Late August, and the roar of the crowd is unmistakable. It’s the season-ending song sung by the largest chorus imaginable: the Cicada.
Growing up in Queens, New York in the 1960s and ’70s, you heard pretty much nothing in the evenings except for the tinkling of the Mister Softee ice cream truck. Not even crickets.
Then one day on an August trip to the hoity-toity shopping street Omotesando Avenue in Tokyo in the late 1980s (having just left “Crayon,” my favorite children’s book store), I continued up the street through Harajuku and heard what sounded like a locomotive bearing down.
This was the entrance to Yoyogi Park, with wide and majestic tree-lined walkways that lead to the shrine Mejii-Jingu. If you find yourself there in the summer, make sure to investigate the gardens, which you enter for a slight extra fee—they are a mystical place where the koi mouth hello.
The heat and humidity was crushing, and the sound of what must have been millions of cicadas was overwhelming and surreal. A few steps off the street and under the verdant canopy, the sounds of Tokyo’s traffic had vanished, replaced by the roar of the crowd.
The cicada is a remarkable insect that grows in the earth, subsequently clawing its way through the soil, dragging itself up the bark of a tree. It resembles a prehistoric creature, something horrible resurrected from a comic book, and then it digs its crab-like front claws into the bark. Shortly its head splits open and an entirely different figure emerges, large and winged. After the wings dry it flies upward, high enough into the branches of the tall trees as to become elusive. The crowd is then heard, but not seen.
Since 1991 my domicile has been suburban Washington, DC. And my memories of summer have been irrevocably altered by this sound, unlike any other … a sound that has forced itself (happily, I might add) into my consciousness. For when the cicadas roar in the quite late afternoon and evening, it is always August and always the end of summer.
The crowd has spoken, and soon it will be autumn.