The Sound of Silence (or, On Not Hearing the Cicadas)


I was waiting for the explosion of noise. I had seen the headlines declaring that billions of cicadas would be erupting from underground in late spring/early summer, in a rare “double-brood event,” which had last occurred in 1803. It had already been a year for natural wonders — I’d seen a total eclipse from my parents’ backyard in northwest Pennsylvania and watched the northern lights dance over our neighborhood pond in southeast Michigan. Wonders often come in threes, and when I saw the news about the cicadas, I was excited — and a bit horrified.

I was used to seeing a few cicadas per summer; each made incredible amounts of noise for such a small creature, and my kids were reliably creeped out and fascinated by the hollowed-out exoskeletons we’d find littering the neighborhood sidewalks. I still have a photo saved on my phone of an adult emerging through the back of its own nymph exoskeleton; it looks like something from “Alien.”

But I had never experienced a cyclical emergence event (we lived in Chicago for years but had missed the last emergence of brood XIII in the summer of 2007). My only real experience of that kind of swarm was in episodes ofPlanet Earth,” which depicted dense clouds of insects sweeping across the landscape. I wanted to see it with my own eyes, though I was a bit apprehensive about the noise and what the creatures might do to the bushes and trees in our yard.

After reading the headlines about the double-brood emergence, I looked out at our yard and thought about the cicadas, apparently hundreds in every square yard, scuffling about in the black, doing what was necessary to survive, waiting for their fleeting moment out in the light. It struck me as sad that something would exist for years and years in a kind of prelude to the real moment of life, which would last only a few weeks. But perhaps I was thinking about it the wrong way. Maybe the brief emergence to molt, mate and die — the only part we actually see — is not any more essential to the essence of the cicada than the long years of darkness. Just because something is visible to us does not mean it is inherently more significant.

In any case, my musings about the cicadas waiting patiently under my lawn were wrong. As is so often the case with news gathered via social media, I had not read past the headlines declaring the imminent arrival of the once in a lifetime double-brood. Occasionally the thought would flash through my mind — shouldn’t the cicadas be here by now? — but if I had actually read the articles themselves, I would have learned that the double emergence event was not going to make it to Michigan.

I had assumed (wrongly) that the few cicadas I saw each year were just confused members of the waiting broods, who had mistakenly stumbled out into the aboveground world because of a defective internal clock. As it turns out, they are an entirely different species and don’t follow the same kind of period cycles as their brethren. The double emergence was going to happen, indeed was already happening, but I would miss out on it.

And, under many circumstances, that would have been that. It would have been a relatively familiar occurrence: anticipation followed by forgetfulness — the kind of mild hype generated by a film trailer that gets forgotten by the time the movie actually premieres. But in late May I started to get texts and videos from friends and relations in Chicago; the cicadas had arrived, and they were overwhelming.

I talked on the phone with a friend in Highland Park, just north of Chicago, and as he stood on his back deck, the unceasing buzz of the cicadas was so loud he had to go inside so I could clearly hear him. My brother, who lives in Oak Park, sent a video of the tree in their backyard, positively coated in red eyed cicadas. There was a pile of exoskeletons at the base of the tree, a remnant of what the nymphs left behind when they took to wing. The word that sprang immediately to my mind was fecundity, which in turn led me back, for the fifth or sixth time, to the chapter of that name in Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.”

It is not unusual for something in nature to inspire me to take Dillard down off the shelf; there is no writer who better models the sort of deliberate, careful attention I would like to practice (but very rarely do). She always seems to see everything (and to have read everything) and is able to make the connections between what she sees, what she’s read, and the deep underlying reality and mystery of existence. For the most part, these metaphysical insights point toward the double movement of transcendence and immanence at work in the world; as she writes early in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”: “There seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous” and “beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”

Her work insistently reminds us that beauty and grace are all around us, but we are constantly missing it. It is an exhortation to pay attention, be conscious, awake and looking; if we do so, we will be open to encounters with divinity: “I walk out; I see something, some event that would otherwise have been utterly missed and lost; or something sees me, some enormous power brushes me with its clean wing, and I resound like a beaten bell.”

But Dillard is just as aware that the realities of nature can point toward a different understanding of providence and divinity — this is the essence of the “Fecundity” chapter, and this is what I first think of when I see the hordes of cicadas clinging to the tree bark, the piles of exoskeletons heaped at the base of the tree. Dillard writes:

“I don’t know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I suppose it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, and that with extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives.”

Annie Dillard

A single cicada, clinging to a tree in southeast Michigan, is fascinating; hundreds of them, coating a tree in Illinois, become, in Dillard’s words, an unsettling reminder that “evolution loves death more than it loves you or me. … We value the individual supremely and nature values him not a whit.” In this light, the double-brood emergence event is a memento mori sweeping across the lower Midwest, though I suppose it takes someone with Dillard’s metaphysical mindset to see it this way.

Most of the time, I do not perceive the world in this light (which readers of this website might term an Ignatian imagination). But the emergence of the cicadas, even hundreds of miles away, led me back to Dillard, who continually reminds me of my own need for silence and careful attention, which leads, inevitably though not immediately, to an awareness of the presence of grace. So much of life is busyness and distraction. It would be nice if we did not need signs and wonders — eclipses and northern lights and swarms of insects — to be aware of the miracles all around us. But, at least in my own case, I mostly do.

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” the English Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins tells us. And Dillard reminds us that unless we go out looking, we will most likely miss it. Sometimes the grandeur and majesty are easy to see, for those who are paying any attention at all — the silence and chill in the moment of totality; the brightly colored lights dancing across the night sky; even the undeniably gross spectacle of a million insects per square acre rising out of the ground (for grandeur can also be appalling).

But sometimes we wait for the sign, and it does not come, or it comes, but not to us. Here, too, the cicadas themselves are an apt metaphor. Whether we are aware of them or not they are still present underfoot, moving in their own secret way, patiently waiting for their own right time to come forth. So too the spirit. There are seasons when it pours forth, overwhelming us — undeniable in its power, majesty, presence.

But just as often (if not more so) it is hidden, present but undetectable. We might catch a hint — a snatch of their call in the wind, a hollowed-out shell on the sidewalk — serving to remind us that elsewhere, in other lives and in other places, the bell is already ringing loudly, and that it will ring, again, God willing, for us as well.

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Michael O’Connell is a writer, editor and educator who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is the author of “Startling Figures: Encounters with American Catholic Fiction,” editor of “Conversations with George Saunders,” and co-editor of The Journal of David Foster Wallace Studies.