Beneath the Mothership


Petit Jean Mountain under clouds; Holla Bend Wildlife Refuge under clouds; rain falling on my own roof: the radar showed the story. The only open skies were over Little Rock and south, fate or Gods finger, one or the other, was pointing the way. Drove through the metropolis and south ten miles to the short road out to Lorance Natural Area. I had never been there. Pulled into the new-looking parking area and shut off the engine. Gathering camera and binoculars from the passenger seat, it was then I stopped short. I could hear the noise through the windows of the car. Initially, I thought it was some sort of heavy machinery at work. Odd but still possible. Stepped out into the whole of the noise and discovered it was coming from all directions. It was more concentrated toward the trail ahead of me but overwhelmingly it was without true direction, a saturating drone. From the clouds? The trees? The center of the universe? I turned in a circle, puzzled. And then realized, of course, it was only the 13 year cicada. Or, more precisely, billions of them. It was their year. I had known this and then forgotten. I was a stunned dunce for a minute there.

I walked past a lonely looking pool surrounded by brown grass beyond the entry sign. The trail went on to the right. A single butterfly passed me. The Lorance trail is nicely paved and slopes quickly down into the mixed pine and hardwood understory that surrounds the swamp itself. The cicadas became more surreal under the canopy, more dominating. I stared up above me and tried to see just one bug but it all looked motionless. The human world was totally drowned out. I could not remember ever hearing this insect. 13 years ago, in 1989, I suppose I was preoccupied with the birth of a child. Now, into the swamp, along the start of the boardwalk, I was the only human in the tupelo and cypress trees. I was focused.

The water was the usual leafy soup of southern swamps—a rich ooze below me. The sky had opened up into partial broken light. The temperature was 73 degrees. Inside the swamp itself there was the quickened sense of being overborne. The noise of this cicada hatch and these 300 acres of preserve had an impressive effect. It was stunning in the lost sense of this overworked word. I want to get the sound right for you. It was like a tribe of windchanters canting in a great hollow room, singsong and holy, choral and alien, a sorrow and a solace. It was the hovering mothership on rotary idle overhead.

I sat down on the bench at the end of the boardwalk. There the drone was now the broad background to all the tupelo birdsong: Louisiana Waterthrushes in four layers of distance, Pileated Woodpeckers drumming and calling and a higher ululation above the Pileateds that rose and fell like the tongues of mourners crying out. It was on the tip of my own tongue—its maker’s name. Left and right, Acadian Flycatchers did their burst song. It sounds like they hold their breath before each brat of this multilaryngeal sneeze. Vibrato shout; vibrato gesundheit. Strangely, Chimney Swifts seemed to be lacing above the trees. These were huge Tupelo trees but they did not look like chimneys. Nearby, some smaller Water Birch. Arrow-leaved plants grew in and around the water. A single damselfly species wove through the birch leaves and above the green arrows. It was an animate hoverpick tipped with mint. Dragonflies seemed to appear out of nowhere as I sat and absorbed the other sounds. Great Blue Skimmers perched and rose, battled and sat. One female flipped at the water with her tail, egg-laying. Above me was the heaven of Swamp Darners. They wove in and out of the sound of Prothonotary Warblers. So many of them—warbler and darner. A distant Barred Owl called. Also: Wrens and Cuckoos, Vireos and Titmice, Nuthatches and Grackles. And profoundly, under it all, the unearthly buzz of that alien ship waiting above us all.

I planned to stay just a short while but I stayed for two hours. I walked the thirty yard stretch from the corner to the end of the boardwalk and back, listening and watching. At the corner square were some informational signs, well-crafted. I had not even noted them in my first stage of hypnosis. There was a picture of the Prothonotary Warbler and an Eastern Pondhawk, a common dragonfly, and another of a woman standing on a tree. And there in the bottom right was a picture of a Bird-voiced Treefrog. Of course: a revelation. Below the picture, a button, shiny and metallic.

‘Press here to hear the call of the Bird-voiced Treefrog’, it said.

I reached, expecting one of those tinny and raspy speakers to give me either nothing or a faint version of the treefrog. Instead the ululating bird whistle sang out suddenly from a speaker on the nearby tree. It projected the sound out into the swamp forest. It was clear and perfect. I jumped. Immediately several real treefrogs called back and the whole thing set off two Pileated Woodpeckers as well. I laughed out loud. Then I waited a bit, and pushed the button again.

Cyrano Darners made their circuits over the deeper water out in front of me. I looked up from them just as a dark bird flew into a hole in the side of a living Tupelo. The hole was much bigger than the bird. It was all too fast and I guessed at what the bird might be as I waited for it to come back out. I sat and leaned on the rail. After a full 8 minutes the bird flashed out and down over the water. It was the first natural cavity nesting Chimney Swift I had ever seen. Bless her swamp-loving heart.

Several times, I closed my eyes as I sat on one or the other of the benches and the soundscape would take me more deeply. This was a place to bring a class of blind students and whisper the names in their ears as each bird and frog and insect rang in. And beneath this a trio of voices saying ‘cicada, cicada, cicada’. What would the blind think if suddenly surrounded by all this? Would it be ecstasy or disillusionment? Wonder or panic? It was a place to make you look around for someone else and then in the same breath be glad for the absence.

Occasionally a bit of breeze would make a small tupelo rainfall here and there. The leaves giving up their holdings like grudges. It was the only noise other than the buzz or scrabble or splash of other living things on the move. Every time the Swifts twittered I watched the hole. I tried to whistle up a frog with my own mouth. When I’d open my eyes, over and over, I’d be surprised by my own empty hands.

It took some effort to finally stand and walk out. I’d forgotten the drone was even louder away from the water. Ears overriding; eyes coming back into the picture—at the start of the boardwalk, back on dry land, I saw a flash of yellow. It was another Prothonotary Warbler. He was on the ground and busy with something. I stayed blocked behind a hickory trunk and moved straight up until I was very close to him. Peering around with just half an eye I could see that the golden bird had a cicada on the ground. And this bug wasn’t singing.

The insect was red and orange and black. It was all thrash and wingbuzz, ineffective escape. The black-beaked bird took the wings off of one side and then the other. He was careful about it, methodical. No question of the deliberate nature of this. Then with a further professional jerk it removed the cicadas head. There was an order to his dissection like some tiny gilded butcher was at work. With no fight left in the decapitated bug, the warbler began to squeeze and flail at the big banded abdomen. It was the size of the bird’s entire head, a tapered and truncated ovoid. It would have made an oversized Pope’s hat for his golden skull. The warbler squeezed what was left of the bug and threw it back down violently. And repeated this action. The ooze from inside the abdomen was as white as whipped cream. The bird ate it all. I thought he might carry some up and away but he even grabbed a driblet that had stuck to a leaf next to him. Another strand was stuck to his beak. He thrashed this off and ate it too. Apparently he was not telling the wife and kids about this little snack. When the abdomen appeared to be empty he picked it up and flew off with it. What use it was to him I do not know. Was he going to hide it? Did he have a pile of them somewhere? With this cicada coming in cycles that were longer than the life of a warbler it was unlikely my golden friend had ever tasted this particular brand of bug. Or that he ever would again. Had I witnessed by chance his very first cicada meal? And, oh, it was so exquisite he wanted to remember forever the container it came in? Or was he trying to eat them all one by one in his personal effort to rid the world of this new and maddening noise that never stopped?

Thirteen years ago when these insect singers went down into the ground I was distracted by the birth of my only daughter. She is now only one cicada cycle old (her father three and counting). Certainly she has never heard this noise. Later this week I will bring her back here. And I will be secretive. I have a plan. If I can, I will carry her all the way down the boardwalk with her eyes and ears covered. And then, once in position, I will suddenly unwrap her in the middle of the swamp.

Outside the trees again, the sky seemed overly bright. A Wandering Glider thrashed the pond with its tail, laying egg after egg. Unlike the Skimmer, it did not hover. It barely slowed down. These Glider guys would not lay their eggs in swamps. No swampy life for this chaser of thunderstorms, this worldwide-traveler. Only pools that reflected the sky would do.

Above the clearing, I could see a scatter of single cicadas as they made sorties out here and there and returned to the trees. They were like escapees from the singing mass, stragglers drawn back in by some weird collective force, a choral magnetism, the coherent din to the cicada gods. On the other side of the road a small house sat. Inside, no doubt, were people who lived within this alien sound continuously now. Did they even hear it anymore? Had they seen the golden butcher birds at work? Did they walk across the road now and then and venture down into the swamp? Ever? Or was paradise in the neighborhood just more of the neighborhood after all? A sinful reminder of the undeveloped world?

And would the locals grow alarmed if they saw a man carrying a small girl down the path with her ears covered, her eyes guarded against the light? A man who looked like me, staggering from the weight of a girl who was just one cicada cycle old? Such a thing might alarm me from my home if I lived across the way. But I didn’t stop to ask them. They probably have their own worries, here, so continuously beneath the mothership.