One way of grounding pagan practice in place is getting to know the insects with whom we share our environment. Both beautiful and dangerous, our insect allies pollinate our flowers and food, and they sting and spread disease. It’s estimated that insects have the largest biomass of any type of land animal, and that they comprise more than seventy-five percent of the species on our planet. We can hardly hope to engage with the mystery of life on earth without also consciously engaging with our insect allies.
Of the many insects who have been the subject of human curiosity, cicadas have held my fascination the longest. As a child I found their crunchy, paper-thin husks attached to pine tree trunks, my parents’ mailbox, and our front porch in rural East Texas. Fragile enough to crumble in my young grasp, yet strong enough to maintain their grip on tree bark through pounding summer storms, I stared into their vacant interiors wondering, Who was in here?
More than forty cicada species live in Central Texas, including the common dog-day or annual cicada (Tibicen spp.). The male cicadas’ strident buzzing, which they produce with complex, vibrating membranes called tymbals, saturates the air during the warmest summer days. After mating, females cut slits in twigs or tree branches, where they lay eggs. Newly-hatched nymphs tunnel underground and remain submerged for two to five years. There they grow, feeding on tree root sap and molting several times. Once mature, they dig back to the surface, climb a nearby plant or tree and undergo a final molt, shedding their skin to become winged adults, and the cycle repeats (“Dog-day Cicada”). Other cicada species are periodical, with much longer life cycles. These cicadas all emerge simultaneously in a given place to mate only once every thirteen or seventeen years.
It’s no wonder that the auto-exhuming, loudest of all singing insects came to represent resurrection and rebirth to the ancient Chinese, and music to ancient Greeks. (See, for example, the story of the cicada standing in for one of Eunomos’s broken strings during a lyre-playing competition at Apollo’s shrine [Egan 184-5]). At its crescendo in July and August, cicada song signals high summer in Central Texas. It calls to mind the cyclical nature of time, the transformative power of growth and development, and the eros of desire for a mate. The cicada’s long subterranean hibernation among tree roots also points to inner reflection, partnership with the earth and trees, and the quiet patience needed to complete periods of growth or training.
The empty skeleton of
clings to the
bark of a tree
by a nymph
its way out of
shed its skin
to the tree top
where now it sings
the song of summer.
of sleeping through
three or five or
thirteen or fifteen
years. You, too
would thrum loud
with desire, wild
before sleeping again—
When I call cicadas our insect allies, I do not mean that cicadas consciously intend to befriend humans. I mean instead to say that simply by virtue of being animal together in this world, we are allies. We share distant ancestors, we’re immersed in common fields of experience, and we hold a shared stake in the way our world unfolds; we are, in the words of ecologist and philosopher David Abram, “interdependent constituents of a common biosphere” (143).
I invite you to go outside and watch the insects in your chosen place. How many of each species can you count in fifteen minutes? What do you hear? What colors and textures do you see in their exoskeletons? Do they prefer sun or shade, damp or dry conditions? Are they eating? Mating? Laying eggs? Living as they do at an other, smaller scale, with different sensory capabilities, insects sense things we larger, mammalian animals can’t and experience things we don’t (Starhawk 87). Their life cycles, short enough for us to follow in their entirety, embody before our eyes the whole gritty course of birth, metamorphosis, and death. They offer another unique perspective from which to view our place in the living, breathing earth.
Abram, David. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York: Vintage Books, 2010.
“Dog-day Cicada.” Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. Texas A&M Department of Entomology, n.d. http://texasinsects.tamu.edu/aimg82.html. 28 May 2015.
Egan, Rory. “Insects.” The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life. Ed. Gordon Lindsay Campbell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. 180-191.
Starhawk. The Earth Path: Grounding Your Spirit in the Rhythms of Nature. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004.
The Author: Anna Walther
Pagan in Place is a column devoted to place-bound paganism. My goals are active engagement with my environment via meditation, walking outside, ritual, journaling, storytelling, and acts of social and environmental justice. Being pagan in place is about getting out of the house, putting foot to ground, and doing my holy work directly, at the closest creek, at my neighborhood park, at the community garden, and in my own backyard.
Anna Walther practices place-based paganism in Austin, Texas. Her practice is inspired by the Reclaiming Tradition of Witchcraft and the teachings of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. Anna’s interests include sacred spaces, ritual art, ecopsychology, biophilia, and environmental ethics. She attends First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin with her husband and children.
Beautiful. I just ran into a cicada today on the sidewalk outside my office. Not a husk — a real living insect. I nudged it with my foot and it buzzed! I don’t think that’s ever happened before. I mean, I hear them, and I see their husks, but I rarely see the bugs themselves, and I’m sure I’ve never touched one before.
Great article! I too live in Austin and love the hypnotic buzz of the cicadas in the summertime.