Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Leave it to Joe Neal to turn the sounds of periodical cicadas into poetry

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See May 22, 2011 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for story.
See Web site featuring Cicada information: Magicicada

May 22, 2011, photo by Aubrey James Shepherd

Photos May 22, 2011, at World Peace Wetland Prairie

Painted Buntings sing from woodlots of oak, hickory and cedars in
south Fayetteville, along City Lake and Willoughby roads. I hear them
as I bicycle a loop at the base of South Mountain. Now I am also
hearing a powerful low hum, like the mother ship has landed, unseen,
on the mountain. In waves of rising and falling, a shrill hiss has
joined hum. It's like the earth has taken on new breathing. In and
out, up and down, inhale-exhale. Millions of individuals of different
species of periodical cicadas are in massed chorus.

It's the old story of frog turned prince. They live 13 years
underground as worm-like larvae, emerge into light transformed to
astonishing red-eyed, black-bodied, no-nonsense adults. They sing and
mate in massed frenzy and die in a few fantastic weeks. It's an orgy
to the future. Singers of 2024 come from eggs fertilized in these few
sun-lighted weeks.

Something like an old road heads through shrill hiss to mother ship. I
can't resist. I'm not too far in before I find dump trucks, trailers,
miscellaneous pipe, boards, an inspiring working junkyard of
mechanical equipment. Red-eyed and orange-winged, periodical cicadas
land on my head while I'm wondering if I'm trespassing.

A Red-bellied Woodpecker heads toward hiss and hum. The trail rises
into a former rocky hillside pasture now regenerated to oaks,
hickories, and lots of eastern red cedar. And today, periodical
cicadas. They hang upside down under cover of twigs and leaves. Blue
Jays bugle from the woods. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo calls CUK CUK CUK
COO COO. Cicadas fly back and forth where tree tops join the sun.

In their puffy summer cloud hats, midst hum and waves of shrill hiss,
green hills of the Ozarks transform. For a moment I can't remember
where I am. It's like I?m hallucinating. But I see the familiar
visage of a Great Crested Flycatcher at eye level, low and slow,
looking methodically up under twigs. There are lots of "flies" here to
be sure. Out fly a dozen screeching cicadas as a yellowish female
Summer Tanager darts into oak leaves. Fantastic it is, hallucination
it is not.

Above hiss and hum, I can hear someone banging around near where I
started into the woods. This turns out to be Earl Smith, property
owner, looking for pipe. In our lamentable age of
suspicion-about-everything, this retired truck driver and mechanical
jack-of-all trades is friendly, open, unsuspicious. He immediately
says I am welcome anytime while swatting a cicada that has just tried
to land on his ear. Behind Mr Smith a hickory trunk is so packed with
bugs it is the periodical cicada equivalent of a Saturday afternoon
Walmart parking lot.

We talk a bit about the hum. For him, it's not the mother ship.
Rather, it sounds like a big chicken barn. Hawks and vultures are
soaring overhead as we talk. One hawk is eating a familiar-sized
insect held kite-like in its claws. Back in 1985, precisely two
festive periodical cicada parties ago, a Mississippi Kite spent weeks
in the vicinity of a cicada chorus near Durham in Washington County.
I've called the hum the mother ship, a rather romantic notion, but now
at Smith's suggestion, it does resemble the massed sounds of thousands
of white birds in big poultry houses. Smith amends, Well maybe more
like one of those big turkey houses.

Standing there, with cicadas briefly landing on us both, in the big
sound, in all the hiss and hum at once familiar and astonishingly
strange, I see not one or two, but 5 kites soar over.

JOSEPH C. NEAL in Fayetteville, Arkansas

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