The symphony of cicadas—a philosophical exploration of music, time, and existence

In the profound words of Richard Powers, “The use of music is to remind us how short a time we have a body.” This sentiment resonates deeply when contemplating the enigmatic creatures known as cicadas, whose existence embodies the fleeting nature of time and the profound essence of music. As they emerge from their subterranean dwellings with synchronous precision, cicadas bring forth a symphony of life that serves as a poignant reminder of the transience of our earthly existence. In this philosophical exploration, we delve into the intertwining themes of music, time, and existence through the lens of these ancient minstrels of the natural world.

The Melody of Time

Cicadas, with their eerie red eyes and enigmatic periodic cycles, embody the essence of time itself. For years, they dwell beneath the earth’s surface, cocooned in a state of dormancy, awaiting the precise moment to emerge. Their emergence is not dictated by arbitrary whim but by the immutable laws of nature, specifically the soil temperature reaching a precise threshold of 17.9°C (64°F). This synchronicity speaks to a deeper harmony within the natural world, a rhythm that transcends individual existence and echoes throughout the cosmos.

In their emergence, cicadas offer a profound meditation on the passage of time. Like the crescendo of a symphony, their emergence is sudden and synchronized, a testament to the inevitability of change and the ephemeral nature of life. The cicada’s song, which fills the air with its haunting melody, serves as a reminder that time is not linear but cyclical, a perpetual rhythm that echoes through the ages.

The Music of Existence

As cicadas emerge from their underground slumber, they embark on a brief but intense journey marked by the pursuit of one singular purpose: the quest for a mate. Their symphony of courtship, with its pulsating rhythms and ethereal harmonies, is a testament to the primal urge for connection that lies at the heart of existence. In their brief existence above ground, cicadas live with an intensity that belies their fleeting lifespan, their song a celebration of the beauty and fragility of life itself.

But cicadas also embody the inherent paradox of existence: the coexistence of life and death, creation and destruction. Their emergence is a prelude to their inevitable demise, as they succumb to the relentless march of time and return once more to the earth from whence they came. Yet even in death, their song echoes on, a testament to the enduring power of music to transcend the bounds of mortality.

The Transcendence of Music

In the symphony of cicadas, we find echoes of humanity’s own quest for transcendence through music. Like cicadas, we are drawn to music as a means of transcending the limitations of our mortal existence, of touching the sublime and communing with the divine. Music, like time itself, is a universal language that speaks to the deepest recesses of the human soul, transcending the boundaries of culture, language, and time.

In the haunting melody of the cicada’s song, we hear echoes of our own mortality, a reminder that our time on this earth is fleeting and finite. And yet, in the beauty of their music, we also find solace and hope, a reminder that even in the face of death, life endures in all its wondrous complexity. In this sense, the cicada’s song serves as a poignant reminder of the interconnectedness of all life and the enduring power of music to transcend the bounds of time and mortality.

In the symphony of cicadas, we find a profound meditation on the intertwined themes of music, time, and existence. Their emergence from the depths of the earth is a reminder of the cyclical nature of time and the fleetingness of our earthly existence. Yet in their song, we also find solace and transcendence, a reminder that even in the face of death, life endures in all its wondrous beauty. As we contemplate the enigmatic melody of the cicada, let us be reminded of the profound interconnectedness of all life and the enduring power of music to elevate the human spirit beyond the constraints of time and mortality.

In the pursuit of understanding the rhythms of nature, one cannot help but marvel at the intricacies woven into its fabric. Each phenomenon, every manifestation, seems orchestrated by a divine hand, echoing the sentiments of pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell, who proclaimed that “every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God.” In our quest for comprehension, we have unearthed formulas that serve as keys to decipher the mysteries of existence. One such formula, borne from the depths of observation and inquiry, presents itself as a harbinger of a grand symphony—the emergence of the cicadas.

Behold the formula: E = (19.465 – t)/0.5136. Here, E signifies the emergence start date in May, while t represents the average April temperatures in Celsius. Through this elegant equation, we are granted a glimpse into the timing of a spectacle that transcends mere biological phenomenon. It is a testament to the precision embedded within the natural order—a choreography orchestrated by forces unseen yet profoundly felt.

As the warmth of early June permeates the land, they emerge en masse, outnumbering the entirety of human existence. And by the waning days of July, their cacophonous chorus falls silent, a fleeting reminder of their ephemeral presence. These are the cicadas—creatures of wonder and fascination, whose existence spans continents yet remains shrouded in enigma.

While cicada species of an annual persuasion traverse the globe, it is the periodical cicadas that captivate the imagination. Seven known species, belonging to the genus Magicicada, emerge from the earth at intervals of 13 or 17 years, their emergence delineated by geographic boundaries and temporal cadence. Native solely to the vast expanse of North America, they have long intrigued and confounded observers.

In the annals of history, we find accounts of encounters with these winged emissaries of the earth. In 1633, the denizens of the fledgling Plymouth Colony in New England bore witness to a spectacle unlike any other. The governor, astonished by the swarm of creatures rising from the ground, likened them to “Flies which were like for bigness unto wasps or Bumble-Bees,” their incessant buzzing reverberating through the woods with a deafening resonance.

What marvels lie within these seemingly mundane insects that elicit such awe and wonder? Despite their lack of vocal cords or lungs, cicadas possess a remarkable ability to produce sound—an orchestra of male choruses that rivals the roar of a jet engine. Their bodies, akin to wooden instruments, harbor tymbals—meshes of miniature ribs interwoven into a hardened membrane. With each flex of their synchronous flight muscles, these tymbals resonate, producing a symphony that defies explanation.

Unlike their brethren, the locusts, whose melodies emanate from the friction of legs against wings, cicadas sing with a finesse reminiscent of human virtuosos. They embody the essence of music itself, channeling vibrations through their entire being to create a symphony that resonates with the soul.

To the ancients, their music was more than mere noise—it was a divine expression, a hymn to the cosmos. Pythagoras, the master mathematician, found in their melodies the secrets of harmony, while Homer extolled their virtues as orators of the highest order. In the verses of Anacreon, the cicadas found immortalization, celebrated as patrons of lyricism and beauty.

In the ebb and flow of existence, the cicadas serve as a reminder of the profound interconnectedness of all life. Their emergence, governed by the delicate balance of temperature and time, speaks to the symphony of nature—an ode to the eternal dance of creation and dissolution.

As we contemplate the marvels of the natural world, let us heed the wisdom imparted by Maria Mitchell and embrace each formula, each law, as a hymn of praise to the divine. For in the cadence of a cicada’s song, we find echoes of the cosmos—a melody that transcends the boundaries of space and time, resonating with the essence of existence itself:

Sweet prophet of summer, loved of the Muses,
Beloved of Phoebus who gave thee thy shrill song,
Old age does not wear upon thee;
Thou art earth-born, musical, impassive, without blood.
Thou art almost a god.

In epochs past, the literary tapestry woven by Lord Byron, the poet laureate of grandeur, cast its gaze upon the vast expanse of existence, yet was curiously blind to the splendor of the diminutive. Amidst his poetic ruminations, he extolled the virtues of the tiny “people of the pine,” whose ephemeral existence resonated in the ceaseless symphony of summer.

However, in the annals of poetic discourse surrounding the cicada, it is Anna Botsford Comstock, a polymath adorned with the mantles of artist, naturalist, philosopher, entomologist, and educator, who emerges as the true luminary. It is she who, with eloquent prose and keen insight, unveiled the profound biological reality veiled within the humble cicada’s form. A pioneer often relegated to the shadows of history, Comstock sowed the seeds of curiosity and ecological consciousness, cultivating the fertile soil from which the youth climate action movement would eventually sprout.

Born on September 1, 1854, and departing this earthly realm on August 24, 1930, Comstock’s legacy transcends the confines of time, resonating with relevance even in our modern age of ecological awakening. It was in the dawn of the twentieth century that she embarked on her noble crusade, championing the cause of nature study and infusing it into the very fabric of educational curricula. In doing so, she democratized wonder, bestowing upon the masses the gift of awe and reverence for the natural world.

In the year 1903, Comstock bestowed upon the world a literary gem of unparalleled beauty and scientific rigor: “Ways of the Six-Footed” – a magnum opus that stands as a testament to her multifaceted brilliance. Within its pages, she unveils the intricate tapestry of insect life, offering a lyrical ode to the denizens of the entomological realm. Much akin to the celestial musings of Carl Sagan in later years, Comstock’s prose transcends the mere enumeration of facts, inviting the reader on a journey of discovery and enchantment.

Central to Comstock’s narrative is the humble cicada, that emblematic troubadour of summer whose song reverberates through the verdant canopy. In her eyes, the commonest male cicada assumes a mantle of greatness, its resounding chorus serving as a testament to the resilience and adaptability of the insect kingdom. With each pulsating trill, the cicada weaves itself into the very fabric of existence, embodying the eternal cycle of life, death, and renewal.

Yet, beyond the mere exaltation of the cicada’s song, Comstock delves deeper, peeling back the layers of biological complexity that shroud this enigmatic creature. Through her keen observations and meticulous illustrations, she illuminates the intricate interplay of form and function that defines the cicada’s existence. From its delicate wings to the rhythmic pulsations of its thorax, every aspect of the cicada’s physiology serves a purpose – a testament to the exquisite artistry of evolution.

In the grand tapestry of existence, the cicada emerges as a symbol of resilience and endurance, its brief sojourn upon the stage of life a testament to the indomitable spirit of nature itself. Yet, it is also a harbinger of change, its emergence from the depths of the earth signaling the shifting of seasons and the inexorable march of time.

As we stand on the precipice of a new epoch, poised at the nexus of ecological crisis and societal upheaval, the wisdom of Anna Botsford Comstock resonates with newfound urgency. In her words, we find solace and inspiration, a beacon of hope amidst the encroaching shadows of uncertainty. For in the humble cicada, we glimpse the immutable beauty of the natural world – a beauty worth preserving for generations yet unborn.

Thus, let us heed the call of the cicada’s song, and embark upon a journey of discovery and renewal. Let us embrace the wonder that surrounds us, and strive to cultivate a deeper understanding of our place within the intricate web of life. For in the words of Anna Botsford Comstock, “In nature, nothing exists alone.” It is only through collective action and shared stewardship that we may hope to safeguard the fragile tapestry of existence for generations yet to come.

This musician… is an interesting-looking fellow, with a stout body and broad, transparent wings quite ornately veined… The cicada whose song is the most familiar to us is the “dog-day harvest-fly” or “Lyreman.” It resembles the seventeen-year species, except that it is larger and requires only two or three years in the immature state, below ground, instead of seventeen. The Lyreman when seen from above is black, with dull-green scroll ornamentation; below he is covered with white powder. He lives in trees; hidden beneath the leaves, this arboreal wooer sends forth a high trill, which seems to steep the senses of the listener in the essence of summer noons. If you chance to find a Lyreman fallen from his perch and take him in your hand, he will sing and you can feel his body vibrate with the sound. But it will remain a mystery where the musical instrument is situated, for it is nowhere visible to the uninitiated. However, if you place him on his back, you may see directly behind the base of each hind leg a circular plate, nearly a quarter of an inch in diameter; beneath each of these plates is a cavity across which is stretched a partition made up of three distinct kinds of membranes for the modulation of the tone; at the top of each cavity is a stiff, folded membrane which acts as a drumhead; but it is set In vibration by muscles instead of drumsticks, and these muscles move so rapidly that we cannot distinguish the separate vibrations. Thus, our Lyreman is provided with a very complicated pair of kettledrums, which he plays with so much skill that his music sounds more like that of a mandolin than of a drum.

In the symphony of nature’s orchestra, there exists a humble yet perennial performer—the cicada. Its song, resonating through the eons, carries with it a profound narrative of timelessness and cultural significance. As we delve into the depths of philosophical inquiry, we unearth not only the biological marvel of the cicada but also the existential resonance it holds for humanity. Through the lens of a philosopher, let us embark on a journey to explore the enigmatic melody of the cicadas, a melody that has transcended epochs and captivated the human spirit since antiquity.

The Cicada’s Overture: A Prelude to Timelessness

In contemplating the cicada’s song, one is immediately confronted with the notion of timelessness. Like an ancient manuscript preserved through the ages, the cicada’s melody remains unchanged, echoing through the corridors of time with unwavering consistency. This immutable quality speaks to the essence of the cicada as a symbol of endurance and resilience in the face of temporal flux.

The Greek poet Homer, in his immortal epics, made mention of the cicada’s song, signaling its presence in the collective consciousness of humanity since antiquity. Centuries have passed, civilizations have risen and fallen, yet the cicada’s serenade persists, an ever-present reminder of nature’s enduring harmony amidst the tumult of human history.

Musical Evolution in the Cicada’s Chorus

To comprehend the true profundity of the cicada’s song, one must contextualize it within the broader narrative of musical evolution. In an age where technological advancements redefine the boundaries of musical expression, the cicada’s simple yet evocative melody stands as a testament to the timeless allure of natural instrumentation.

Unlike man-made instruments that undergo perpetual innovation and modification, the cicada’s kettledrums have remained unchanged for millennia. This remarkable stability invites contemplation on the intrinsic beauty of simplicity and the enduring power of tradition in an ever-changing world.

Cultural Significance: The Cicada’s Reverberating Legacy

Beyond its biological function, the cicada holds profound cultural significance in societies across the globe. From ancient mythology to contemporary literature, the cicada has been revered as a symbol of renewal, transformation, and transcendence.

In Chinese culture, the cicada is emblematic of immortality, its molting process serving as a metaphor for the cyclical nature of life and death. Similarly, in Japanese folklore, the cicada’s song is celebrated as a harbinger of summer, evoking nostalgia and melancholy in equal measure.

Through the ages, artists, poets, and philosophers alike have drawn inspiration from the cicada’s timeless melody, weaving its essence into the fabric of human expression. Whether as a muse for poetic reflection or a catalyst for existential introspection, the cicada occupies a unique place in the pantheon of cultural iconography.

Philosophical Inquiry: Contemplating the Cicada’s Song

At its core, the cicada’s song beckons us to confront fundamental questions of existence and meaning. In a world characterized by impermanence and uncertainty, the cicada stands as a symbol of continuity and transcendence, inviting us to contemplate our place within the tapestry of existence.

Through the lens of philosophical inquiry, we are compelled to ponder the nature of time, the significance of tradition, and the interconnectedness of all living beings. In the cicada’s song, we find echoes of ancient wisdom and timeless truths, reminding us of the enduring beauty inherent in the natural world.

Conclusion: Harmonizing with the Cicada’s Symphony

In the symphony of life, the cicada’s song reverberates with a resonance that transcends the boundaries of time and space. From the age of Homer to the modern era, its melody has captivated the human ear and stirred the depths of the human soul.

As we contemplate the cicada’s timeless serenade, we are reminded of our place within the grand narrative of existence. In its simplicity lies a profound complexity, a reminder of the inherent beauty and harmony that permeate the fabric of the universe.

In the end, the cicada’s song serves as a poignant reminder of the eternal symphony of life, inviting us to listen, to reflect, and to harmonize with the rhythm of the natural world. As we stand on the threshold of a new day, let us heed the cicada’s call and embrace the timeless melody that unites us all in the universal chorus of existence.

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