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The Sound of Summer

Cicadas sound like ice cream trucks, the whistle of a whiffle ball, the clink of ice in a glass of lemonade—stealthily singing in the backdrop as if they were there all along

Jay Torres

Have you heard the news? The cicadas are coming—and some have even started to arrive already. In a matter of days, trillions of the once-every-17-years species of Brood X cicadas will emerge from their burrows and blanket much of the Eastern United States in a wave of ear-splitting mating calls and discarded molt shells. To commemorate the occasion, we here at The Ringer present to you Bug Day: a celebration of all things insects, and their influence—for better or worse—on sports and popular culture.

You just know it’s gonna be a scorcher when you hear the cicadas in the morning. They sound like 90 degrees in August; like sizzling, sticky heat bubbling over and down the tops of the Sycamore trees around you. They sound like ice cream trucks, the whistle of a whiffle ball, the clink of ice in a glass of lemonade—cicadas stealthily singing in the backdrop as if they were there all along.

This year, in a matter of days—or hours, or maybe it’s already happening—the conjoined song of the cicadas will elevate to a symphony. The Brood X cohort of cicadas, the largest of 15 known periodical cicada species—seven of which emerge every 13 or 17 years—will crawl up from their underground burrows and unleash a cacophony of noise across much of the Eastern United States. At least 15 states are expected to welcome trillions—yes, trillions—of cicadas over the course of four to six glorious weeks. Glorious because, as much as this event may sound like the plot of a fucked up Guillermo del Toro film, the phenomenon is a wondrous and sentimental marvel of nature. Never mind the fact that the cicadas you hear are males crooning to prospective partners, an altogether necessary yet romantic act of survival; the hum of the cicadas is tinged in nostalgia. To hear their song is to remember childhood—and not just for those who grew up in the pockets of woodlands scattered across the Atlantic seaboard.

Haruki Murakami wrote in A Wild Sheep Chase: “Summer light, the smell of a breeze, the sound of cicadas—if I like these things, why should I apologize?” In his native Japan, cicadas—or semi—hold special significance in popular culture. From a young age, children collect the insect’s discarded molt shells or, if they’re lucky and capable, live cicadas, who will continue to emit their whirring shrieks when grasped between fingers. The bug has shown up all over Japanese culture from literature to fashion and anime. “If you’re trying to convey the sense of it being the height of summer in a movie or an anime, you can include the sound of cicadas and everyone will understand straight away,” artist Makoto Aida told The Japan Times.

For millennia, human societies across the world have identified the cicadas as the sound of summer. Classical poets loved them: “Feel the freshness of the air; how pretty and pleasant it is; how it echoes with the summery, sweet song of the cicadas’ chorus!” Socrates says in Plato’s 370 BCE dialogue, Phaedrus. Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer, wrote in his poem Works and Days, “When the Skolymus flowers, and the tuneful Tettix”—ancient Greek for cicada—“sitting on his tree in the weary summer season pours forth from under his wings his shrill song.” During the Xia dynasty in ancient China, the cicadas’ emergence at the summer solstice was marked as an official date on the calendar. Danish-New Zealand librarian and ethnologist Johannes Andersen noted in a 1926 study of New Zealand fauna: “[T]he reason the Maori held the insect in such estimation was that its cheerful song sounded in the summer when the days were warm and long and food was plentiful. Then the Maori, happy himself, enjoyed the shrill song of the merry cicada.”

Still, not everyone is thrilled about this year’s emergence of the Brood X cicadas. While cicadas are totally harmless—they don’t bite or sting—they are, well, bugs, and frankly rather large and disgusting-looking ones at that. There’s something disconcerting about trillions of gigantic, red-eyed insects swarming around the air, emitting piercing shrieks following a biblical, once-every-17-years awakening. Just try to make it through this David Attenborough narration of the cicadas’ life cycle without chopping up your face into a twisted screwball, like you just ate an entire pack of sour Warheads in one sitting.

And to some, even the lovely melodies the Greek philosophers waxed poetic about can be disturbing, if not outright painful. Cicadas are the world’s loudest insects. Their mating calls can reach up to 100 decibels; a sound of a motorcycle racing past you is 95 decibels, an emergency siren comes in between 120 and 140 decibels—which some cicada species in Australia can reach in unison. Just 10 more decibels can cause damage to human ears. But to be in the cicadas’ presence is to sit just a tad bit too close to the stage at a memorable concert: Sure, the amps might cause some discomfort, but it’s still a binding collective experience that’ll leave an everlasting mark on you.

Would we have it any other way? The cicadas’ call is incredibly powerful and defining. Surrounded by their inescapable sound, you’re suddenly transported to a time you thought was long past. When you played for hours in the summer haze until dusk set and the fireflies began buzzing against the pinkening sky. When you sat under some tall, leafy tree during some oppressively hot day, relieved to be in the shade, like Red when he reads Andy Dufresne’s letter at the end of The Shawshank Redemption. You probably never noticed the cicadas humming in that scene. But they were there, as they have been for parts of many of our lives. And then one day the temperature cools, the leaves brown, you move to some new place without the cicadas, and you miss them when they’re gone.