My right ear abandoned its duty forty years ago. All sounds it transmitted became muffled and distant. The diagnosis was hereditary otosclerosis.
Only the one ear was affected. There was a surgical procedure to correct this condition. The operation, in my case, was a crashing failure. It left me with vertigo, impaired balance, worse hearing in the right ear than before the operation, plus tinnitus—a constant ringing in the ear.
The dizziness and loss of balance have subsided over time. The deafness is profound and permanent. And the tinnitus has proven to be lifelong.
Tinnitus greatly burdens some of its sufferers, but with me it’s more a curiosity than a curse. My brain ignores the ringing. Only if I happen to think of it do I hear it. Thus I can summon the sound at will, but it normally sinks below my awareness.
Except on warm summer evenings. Then, if I am outdoors—which I often am—the high-pitched, droning whine of cicadas is everywhere. Whoever I’m with, I ask them: “Are the cicadas singing?”
Even when they’re not singing, my ear tells me they are.
Cicadas are large, prehistoric-looking insects often called locusts. But true locusts are a kind of grasshopper, and these big, ugly bugs do not much resemble them. Therefore, cicada is the proper term.
Despite its repulsive looks, the cicada is a lovely singer, emitting a shrill chirp that is unmistakable. The sound is made by males in order to attract females. (It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die.)
These males in their search for mating opportunities rapidly buckle and unbuckle an anatomical structure on their bellies known as a tymbal. They do it so rapidly that the numerous clicks fuse into one whine, which can sound cyclical, rising and falling with monotonous regularity. It’s incredibly loud, especially when thousands or millions of the bugs throb out their urgent pleas all at once. It can drive a hearer crazy.
Such a thing is especially worrisome in certain years when magicicada—the so-called “seventeen-year locust”—appears. According to Wikipedia, “Most cicadas go through a life cycle that lasts 2–5 years.” When the nymphs come out of the ground, climb trees, shed their exoskeletons, and emerge as adults, they do so in moderately large numbers. But magicicada takes seventeen years from hatching to adulthood. Most of the magicicada in a region come out in the same year. When they do, their numbers can be staggering.
I first encountered them as a young boy in Streator, Illinois. For a week or two, they were everywhere. I remember striding through them, ankle-deep, at a local park. Then they died off. When the next seventeen-year cycle was complete, I no longer lived there.
Wisconsin’s magicicada swarm is expected to emerge in 2024 here. Since I have been a Badger for about sixty-four years now, I must have gone through three of these events already—but I have no recollection of them. This makes me think the Wisconsin brood is less overwhelming than those farther south.
But some cicadas come out every year, even here in the Great Green North. So don’t be surprised if one evening soon, when we are together, I turn to you with my plaintive query, “Are the cicadas singing?”
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer