Okay, so I titled part I of “Okay, Okay, I’ll Say Something Nice About D.C.” as a part I, clearly indicating an as-yet-to-come part II. So now for the second nice thing I can say about Washington, D.C.
The second thing I really like about Washington, D.C. is the cicadas. The cicadas are part of a larger phenomenon of the District’s being environmentally a Southern city. The sweltering, energy-sapping heat of summer, the omnipresent sense of dank decay, the encroaching vegetation, the hot smell of rotting organic things, the storied and usually bloodied geography. I sometimes feel like I live in a Flannery O’Connor or a Carson McCullers novel.
I have listed tactile, thermoceptic, olfactive and neural aspects of this Southern sense. The cicadas are the primary aspect of aural Southern-ness.
The amazing thing about cicadas is how improbably powerful they are. They sound more like a cyclotron or a tesla coil powering down than a natural creature. Pity the person who ends up with one camped out right outside their window blasting their amorous bug love song like the U.S. military trying to blast Manuel Noriega from the Vatican embassy.
There are individual bugs, then there is the entire population of cicadas in chorus. Up in my neighborhood they are so loud that you have to raise your voice to be heard outside. I don’t know whether it’s variance across species, or across individual bugs, or song phase, but when you get a lot of them together you can hear all different periods and amplitudes in their harmonics. And then the scores of different harmonics meld into a region-spanning, undulating wall of cicada sound of a sort that might induce seizures in certain youngsters susceptible to high-frequency stimulation. The omnipresent insistence of such a non-human activity makes it easy for one’s imagination to run away to visions of a primitive Potomac river valley untrammeled by human activity. Our stupid brick piles and asphalt pathways temporary intrusions on eternal nature.
Southernness is, among other things, a certain type of relation to nature.
The pictures above are the exuviae of a pupal annual cicada found tacked to a post in my backyard. My first year in D.C., a year of the seventeen-year cicadas, it seemed like these things were hanging everyplace. These pictures were taken with just a point-and-shoot, specifically my Canon PowerShot SX200 using the Super Macro setting.