Seasons come and go – birth, death and rebirth – and along with these rhythmical time capsules, the magic and wonder of life’s very existence in this vast universe.
While strolling along the banks of Chengdu’s Jin River, I was struck by the deafening hum of the cicadas in the trees that lined both sides of the waterway. As the sound grew louder, I found myself a world away – on the opposite side of the planet – recalling memories of carefree days as a child spent outside exploring nature in my native state of North Carolina.
The sound came from high in the treetops and usually began slowly in summer, growing ever louder and reaching its zenith as fall approached. I remember local farmers predicting the first frost would occur in three months based on the sound volume created by the male cicadas as they rapidly vibrated the drum-like tymbals in their abdomens.
This meditative repetition had always reminded me of the cycles of nature, and by extension the way we humans measure our lifetimes. Seasons come and go – birth, death and rebirth – and along with these rhythmical time capsules, the magic and wonder of life’s very existence in this vast universe.
It was highly appropriate that I should have such an encounter in China. Cicadas were granted an exalted status in Chinese folklore – endowed with purity due to their lofty perch in trees and their diet of tree sap.
In Chinese antiquity, these fascinating insects of the superfamily Cicadoidea also represented modesty, refinement and a complete awareness of oneself within the scheme of nature. Due to these qualities, the golden symbol of a cicada often featured prominently on the headpieces worn by Chinese rulers and nobles.
Perhaps of greatest significance, Chinese nobles revered cicadas as a symbol of rebirth or resurrection due to their unique cycle of metamorphosis. The cicada’s fascinating life cycle involves living underground in a form known as a nymph – in an armoured shell built for digging – for the majority of their lives.
Found on every continent except Antarctica, some of the 3,000 species of cicadas live as long as seventeen years and tunnel to the surface only when it’s time to mate. Once they’ve reached the surface, the nymphs attach themselves to a tree’s bark and go through a metamorphosis similar to that of a butterfly as the mature adult breaks free of the shell and emerges as a colorful insect with large wings.
It’s in this adult form that male cicadas emit their mating call from high up in trees, females mate and lay eggs in the tree bark and then the parents perish as colder fall temperatures take hold. Meanwhile, the new larvae which hatch from the eggs feed off the tree sap, rapidly grow into nymphs and tunnel back into the ground to spend the majority of their lives (from 1 to 17 years, depending on the species) until it’s time for them to repeat the natural cycle of their parents.
During China’s Han Dynasty, jade amulets in the form of a cicada were often placed on the tongues of corpses, representing the hope of rebirth in the afterlife.
According to Jan Stuart, writing on the National Museum of Asian Art’s website, the cicada’s metamorphosis “was seen as an analogy for the spirits of the dead rising on a path to eternal existence in a transcendent realm of rebirth and immortality.”
Lessons from Nature
Personally, the hum of mating cicadas that permeated the thick humid air of summer in the American south has always been a reminder of the natural cycle or order of all things. As a child, I collected the empty nymph shells from the trees in my parent’s yard and pondered the wonders of the natural world all around me.
The ancient Chinese – and indeed most ancient cultures – had a deep and abiding respect for the natural world, often going to great extents to honor and even emulate such a natural order.
All too often as modern humans, our intellect blinds us to our own body’s connection to the rhythms of nature. We think we are separate, special, and no longer need to heed this natural order.
Perhaps nature’s natural disasters linked to humankind-caused climate change are a wake up call telling us we need to pay attention to the way our lifestyles negatively affect the natural cycles of our planet.
peace and good health~henry