Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016    Login | Register        

A quiet weekend

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

We heard it soon after we pulled into the state park where we would spend a quiet weekend with friends from church. At least it started out quiet.

So quietly, no one could quite put a time stamp on when they first heard the high-pitched sound of a motor or chainsaw or… whatever it was.

Dave said it sounded to him like an engine had been left on in the afternoon. It’s probably coming from something they’re doing at the dam, he opined, because there’s usually some work going on there.

The sound was absolutely steady, however, never wavering – yet we did not notice when it stopped.

I said it was more like the ringing in the ears that I frequently get from some medication I take. It doesn’t bother me, but it’s steady and always there when I “tune in” to it.

So was this.

The mild hum of conversation among the grown-ups and the intermittent squeals of children easily covered the unchanging shrill whine.

The day just as steadily wore on until the light faded and we formed a ring around the fire, then dispersed, one by one, some to watch a mindless movie on a blow-up screen.

A few of us stared at the starry sky after glimpsing one of the largest meteors I’ve ever seen, apparently diving into the unseen lake. I fully expected to hear an explosion seconds after the bright light dropped behind the tree line. It never came.

The sound began again Saturday morning and grew louder as the day progressed. By now, it was anybody’s guess. Someone ventured that it was a cicada chorus, louder than in most years, because this year was the end of their 17-year cycle.

We dismissed that theory as unlikely because the noise was so steady. And so loud.

It piqued our curiosity so much that Dave and I went for a brief walk toward the sound, to see what we could see. As we stepped carefully through the nearly dry bed of an intermittent stream, the sound seemed to grow louder. Not to be melodramatic, but I began to feel as though it was pressing against my body, inside my head, louder and louder, unchanging.

Just before we turned around, we noticed on the edge of a campsite grill a periodic cicada resting in the sun. As a kid, I often found the discarded larval shell that the big bug wrestles off soon after its emergence from the ground, but I saw the adults close-up less often. This one had rubies for eyes, and a gold-to-brown array of veined wings and body. I don’t think I’d call it beautiful but it was certainly spectacular.

I was beginning to be a believer. Of course, I had to get home to access the Internet for more details. There are nearly 3,000 species of cicadas, which country folk often mistakenly call locusts. The one we saw was less than two inches long and prettier than the blacker, flat-headed cicada I knew in my Pennsylvania childhood.

I forget now the length of the cycle that one had, but this year’s is considered the 17-year cicada (pronounced sic-KAY-da). Its mama slit thin spaces in the bark of a tree, preferring sweetgums and hickories, where she laid her eggs. Newly hatched “nymphs” drop to the ground where they feed on rootlets and can indeed cause damage to young trees that they feast on for as many as 17 years. They emerge from the ground and, gripping their host by the bark, climb a few feet. Once dry, the males begin to sing their high-pitched love song (rated at nearly 100 decibels), fertilize a female or two, and die within a few weeks.

What a life. Share the planet with them; they neither bite nor sting, and wildlife considers them a delicacy.

My search scared up a couple of other large bugs I thought I’d mention to you. Katydids are heard more often than seen. They look so much like a brand new spring leaf that sometimes you can’t trust your own eyes. Katydid’s pale green wings are delicately veined and fold up vertically so as to slip into a line-up of spring leaves.

You know you’re listening to a choir of katydids when you hear their accusations and contradictions shortly after dark: Katy did! Katy didn’t! Katy did! No, she didn’t! Yes, she did it! No, she didn’t!

Nobody tells you that this could last all night unless the bailiff throws them out of court.

The most beautiful of my trio of big bugs: the Luna moth, best known for its helping a television insomniac get a good night’s rest. One dropped on our deck last year to shed its larval coat and inflate its wings and antennae as I watched, in awe.

This poor creature does not eat and has no proper mouth. All she gets is a chance to begin a new generation. That doesn’t require food or drink. Once her eggs are fertilized, her job is done.

And she doesn’t make any noise about it.

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