely, at the rate of a mile a year. What a tug of waters goes on! There are flings and pulls in every direction at every moment. The world is a wild wrestle under the grass: earth shall be moved.*
The creation we see is amazing. There is so much more that we never see!

*Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999, p. 97, 98.

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