Cicada Skins

For much of the past couple weeks, I've been greeted by cicada skins wherever I go. This morning's exoskeleton was clinging to the bike rack outside my building, and after locking my bike I thought for a moment and then plucked the vacant skin from its perch.

Reading the cicada's exoskeleton (and plight) in ways analogue to moments of metamorphosis in our own lives happens almost immediately every time I see a skin: breaking out! moving upward! leaving old habits behind! And since they ain't got cicadas where I come from, upon arriving in Ill. I read up on the bugs in the usual places, learning that they creep out of the ground, burst out of their ground-bound bods while crawling up something like a bike rack, and then head for the trees for mating and song. So come on: who can't see or hope to see some aspect of themselves in that narrative?

The cicada's song is part squeal, part buzz, part "are my ears ringing?"—but an acquired taste that does not take long to develop, particularly since it signals the warm and lazy days of summer when things like ice and shade take on new meaning.

I have to say, though, that I've pretty much had it with imbuing "they mate and then they die" narratives with even a modicum of romantic, spiritual, or existential value. A few random samplings of this script from around el web include:

"Male ants live only long enough to mate and then they die."

"Salmon leap over great obstacles to get home and mate, and then they die." (You will hear this one a lot if you reside in the Pacific Northwest.)

"[Some species of butterflies] emerge for only about 2 weeks as adults, they develop wings, and genitals, mate and then they die."

"[Flying termites] swarm, they mate, and then they die."

The cicada and other bugs that combine brief stints of mating with sudden death, as I see it, have it about as rough as it comes. There is the obvious absence of revision and reflection time built into the mating, combined with an overlapping shortage of time to plan for one's untimely demise—particularly since one is so busy hastily mating.

Because of this, the cicada skin that's now sitting on a shelf in my office will stand (for however long it lasts) as a symbol of what not to do.


  1. I guess though at least mating gets into their story, unlike the "Birth, School, Work, Death" mantra of the Godfathers.

    Also, it's mating without marriage, unlike the old nursery school rhyme that tells you the correct order in which to proceed on such matters when you're like six and couldn't be less important.

  2. ... just Googled and perused the findings resulting from "sadly never married" and "never married" ... both get at some of what you gesture to ...

  3. katka9:05 AM

    "You say ci-cay-da, and I say ci-cay-da!" Apparently not so much legend as I thought. John told me he witnessed one such performance at a Wisoncsin Singers audition in the early 1990s. Wow.