August 1, 2009
Some people dislike the insistent drone of cicadas. Cicada-song grows intense in this part of the world in August. I consider it one of the greatest of nature’s sounds, comparable in beauty to waves hitting the shore. It drowns out man-made noise and calls to mind times past.
Jean Henri Fabre, the 19th century French entomologist, investigated the widely-held belief that the cicadas’ song was purely a mating ritual. His investigations probably would not meet modern scientific standards, but they are fascinating. He wrote:
For fifteen years the Common Cicada has thrust his society upon me. Every summer for two months I have these insects before my eyes, and their song in my ears. I see them ranged in rows on the smooth bark of the plane trees, the maker of music and his mate sitting side-by-side …. Whether drinking or moving they never cease singing.
It seems unlikely therefore that they are calling their mates. You do not spend months on end calling to someone who is at your elbow. Indeed I am inclined to think that the Cicada himself cannot even hear the song he sings with so much apparent delight ….
On one occasion I borrowed the local artillery, that is to say the guns that are fired on feast days in the village. There were two of them, and they were crammed with powder as though for the most important rejoicings. They were placed at the foot of the plane trees in front of my door. We were careful to leave the windows open, to prevent the panes from breaking. The Cicadas in the branches overhead could not see what was happening.
Six of us waited below, eager to hear what would be the effect on the orchestra above.
Bang! The gun went off with a noise like a thunderclap.
Quite unconcerned, the Cicada continued to sing. Not one appeared in the least disturbed …
I think, after this experiment, we must admit that the Cicada is hard of hearing, and like a very deaf man, is quite unconscious that he is making a noise.