I love the sound of cicadas; for me it’s the sound of summer, of lazy hot days when lying in a hammock or by the pool is the only thing you want to do. It’s also a nostalgic sound conjuring up family holidays in Greece and Provence as a teenager and later my university years in Sydney. Now I’m lucky enough to live in “summer holiday land” it’s the sound that heralds the hot weather, the end of school and the beginning of the long summer holidays.
When I first moved to the south of France, in April 2007, I was surprised not to hear any of my favourite Provencal insects. I asked a local why there weren’t any and was told it was too early in the year; they started on the 24th of June. Deadpan, no hint of humour, the 24th it was! And I kid you not, I have heard the first one each year since on, or very close to, the 24th of June. Yesterday, when driving my son to his end of term music gala at 10.30 am we both shouted out “cigale” at the same time as we heard the familiar ssh ssh ssh ssh ssh. It was the 24th of June.
Cicadas come out when the ground temperature reaches 22°c and although we’ve been having heat in the 30s for a couple of weeks I guess it takes time for the ground to warm up. They live off the sap of certain trees including oaks and pines of which we have a plentiful supply in the garden at Lou Messugo so we always have a resident few during the summer months. They sing during the hottest times of the day, often accompanying siesta time and can reach up to 120 decibels. This is technically loud enough to cause permanent hearing loss and is approaching the pain threshold if close to the ear but luckily they live high in the trees and stay away from human heads. Just when you think enough’s enough and you can’t bear any more, they stop and the silence is deafening! It’s a male thing – it’s the guys that sing and they like to raise all their nearby mates to sing along together in unison. They get louder and louder, trying to out-do each other and then they stop, altogether, just like that.
Cicadas exist around the world – there are thousands of species – singing primarily in the countryside. However, in Australia, one of my “home” countries, they have uniquely adapted to live in big cities and Sydney buzzes to their sound. One of my favourite stories my Aussie mum tells of her childhood, is of catching cicadas and taking them to school in match boxes to bug the teacher (pun intended!)
Many cultures have myths about these noisy creatures often symbolising resurrection, rebirth and immortality, but closer to home they represent the folklore of Provence. Jean de la Fontaine wrote his first fable (based on one of Aesop’s) about a cicada and an ant “La Cigale et la Fourmi” (which incidentally was what my son sang about yesterday at his music gala, how pertinent!) You’ll find souvenir shops from Nice to Nîmes via Montpellier and Marseille groaning with ceramic cicadas to hang on the wall, cicadas that sing, cicada table cloths, cicada this and cicada that. To some the song of the cicada is a deafening drone, to others it’s hypnotic, but to me it’s pure summer – simple as that!
Have you heard cicadas sing? Do you like the sound or hate it?