13-year cicada

This is a long story of dubious importance but I’ve got to get it behind me. It’s an overarching tale of life and death that starts 13 years ago and ends with a new series of digital images that I’m really excited about. Keep in mind that I’m not a botanist or an entomologist, just an artist. So I’m telling you what I saw and you can speculate as to its veracity.

Here’s the story. Back around the beginning of May, here in North Carolina (and elsewhere) we experienced the emergence of the XIX brood of 13-year periodic cicadas. Typically we get a species of annual cicada that shows up in late summer and makes a some racket in the trees, but nothing like this periodic cicada, which comes out in huge numbers and basically overwhelms the environment, parties for a month or so and then disappears for 13 more years. Sort of like the Sturgis biker rally in the Black Hills except most of those guys come back ever year.

The first thing you notice is all these pod husks sticking to everything. They’re on the tree trunks, the sides of buildings, on the ground. You look up and they’re all over the leaves in the trees. You look down and you notice the ground is full of little holes. Thousands of holes. And there’s a pod husk laying around for every hole. They’re here in force. They’ve been hiding underground for 13 years waiting for this moment. Apparently they all set an alarm on their iPhones: Party – May 2011 – Don’t miss, you’re gonna get laid.

Then you notice the cicadas. They’re a bit smaller than the annual cicadas, and more striking by virtue of the fact that unlike their annual brethren, they have glowing red eyes. I want to just say they have red eyes, but I had to add “glowing” in order to explain that I noted that when they’re dead their eyes turn black. There’s some serious movie potential here.

Like some sort of bug version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” the landscape gets littered with pod husks, all split up the back where a cicada has emerged. When they first emerge they’re almost albino colored, but if you’ve got some patience you can watch them turn from white to dark in a few minutes. It’s very vulnerable time for the cicadas. They’ll basically be in a daze for a day or so while their wings harden and ergo dinner for any aspiring predator (including some human types). Then they fly off to congregate at party central.

There they all start singing together in an attempt to find a mate. They sing for a month. Until all those multitudinous sex drives are satisfied. If you’re in the vicinity you might as well shut up and listen because it’s too loud to think, much less talk. Here’s ten seconds.

cicada audio

Imagine 30 days.

But all of this is preamble. The essential idea of this story is that once all the singing is over, the female moves out near the end of a branch, scratches a deep groove in said branch and lays her eggs. If this was a story about cicadas I’d go on to explain that at this point the cicadas all die, the eggs hatch slugs that fall on the ground, dig down a foot or two in the ground and set their alarms for 13 years.

But this isn’t a story about cicadas. It’s a story about leaves and art and the weather. What happens when the 13-year cicada gets done is that the branch tips where they laid their eggs die because the cicadas have carved up the bark. So once the partying stops and the cicadas disappear there are all these tips of tree branches that are dead.

At least that’s what happened this year in Saxapahaw, NC.

Soon after, every time there was a rain or a windstorm these dead branch tips would fall and litter the landscape. Not all that different than what might happen in the fall, except unlike a typical fall, this was happening in mid-summer in extreme heat and drought conditions. And I began noticing that the dead leaves were turning various interesting, unusual colors that weren’t all that typical of fall colors. Instead of “end of life” colors you see in the fall from leaves, this was more “died in the prime of life” colors, thicker, deeper, more mottled. Rich ochres next to alizarin crimsons next to viridian greens next to raw umbers.

Okay, I over-romanticize, but the point I’m getting to is that suddenly there was this great new palette for me to create images with. It was as reminiscent of oil paints as it was nature. Again, I make no claims to scientific evidence, just my version of cause-and-effect based on limited observation.

For the past several months I’ve been gathering up these various dead and dying leaves and putting them on the scanner. Until now I’ve leaned toward minimalist images for my banners, enjoying the contrast they present when reintroduced into the original environment. But these cicada-and-heat-treated leaves and the palette they provided pretty much pushed me in the direction of being painterly.

So here, thanks to the 13-year cicadas, near drought-level lack of moisture and more humid 100-degree days than I can remember, is a new set of images I’m hoping to turn into banners. I’ve even gone so far as to name each image after a famous painter I’m reminded of when I look at it.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This