The Sounds of Summer (“Dies caniculares”)

Whether because I play the piano by ear (perhaps promoting a heightened sensitivity to sound) or whether because there are notable reverberations in each season of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, I am enthralled by the characteristic dins, rackets, noises, music, tones and notes peculiar to an Ontario summer.  Foremost among these is that of the cicada.

Seldom have I seen a cicada except on its back on the road, perhaps struggling to right itself but most often dead or dying, a hardened chrysalis, inert legs straight into the air. Remarkably this insect can live up to 17 years though much of that time is spent underground until it emerges to perch hidden among the tall branches of a large leafy-green tree where it entertains us with its signal mating song.

The “singing” of male cicadas is not stridulation such as many familiar species of insects produce—for example crickets. Instead, male cicadas have a noisemaker called a tymbal below each side of the anterior abdominal region. The tymbals are structures of the exoskeleton formed into complex membranes with thin, membranous portions and thickened ribs. Contraction of internal muscles buckles the tymbals inwards, thereby producing a click; on relaxation of the muscles, the tymbals return to their original position, producing another click. The male abdomen is largely hollow, and acts as a sound box. By rapidly vibrating these membranes, a cicada combines the clicks into apparently continuous notes, and enlarged chambers derived from the tracheae serve as resonance chambers with which it amplifies the sound. The cicada also modulates the song by positioning its abdomen toward or away from the substrate. Partly by the pattern in which it combines the clicks, each species produces its own distinctive mating songs and acoustic signals, ensuring that the song attracts only appropriate mates.

When the soporific drone of the cicada is heard it is assured to mark the month of August and the height of summer. Normally the distinctive sound is accompanied by exceedingly hot weather, searing yellow sunshine and soft dry winds.

Most of the North American species are in the genus Neotibicen: the annual or jar fly or dog-day cicadas (so named because they emerge in late July and August).”

The expression “dog days” refers to the hot, sultry days of summer, originally in areas around the Mediterranean Sea, and as the expression fit, to other areas, especially in the Northern Hemisphere. The coincidence of very warm temperatures in the early civilizations in North Africa and the Near East with the rising, at sunrise (i.e., the heliacal rising), of Orion’s dog, the dog star Sirius, led to the association of this phrase with these conditions, an association that traces to the Egyptians and appears in the ancient written poetic and other records of the Greeks (e.g., Hesiod, Aratus, and Homer in The Iliad) and the later Romans.”.

The cicada’s hypnotic song heralds the pleasures of the burgeoning agricultural crop, in particular sweet corn growing emerald and tall crowned by its golden tiara. The tranquillizing refrain of the cicadas is a lazy background symphony in harmony with the distant wavering fields on a hot summer’s day!

The lure of water in the summer is undeniable. Even if one is not fortunate to have a lakeside cottage there are other opportunities to satisfy the primal aquatic urge; viz., lake or river inns and restaurants, marinas, boat tours, canals and private pools in manicured backyards or embedded in tranquil meadows. Such venues might include the resonance of motor boats, the racing pitch of seadoos, the burble of yachts, the croaking of bullfrogs, the squawk of seagulls, splashing swimmers and the shrieks of children; sometimes the whisper of wind in languorous overhanging willow trees.

Al fresco dining is a summer tradition. Just as we Northerners instinctively turn our faces to the penetrating rays of summer sunshine, likewise we respond to the seduction of out-of-doors dining to milk the treasured summer days of their ephemeral bounty. Who isn’t stirred by the sizzling sound of a mixed grill? Perhaps afterwards roasting marshmallows on a crackling campfire, ascending sparks exploding against a pitch-black sky. Rustic dining may at times coincide with the unwelcome shrill of mosquitoes; but there is also the endearing buzz of diligent bees. Many late summer evenings are filled with the muffled sounds of lethargic conversation following a bottle of fine wine and a wholesome meal. An early morning breakfast on the patio will afford the mesmerizing chorus of bird chirps as one sips a cup of restorative coffee and listens attentively as the world comes alive once again amid the cacophony including the ceaseless stridency of the metronomic staccato of crickets and perhaps if you’re lucky the call of a loon on a serene lake.

Many of us profit by the irresistible summer weather to walk, run or cycle.  In Almonte we have the advantage of nearby bucolic country roads for such athletic purposes. A stand of poplar trees when stirred by a strong wind is an unmistakeable sound. The leaves almost talk, very similar to the sound of light rain falling.

(The) name ‘poplar’ originates from ancient Rome. During the 6th century, Romans planted poplars in areas where public meetings were held. Latin name for people is ‘populus’, hence the name.

When the weather shifts from drenching sunshine to relieving rain we may be treated to rolls of booming thunder and startling cracks of aerial electricity. Sheets of rain against locked windows invariably invite us to pull back the sheers to watch – captivated – the unfolding force of Nature while listening to the splatter of the driving rain.

Certain sounds of summer, though equally idiosyncratic, are less than “natural” yet very much commonplace. Consider the seasonal sound of motorcycles, sports cars, skate boards, lawn mowers and road construction. Less offensive are the various renditions of lawn sprinklers, the easy-going arc-type and the chattering repeaters. Though exceedingly popular in the United States of America, leaf blowers have yet to reach the same pinnacle of presence here for pushing back shards of grass-cuttings from walkways and driveways. Don’t overlook the hum of air conditioners! Or the crack of lawn bowls or a golfer’s driver.

Not to be passed over is the welcome effect of the sonorous voices of our neighbours who during the winter months have frequently been cloistered from both sight and sound. It is astonishing to rediscover communication with one’s friends through the increasing frequency of yard work, porch-sitting and sunbathing, all peculiar to the liberating summer weather. At times those well-known voices are mixed with the hospitable blend of visiting children and grandchildren, prompting reunions and gossip which might never have transpired in the forbidding depths of winter.

One day however you shall hear the sharp cry of the bluejay. It warns the end of the sounds of summer.