Monday, May 23, 2011

Spring Fever, Acute and Severe

Spring in south Georgia, I usually explain to people who are not from around here, generally lasts about three days and those three days are not always consecutive.

The pattern goes something like this: Chill and rain set in for a week followed by one gloriously sunny day during which the azaleas on Savannah Avenue burst forth like showgirls on the Las Vegas strip. The next morning, in a fit of ill-advised optimism, I wear something with short sleeves and spend the entire day shivering under a sky gray as General Lee’s Traveller. The morning after brings with it hard wind and more rain that scatters and then flattens the azalea blossoms into microscope slides.

Day three dawns with a chorus of avian courtship tunes and sunlight lasering through the cracks in the window blinds. The dogwood blooms demurely lift their faces to be kissed by a breeze that smells just slightly of grass and I stand on the sidewalk coveting the convertibles that appear about every fifth car. Days four through seven are sunny, but cold and the only thing that makes me smile is the fact that I haven’t moved my winter clothes to the guest room closet yet.

The eighth day is balmy and I decide where to eat lunch by locating a place with an open outside table. The ninth day the temperature is 85 degrees – summer has arrived, spring is gone for good.

But this year, oh, this year, we’ve had a real spring. One day after another of cool mornings ripening into warm afternoons and fading into pleasant evenings. One day after another of dawns that flood the fields with light like melted butter and sunsets that bleed away like old bruises. I stand outside as the air moves in gentle currents around my face, my arms, my legs and I understand for the first time why the vocabulary of the weatherman includes the word mild.

As much as I have enjoyed the days of repetitive atmospheric conditions, however, I’m not so certain that the animals around Sandhill have; they’ve been taken off guard and their behavior shows it. For example, on the way to work the other day I saw an opossum waddling along the edge of the newly-plowed field just outside the front door. His fur was exactly the color of the dirt and, at first glance, all I saw was the black paws and little black nose as though he were materializing bit by bit from the early morning ether. What he was doing wandering around during what should have been his sleeping hours I can’t imagine.

The activity that really had me flummoxed, however, was that around the hummingbird feeder one afternoon. I had my legs stretched out and a magazine balanced in my lap when the familiar droning started. Within seconds, not one or even two, but three hummingbirds were dive bombing the feeder at the corner of the deck. There were other feeders in the yard, all of them full, but the trio was determined to drink from a single spout on that particular one.

With a great flapping of wings and crashing of bodies they began rolling in spirals like barnstorming biplanes. One of the three flew away rather quickly toward the feeder hanging from the chinaberry tree as the remaining two continued to poke at each others’ heads with their narrow beaks. The pearly greens and blues of their bodies smeared the air in wide swaths as the pitch of their hums grew higher and higher. I’d never seen anything like it.

Eventually they separated and one, the vanquished I gathered, flitted away. The victor pitched himself down toward the feeder and lowered his head to the fake plastic blossom. Getting what he wanted, he began to move away across the yard, but just as one of the other birds re-approached he abruptly altered his direction and attacked. The same sequence of events took place at least four times, enough for me to dub him The Bully and start talking to him, first trying to convince him to play nice and, finally, letting him know in no uncertain terms that his behavior was unappreciated at Sandhill and that he’d best straighten up.

I don’t think he cared.

I’ve always thought of spring fever as a pleasant, fanciful, slightly capricious state of mind brought about by a general feeling of gratitude that yet another dark and cold winter had been survived. Apparently that was the disease in its incubation stage. Apparently the presenting symptoms of the malady are insomnia and extreme aggression. And, as humans, apparently we should be glad that spring in south Georgia usually lasts only three days.
Copyright 2011

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Cicada Song

A tractor, a big tractor, its diesel motor droning from across a distant field. That’s what it sounded like. Or a box fan, turned on high, held in place by a window sash pulled down tight on its metal frame and blowing out into the hot summer night to create a draft for the rest of the open windows in the house. That’s what it sounded like. Or the jet engine of a DC-10 making its final approach to Hartsfield, its shadow an immense gray bird falling over the cars on I-75. That, too, is what it sounded like.

But it was none of those things. None of those mechanical, manufactured, man-marked sounds. The hum that swelled into the air and surged through the trees and surrounded me like a tight sweater was thousands – tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands? – of cicadas serenading themselves and anything within at least half a mile with the song they get to sing only once every thirteen years.

The friend I was visiting had warned me, but I was not prepared for the depth of the rumbling that greeted me when I walked outside into sunshine that had warmed the cicadas up enough to begin the performance. The sound vibrations were coming at me from every direction and I could almost feel myself pulsing in time with the buzz. It was confusing and calming, discordant and melodic, repulsive and enticing, all at the same time.

Given the fact that they appear so seldom and not at all in south Georgia, chances were that this would be my only chance to see one, so I set off into the woods at the each of the yard, scanning the landscape, certain I would be able to find one fairly easily. I did not. I scoped out the pine trees I’d been told they preferred, alert for the bulbous red eyes that distinguish them from their cousins who show up every summer. Nothing. I surveyed the undergrowth, stirring it up a little with my shoes. Still nothing.

"Oh, well," I sighed to my friend who was graciously helping me search, "at least I got to hear them." And at just that moment, that exact moment, I looked down and there, on the arm of a teak garden bench, was a cicada. A thirteen-year cicada. A cicada with eyes that looked like clown noses. A cicada with diaphanous wings that shimmered as though dusted with gold.

I picked it up. Its thin legs clamped onto my finger, I twisted and turned it in the morning sunshine and watched the light reflect off the veins in its wings. It made not a sound while all around us the cacophony played on. A moment later it surprised me how hard it was to loosen its grip from my knuckle.

My friend and I had things to do and, to be honest, it seemed almost rude to just stand there and gawk, just stand there with my head tilted first one way and then the other, just stand there like an eavesdropper. So we left.

Later, of course, I had to do a little research, had to add a few facts to the anecdotal evidence I’d collected on my own, had to legitimize my experience with that of scientists. I found out that the thirteen-year- and seventeen-year-cicadas are called periodical cicadas, as distinguished from the ordinary annual cicadas, and that only the males sing, producing "acoustic signals" from a structure called a tymbal which is located on the little fellows’ abdomens. All very interesting.

But the best part, the piece of information that made me tremble again, just as if I’d been surrounded by a whole room full of cicadas, was this: "Periodical cicadas ... belong to the genus Magicicada." Magicicada? Magic cicada? Really?

It’s easy – when tornadoes are erasing entire towns, when gas is nearly $4.00 a gallon, when memories of 9/11 are newly-stirred – to see the darkness that frames every vision, to feel the heaviness that weighs every offering, to smell the decay that accompanies every blossom, to believe that magic has died. Easy to draw the curtains, slam the doors, seal the borders of our hearts and close down our minds. The other option – to stay open to possibility, to hang on to hope, to believe that truth will ultimately win – that’s hard.

I imagine, though, that it’s hard to stay underground for thirteen years, to rein in anticipation for thirteen years, to hold back a song for thirteen years. Somehow, though, the cicadas – magic cicadas – do that hard thing. And there is something in their song that makes me think we can, too.
Copyright 2011