Unlike some of their American cousins, European cicadas make their appearance annually rather than once every thirteen or seventeen years. This means they are part of the fabric of rural life instead of an occasional noteworthy or horrendous occurrence. Perhaps nowhere are they more loved than in the south of France, in the area known as Provence.

If the rooster, or coq, to use his French title, is the animal kingdom member who is officially symbolic of France, then the cicada, or cigale, is the symbol of Provence. Jean de LaFountaine immortalized him in his "Fables". Most English-language fable collections carry the story of the Ants and the Grasshopper but in the French "Fables de LaFountaine" it is le cigale who passes the glorious days of summer in song.

The cigale is a creature of summertime. Appearing near the end of June in Provence, he is never heard after mid-September. His song (and only the males are heard) may sound monotonous to the uninitiated, but the strident rasp of this tiny lyrist is varied according to the circumstances. Like most male singing, it is a sexual call, sometimes reaching around 160 decibels. As a song of love it is languorous and deep. Alarmed, it becomes raucous and short. To hear this version, carefully catch a cigale and turn him over on his back. Stroke his belly with a blade of grass or a broom straw and he will immediately began to give voice.

”Voice” is perhaps the wrong word to use, as no larynx action is involved. When you have a male on his back as described above, you can actually see the vibrations of the lower chest. This is not sound-producing but sound-modifying; the actual sound is produced in the hollow stomach of the male. It has been compared to the hollow interior of a guitar. The sound itself is produced by the rapid retraction (from 300 to 900 times a second) of a muscle on each side of the "music box". Below 22 degrees Centigrade, the resounding sections of this "music box" lose their elasticity. For this reason the males are silent during rain or after sundown.

What is interesting about this strident creature is that it is completely deaf, having no tympanic features, i.e. no ears. It depends on its eyes to alert itself to the approach of enemies. If you walk into its field of vision it will immediately fall silent. And it has a very large field of vision : It has a pair of huge eyes with 14,000 facets as well as three small stemmed eyes on the top of its head. Males and females are alike in this respect, which leads to the assumption that the mating call is recognized by vibration in the atmosphere rather than by sound itself.

Regardless of how the two sexes find each other, they do, and procreation is abundant. Each female lays between 300 and 400 eggs, depositing them in the dry twig of almost any type of plant after cutting a slit in the bark with a drill, or "rostre" carried on its lower body. Ten eggs are laid at each site.

The female dies soon after this, but the larvae later appear at the same slit in the bark by which the eggs were introduced. After tearing its protective envelope, each individual larva remains suspended until it dries in the sun and takes on a protective hardening of its exterior. It then drops to the ground and burrows into the soil. It will spend four years underground, digging long tunnels in search of roots, from which it sucks sap as nourishment. Both larvae and adults live exclusively on sap of various plants, which is extracted by means of a facial appendage resembling a large soda straw, functioning very much like a syringe.

The larvae undergo several metamorphisms during their time underground. In cold weather they curl up and remain dormant, in hot weather they grow bigger. At this point they are still blind. Finally, one fine day in June, they emerge, cling to small twigs while shedding the grub form, and wait for their wings to dry before starting an adult life of several weeks.

For the entomologist the cicada is a homopterous insect, having four transparent or nearly-transparent wings. The French say that these wings form a "roof" over the insect when they are folded in rest. The French also say (and I don’t know if this is true or not) that cicadas of Provence are the only ones in the world who do not damage the plants they use for nourishment and egg-laying.

As said earlier, the people of Provence are very fond of their cigales. You will often see glazed orange, cream and black ceramic reproductions of the insect, many times life size, attached to the exterior walls of homes. I have several enameled lapel pins in the form of a cigale; unfortunately, outside of Provence, friends ask me why I have a cockroach on my jacket.

Perhaps the true charm of the cigale is that it symbolizes summertime and the people of Provence are people of the sun. After a winter of blustery mistral, the wind that blows incessantly from the north-northwest, after perhaps a December with frost on the ground in the early mornings, perhaps even a January with one or two days of snow, what could be better than to spend a drowsy afternoon in July or August under a spreading plane tree, with the air around you hot and dry, vibrating with the melody of the cigales?


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