Suddenly a little part of me was 10 years old again – not entirely a pleasant feeling. It was nostalgia tangled with regret. It’s been a long while since I’ve heard the little critters in such fine voice to be honest, and we share something of a troubled past. Like millions of Aussies, for me the cicada song was the soundtrack to summer for decades. In the 1970s my childhood home was ringed by willows and liquid ambers and I remember steamy days when branches in our neighbourhood were so thick with the shrieking insects that games of backyard cricket were abandoned through appeals against the noise.
I remember the dozens of cicada holes in the shady, damp-smelling earth beneath the willows and their discarded shells clinging to trees like little brown reverse coffins. I could rattle off the kaleidoscope of colourful names for the different varieties: the dime-a-dozen Green Grocers, the Yellow Mondays, the Brown Bakers, the Cherry Noses and the diminutive, elusive and valuable Black Princes with wings purported to be worth $100 at the local chemist.
One day me and Sprotty – the most cunning and enterprising kid in our street – happened upon an injured Black Prince writhing in the grass out the front of my place. Giddy with the promise of riches we seized upon the creature, yanked its wings clean out of their sockets, stomped what was left of the cicada to death and put the wings of the deceased in an envelope before marching two kilometres in 35-degree heat to the pharmacy to claim a bounty of $50 each.
“They use ’em to make special medicine!” Sprotty assured me on the long, hot trek.
We came home wiser (they don’t use the wings of black cicadas to make medicine) but no richer. Nor did we come home a kinder species. This was an era when cicadas were literally growing on trees. Summer after summer there seemed to be more cicadas than the last and, sadly for the kids in my street, familiarity bred contempt.
It shames me to say it, but we did dreadful things to cicadas, not least of which we called ‘cicada cricket’. For such a game, a bucketful of cicadas would be harvested and a towel draped over the top to keep them from flying away. Each ‘batsman’ (I’ll never know what we didn’t call it cicada tennis) was equipped with a tennis racquet or squash racquet. We’d fish a cicada from the bucket, toss it in the air and, as it attempted to flit away, we batsmen would chase it, swinging wildly with tennis racquets until the cicada either escaped with its life or was diced to death in one grisly instant.
What Could We Have Been Thinking?
Honestly, if I ever saw any of my children doing the same thing today I’d be mortified and wonder, “Where did I go wrong?”
But there were other cicada ‘games’ that were even worse than the cricket. They’re too evil to speak of here. Suffice to say I’m sure the cicadas would have preferred to meet their maker upon the fast-moving strings of a Wilson tennis racquet wielded by a crazed tween.
By the end of my teenage years though, the cicada games dimmed and summers had fallen oddly silent. Or at least that was my perception. I moved to more urban suburbs where I swear I never heard cicadas. I forgot about them and the summer soundtrack was replaced by the city’s symphony of man and machine and the din of crowded pubs.
During the noughties, whenever I caught up with my folks at my erstwhile home in the ’burbs I noticed cicadas had fallen silent there, too. Their little exoskeletons that had dotted the palings of the back fence when I was a kid were but a myth to my daughter when she visited. Was it nature’s revenge for my wickedness?
The shame and regret has never left me. Over the years I’ve asked myself, “When does cruelty to another creature cross the line?” We’ve all gassed flies with chemicals that bring a slow demise. Shop owners lure and kill them with a blue halo of death. Who amongst us hasn’t flattened a cockroach? Dispatched a spider with a thong? Crushed a tick? Sent an ant into oblivion with a casual flick?
For me, that line was drawn long ago at the most majestic of insects – the cicada. I’m sorry for what I did, little guys. It’s been great to hear you again this year. I hope all is forgiven.