The Bones of November

Yesterday I was talking to someone who had never heard of the three day Festival of the Dead that occurs in almost every culture in one form or the other at this time of year from October 31 through November 2nd. How is this possible I wondered until I realized that I have been a student of world mythology for almost forty years and have studied these cross cultural traditions extensively noting their startling similarities as part of my academic background.

For example, the pagan, pre – christian Celtic tradition of Samhain means Summer’s End marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the winter cycle and “darker portion” of the year. It is believed that the veil between the living and the dead lifts during this liminal time and the dead walk amongst us so that communication occurs easily if one is sensitized, open to such thinking/sensing/feeling. This is a time to honor all the ancestors, to pay respect, and to commune with them…

In western culture we generally scoff at such ideas making a joke or creating macabre distortions out of All Hallows, All Soul’s Day, the Feast of the Dead, perhaps to deal with our personal and collective discomfort with death. It is a fact the only days allotted by Americans to honor the dead occur on Memorial and Veterans Day when we honor soldiers who died “ in service to their country” – but then we are a violent patriarchal culture that acknowledges/celebrates death only as heroic, and in the context of war. It is up to the rest of us to honor those who have gone before alone, if we do so at all.

I have adopted the Celtic (eight spokes) Wheel of the Year because it follows the natural cycles that I see occurring all around me in Nature. For example, I can look out my window and watch the golden cottonwood leaves fluttering to the ground to become compost, even as a hole opens under the fallen canopy in the east allowing the rising sun to enter the house at dawn. Snow covered mountains and fall rain brings life to the high desert even as she prepares for winter’s sleep. Indoors, I gaze at the mountains I think of as Grandmothers as I recall that in most cultures the Old Woman, Hag, or Crone reigns during the dark half of the year – She who presides over death and creates new life. I light the first fires to keep us warm and my beloved dogs and I bring in the night leaning into the comfort and warmth of early darkness. I think this is a time to reflect upon the passing away of people and cycles because like the Celts and many Indigenous folk I believe the year comes to an end as the bears go Earth to sleep…

I feel that I am an integral part of an ancient cross – cultural tradition, even as I set intentions for the coming year. In many of these traditions there is a break between the end of one year and the beginning of another and this liminal period extends until winter solstice. I note that All Hallows/The Feast of the Dead creates the space for new insights to occur so I acknowledge the “space in between” as part of my own practice.

I also take time to give thanks for every gift given over the past year, the winding river and streams, the cedar outside my door, my beloved animals, this house that offers me a window into Nature three seasons out of four (in summer I have to keep the shades down to keep the fierce white heat of the sun at bay). I honor my dead, and give thanks for the people who enrich my life through friendship. And most of all I give thanks for the Unconditional Love I receive from the Earth through any of her manifestations. S/he is my mother, my father, my lover, my sister, my brother, my child and grandchild, without whose constant presence I would be bereft.

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Paying Homage to Hestia

(one of author’s dogs, “Hope,” gravitates instantly to the heat of the wood stove)

This morning I was kneeling in front of my new wood stove kindling a fire from hot coals when I felt the presence of the Greek Goddess Hestia, Lady of the Hearth moving through the house. The goddess manifests as a crackling wood fire, and when I kneel before my wood stove to coax coals into flames I feel as if I am paying homage to her.

I have spent two winters without a wood stove, and have missed this ritual fall lighting of the fire, and the knowing that I am participating in ancient practice that extends back far beyond the Patriarchal Greeks to the dawn of humankind.

Today I felt her presence in a visceral way as I looked out the window at the first flakes of white snow disappearing into wet ground, and felt the hearth warming beneath my feet.

Hestia symbolizes the importance of creating sacred space within one’s home by honoring the fire that turns wood to ashes and re –kindles itself, resurrecting what was dead. This is also a time to give thanks for every tree that sacrifices itself to keep us warm…

Hestia’s name means “hearth” or “fireplace,” and her status shows how important the hearth was in the social and religious life of Ancient Greeks. Making and preserving fire was essential for early cultures, which made the household fire a sacred element at a very early stage of “her – story.” In later days, Hestia became its embodiment.

Hestia received the first offering at every meal in the household with families pouring sweet wine in her name and dedicating the richest portion of food to her.

The hearth fire in the household was not allowed to go out by any family unless it was ritually distinguished.

In the Greek myth, Hestia was one of three “virgin” goddesses; the other two were Athena and Artemis. I interpret this virgin aspect as being “one unto herself, indicating wholeness which has nothing to do with chastity. Athena was a goddess of war and got lots of attention, Artemis was Mistress of Wild Animals and also a great huntress. Hestia was acknowledged as Mistress of the Fire, and cultivator of the home place. Of the three goddesses she got the least attention, probably because the Greeks were a Patriarchal warring culture that valued men over women, and thrived on conquest, rape, and killing (power over). Honoring any peaceful nurturing goddess of the household was less important.

There is an interesting story about a potential rape of Hestia by a drunken god while she was sleeping. The braying of a distressed donkey awakened Hestia in time to ward off this atrocity and thereafter, on Hestia’s feast day a donkey that wore a garland was included in Hestia’s festivities. This intervention by a loving animal may carry a significance that is easily missed. Animals can represent women who are living in a state of wholeness because they have married instincts to awareness. To become en – souled is a holy undertaking that connects a woman to All That Is.

This autumn I welcome Hestia as Keeper of the Fires into this house asking for her blessing, honoring WOMAN who tends the potentially transforming element of contained fire in her own home or realm.

Toadwise

 

A Tale for a Life Lover

 

Last night I was thinking about the giant western toad that is living in my garden when I had a peculiar thought: Write a story about the Toad and an Old Woman and call it A Tale for a Life Lover. At this very moment I heard my toad’s rasping guttural cry outside my window. I was so shocked I got up and went out on the porch, hoping to hear the call again, but the toad only spoke once. Afterwards, I wondered if I had imagined it.

 

When the giant western toad appeared in my yard last week I had been in a state bordering on despair over baffling health issues and the ravages of Climate Change. Maybe it is no longer possible for me to separate the two? After the visitation I sensed that the toad’s abrupt appearance meant something beyond the amazing fact that I had met a giant toad who apparently had been living here all along.

 

Some preliminary natural history research revealed that the western toad is becoming extinct in the Southwestern states due to UV light, chemicals polluting water, vulnerability to other toxins, loss of habitat etc. so I was even more grateful to have a venerable Grandmother Toad living here near the river’s edge. She must be a grandmother of many thousands –her impressive size suggests her sex and her age.

 

Toads literally change forms; they are shapeshifters beginning their lives in vernal pools as strings of eggs becoming “toadpoles.” They metamorphose quickly into lung/skin breathing terrestrial toadlets moving away from the water, who, if they survive predation, become adult toads that inhabit meadows and mesas. Most toads also have poisonous parotid glands whose secretions can irritate the skin; a few are deadly. Toads deal with the heat and lack of rain by spending most of the day under protective leaves in gardens, underground or in a burrow, emerging at dusk or during rain to hunt. During a drought, they do not breed. In the winter they hibernate. Toads also shed their skins and often eat them. Mine still had sloughed off skin attached to her back legs. Adults are also long lived, even in the wild.

 

Two days after meeting Toad who had just shed and eaten a skin I also found an empty snakeskin. Discovering two creatures that shed their skins almost simultaneously couldn’t be coincidence and helped me to prioritize the probable importance of some kind of personal transformation that I was undergoing.

 

I have intuited by living my life and following my dreams that if I want to learn more about how to be in the world I needed to turn first towards Nature to provide me with a Guide and then to mythology to unravel her/his story. I know a lot about toads having raised so many from tadpoles… so I investigated Toad’s mythology.

 

Christianity demonizes both women and toads attaching both to evil, darkness, sorcery, and poisoning, a too obvious distortion of Patriarchy which seeks to control both Nature and women and therefore isn’t of much use. Too one sided. However, what emerges in other mythologies is Toad as a powerful figure, a literal manifestation of the Earth Mother.

 

Marija Gimbutas mytho – archeologist and scholar traces the toad back to the early Neolithic period 8000 – 5000 B.C. in old Europe when a toad shaped figurine with a flower shaped head was discovered at Sesklo 6000 B.C. – 5800 B.C. The toad/frog motif is common in Neolithic pottery, especially in Italy and Crete. Gimbutas doesn’t make it clear what the distinction is between the Frog and Toad Goddess beyond that the former seems to be associated more frequently with birth and the latter concerns herself more with death and regeneration, a possible distinction I find useful. Certainly both are two facets of one female goddess as Creatrix/Destroyer.

 

More recently the Egyptian Goddess Creatrix Haquit was portrayed as a woman/frog. Hecate of Greece has a name Baubo that also means toad. Gimbutas also writes that the names given to the toad link it with the goddess in many European languages, for example, hexe in German, and fata in Italian dialects. All words refer to the ability of this goddess to read the future as prophetess. But primarily the toad was associated with the powers of death and her ability to restore life.

 

In the Americas I found more recent Indigenous mythology on the Toad as Goddess. Tlatechtli is a Pre – Columbian (1200 – 1519) goddess belonging to the Mexica. Although Tlatechtli’s name is masculine modern scholars interpret this toad figure as female because she is squatting giving birth. Some see her as crouching under the earth, mouth open waiting to devour the dead. Since the Aztec culture was a warring male dominated Patriarchal one I think it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that the Earth Goddess/Toad was seen as masculine to the Mexica.

 

In Mesoamerica we find Toad widely represented in art, often with feline or other non-naturalistic attributes, including jaguar claws and fangs. These images can be regarded as versions of Tlaltecuhtli. In contemporary Mexico, as in Guatemala, and throughout South America toads play a role in myth, sorcery, shamanism, and in curing/healing.

 

In South America the story of Toad begins with the birth of the divine hero twins when their natural mother is killed by the Jaguar People. The unborn twins are saved by Toad Grandmother, who is Mistress of the Earth, Owner of Fire, as well as Mother of the Jaguars, who can change back and forth between jaguar and toad. As the black jaguar she is a threat to humankind, as well as to other non human species. This wild cat aspect of the toad interests me because “cat women” are sometimes experienced as negative figures, perhaps legitimizing the dark side of the female in a concrete way.

 

Toad Grandmother rears the twins teaching them to hunt, cure, etc. but eventually they kill her. From her dismembered body comes food – cassava, or bitter manioc, and other useful plants. Toad as Grandmother in this story dies violently but also literally transforms herself in the process becoming food for the people even after she is slaughtered. This profound level of transformation suggests her immortal nature.

 

There are also many related stories in which a culture hero is taught hunting skills, etc., by a Toad who seems to be identical with the Earth goddess in the twin tradition. Myth’s abound in which an Indian takes aim at a giant supernatural toad, only to have her disappear and reappear elsewhere in the form of a gigantic black jaguar.

 

In many respects the most interesting South American version of the Earth mother as Toad is that of the Tacana of lowland Bolivia. In the male-dominated pantheon of the Tacana, the Earth Mother is one of the few female goddesses, but she is clearly of fundamental importance. She is also known as Pachamama, Guardian of the Earth.

 

In her animal form as a live toad (Bufo marinus – a toad with very toxic properties) she is kept in a circular hole dug below the altar of the temple somewhat reminiscent of the sipapu, or place of sacred emergence in the Hopi kiva, or the emergence hole of the subterranean gods of the Mexican Huichol Indians. The toad’s home is kept covered with a cloth, or, more, usually, a flat disk of cedar wood. Curiously she is fed a diet of frogs, which harkens back to Gimbutas’s distinction between the toad and the frog suggesting that the toad is more powerful than the frog because she symbolizes death and regeneration as well as birthing. On ceremonial occasions, offerings are made to this Toad goddess.

 

Toad is the originator of cultivated food plants and tropical forest horticulture. She is a culture bringer incarnating as Earth Guardian and Mistress of the animals, especially those that make their home underground. She also functions as Bringer of the Seasons. She is the mother of Rain, and the Bearer of the Moon. In her negative aspect (as usual) she devours the dead. Toad is therefore a complex figure. On one hand she is a protector, mentor of shamans, mother, teacher, regenerator of the Earth, bringer of fire and cultivated plants, and on the other hand she is also a vicious killer and one who swallows the dead.

 

There are also some interesting parallels from Asia. Especially in China and Japan we find numerous traditions in which toads appear as creatures skilled in the magic arts, transformers, mentors, spirit helpers and alter egos of curing shamans, etc. There are a number of apparently quite ancient tales of sages living in mountain caves in the company of giant toads who taught them their magical knowledge and who function as their spirit companions and avatars. Some toads were feared as monstrous supernatural beings capable of inflicting death and destruction, others were highly regarded as benevolent creatures that could draw down the clouds and bring rain and radiant visions. Again and again we see Toad as the nurturing and frightening animal/human aspect of the goddess as Creatrix/Destroyer.

 

After this journey through toad mythology I returned to my original question about what messages my garden toad as Earth Mother, Guardian, might be trying to convey to me.

What follows is what I learned…

 

Toad reminds me that I need more protection from the sun (from the desert sun and from the fathers of patriarchy) than I am getting.

 

Even more challenging S/he models that I have to shed an old skin by ingesting it. This second idea suggests that shedding an old skin or “letting go” is not enough. I also need to integrate more shadow qualities as I become a toad grandmother.

 

Toad is a terrestrial creature who spends a lot of time underground listening to the pulse of the Earth. As a goddess she communes with underground spirits. She also knows how to avoid extremes. Perhaps choosing to align myself with her “ground way of seeing” will help me to send down deeper roots and gain knowledge not otherwise available to me. She may help me to accept my amphibious nature, one that requires regular moisture to thrive, even as she breathes through her skin underground.

 

Toad also needs water to breed. This creative act is not possible in times of drought and escalating heat, one of the results of climate change that is impacting all life forms including myself. The Earth is on Fire. Perhaps all I can do is to witness what is, and ask her for guidance…

 

Toad is a healer and has been associated with female shamans for millennia so she carries the potential for healing splits that are the result of living in a patriarchal culture. I am just one of millions of women seeking closure for this collective wounding…

 

Toad comes to life during the nocturnal hours. Like her I can lean into starry skies and waxing moons just as she does finding nourishment by embracing the dark.

 

Since I am in the process of becoming an old woman I can’t think of a better Guide or Grandmother figure than Toad whose knowledge of destruction re –creation can help me negotiate the joys and difficulties of aging and dying with grace. Perhaps I can even acquire some wisdom in the process. Her venerable age reminds me that I too may have many more years to live. Only Toad and the cells of my dreaming body know for sure.

 

So ends this tale of Toad, an almost Old Woman and one who is surely a fierce lover of her own life.

 

Postscript: This is the second time I have written this essay! In it’s earlier incarnation I wasn’t clear how Toad was guiding me. Now I am.

Midnight Musings

It was damp.

Cloud heavy skies

spit silver raindrops…

When I awakened

to overflowing drainpipes,

and an unfamiliar voice

I wondered if

you were out there

hunting, or

singing love

songs to wet ground,

laying low in thick green –

Toad, lover of deep night.

I marveled,

picturing your image…

a throbbing throat

your tightly pinched face –

amber bejeweled eyes

wide ample body

nubbly pale skin,

a cream stripe

running down your back.

You had shed an old skin.

In the white heat of the day

I murmured endearments.

Could you feel

my joyful body thrumming?

 

Now I wondered

if you were calling.

When

signature hoof prints

marked

the driveway

at dawn

I believed you had.

Deer

bridge worlds

binding one

to the other

as you bridged mine

that day

with the gift

of your presence –

a toad dream come to life.

May we

share this bountiful river,

cottonwood canopy,

red road,

and meadows

replete with visits

from occasional bear and deer,

thick with burrows for you to hide in?

This mud house

needs a Toad –

one wed

to the ground way

of seeing.

She who tunnels

underground

transforming

with each sloughing

of wrinkled skin,

one that hugs the Earth.

Owl songs sweeten the night,

slice through poisoned air with silent wings

but rarely touch ground in flight.

Will you befriend me

and stay a while?

What I can offer

is the promise of

a little extra moisture

to help protect you

from too much sun…

That, and my love.

 

 

 

*Awi Usdi is a mythical white Cherokee deer who is a ‘justice maker” intervening in the lives of both animals and people to re-dress imbalances between the two.

 

Working notes:

 

Two days ago I wrote a toad story about a remarkable encounter between a giant female western toad and myself. The toad appeared in 92 degree heat and in three hops bounded into the only available moist ground. Within minutes she had dug herself into the hole as I covered her with leaves, branches, and cottonwood bark to protect her from the heat. I had been palpably longing for a toad to join me here all summer and had even built a small rock pool for one so this “visitation” seemed quite miraculous.

It wasn’t until after the toad appeared that it occurred to me that her unexpected arrival might mean something more than seeing a beloved friend.

“The Old Woman” is coming to life in me, and Toad just might be the ally I need.

The amphibious part of my life remains unresolved. Toad and frog thoughts pull me back towards the lush green of my past life along a woodland brook rich in riparian diversity. I am homesick and hungry for fog and mist, warm summer rains that last for days, toads trilling and grey tree frogs singing from the tree tops. Cool, cool nights. Are these thoughts keeping me present to myself helping me to complete the mourning process of leave –taking so that I can finally shed my old skin? Or are they warning me not to make another mistake?

Perhaps I need to live in both worlds after all.

I have to keep reminding myself that most people do not make the kind of radical life changes that I am in the process of making – leaving one whole life behind, house and land I love, along with absentee children, loneliness, and harsh winters, moving more than half way across a country to live in the high desert along Red Willow River, a place I love, but also on the edge of what will surely become ‘true desert’ before long. Drought, intolerable heat, and wildfires are bringing the terrifying effects of climate change into the daily world I inhabit here.

The knowing is excruciating.

I have come through my first summer in New Mexico scorched by the unrelenting heat, with strange and debilitating bodily symptoms that seem to come and go without rhythm or reason leaving me enervated and in a state of perpetual confusion. I feel as if I have literally become allergic to the sun. What can this mean? I have been ever so fortunate and deeply grateful to find a “home” here but as thankful as I am, I am also wary of what my body may be trying to tell me.

My body seems to be screaming and I don’t seem to know how to listen.

I may think that living here “permanently” is what I need but if so why is my body in such misery?

I have no answer to this question, which is why I think I need a Toad Woman to intervene…

Yesterday after doing some extensive research on the western toad I was devastated to learn that according to a number of academic sources these toads have already been extirpated from the only area where they once thrived in New Mexico – along the Rio Grande river and its tributaries in Rio Arriba County which is where I live. Because I have seen two western toads in two years I know this information is not correct – at least not yet. But the trend is alarmingly clear. It won’t be long. Dams, the artificial raising and dropping of river water, drought, chemicals, UV light, farming, fertilizers are all culprits, as is habitat loss and human indifference. So this longing I feel for toads has both truth and loss at its core because we are losing this species. Now. Next year, the year after, or a few more years and the last western toads will be gone. Forever.

Ever since I learned that western toad extinction is immanent all I can feel is heartbreak. I am used to feeling helpless in the face of ecological destruction. Every creature I love is under threat and I am living with what is, grieving as I go. But this story has a deeply personal aspect, because part of me thinks I need help from a toad to stay here and what happens to me if they are all dead?

This is where the power of an archetype becomes important. My encounter with the toad transported me into another dimension. Toad is more than a toad. She is also an ancient archetypal pattern that is aligned with, and embodies the Earth Mother (in both life and death aspects) in Mexican, Mesoamerican, and South American mythology (as well as in Asian mythology). I think I tapped into that pattern when I encountered my giant toad. If so, this experience has transpersonal aspects to it and help may be on the way.

As heartrending as it is to learn that live toads are disappearing, the pattern remains and I can still choose to align myself with it. I need a Toad Woman to ground me in the dark generative powers of the Earth Mother – to help me shed an old skin, to help me breathe through mud and lack of clarity. I also need access to more effective protection from the powers of the sun…

This morning I had a dream that made it clear that returning to my old home and land (both of which are for sale) is not an option for me even for a brief time. This dream -body response clarifies what not to do, but does not solve the problem of how to survive New Mexican summers. Next year maybe my longing to go north to Minnesota to be with Lynn Rogers and my friends the bears for two months will become reality. And then I could come “home” to New Mexico to bury my body in the mud for a month or so like Toad does until it cools off for good. Perhaps this would be a “both and” solution for my amphibious self because Ely is on the edge of the Northern Wilderness where lakes and moisture abound. There I could listen to summer rain and visit with my friends the toads and frogs that are still in abundance- for now.

Today while watering my wildflower oasis I discovered the first baby sagebrush lizard I have ever seen here. For the second time in a couple of days I felt that thrill of being present for amphibian and reptilian Life. My two house lizards have a tiny two – inch long son or a daughter that is presently hanging out with them on my adobe walls. Just seconds later I noted that the toad’s hole (which was located just below the place where the lizards bask) was no longer empty but was now occupied by someone who had dug herself in and pulled the dirt in over her head!

Cicada Symphony

Each evening

I sit in gathering shadows

listening for the nighthawk’s peet,

the owl softly hooting.

Peering into the dense cottonwood canopy

I await the symphony…

 

How do they know

just when to begin

in perfect synchrony?

Punctual to the minute,

the swell is deafening

This music of the spheres

saturates my body

with song as I breathe

into the wonder of

Nature on the wing.

 

 

Postscript and Natural History

 

Every night I sit on the porch at dusk listening to night sounds. At precisely 8:30PM the symphony begins as the arching boughs of the cottonwoods come alive with song. When it’s really hot the cicadas are so loud that when I stand underneath the cottonwoods I am transported to another realm.

 

One night they surprised me. A few drops of rain fell and instantly the choral overture began. It was 8:15 PM and this uncharacteristic early beginning seemed to have everything to do with the rain which only fell for a few minutes although the insects sang on… perhaps the cicadas too are singing to the Cloud People, praying for rain.

 

I listened to many recordings before identifying the cicadas that are singing from these cottonwoods! Mine are “cactus dodgers” that are known for their affinity for cacti during courtship because they can dodge deadly spines during frenzied mating! They are primarily black, gray, white, and beige colored; well camouflaged for the desert.

 

Cicadas in general are an order of insects distinguished by piercing and straw-like sucking mouthparts.  Worldwide, cicadas comprise about 2000 species, which occur primarily in temperate and warmer regions.

 

Like all insects, the usually dark to brownish to greenish cicada has three body parts—the head, the thorax and an abdomen.  It has six jointed legs, with the front pair adapted for digging—a reflection of its underground burrowing life when a nymph.  A strong flyer, it has two sets of transparent and clearly veined wings, perhaps its most distinctive feature.  At rest, it holds its wings like a peaked roof over its abdomen.  It has bulging compound eyes, three glistening simple eyes and short bristly antenna.

 

The male cicada has on its abdomen two chambers covered with membranes – “tymbals” – that it vibrates, when at rest, to produce its “song.”  It can make various sounds, including, for instance, an insistent call for a mate, an excited call to flight, or a hoped-for bluff of predators.  Both the male and female cicadas have auditory organs, which connect through a short tendon to membranes that receive sound.  The male produces a call distinctive to his species.  Ever faithful, the female responds only to the call of a male of her species.

 

The cicada often makes its home in the plant communities along river bottoms and drainages but can be found in many different desert ecosystems as well.

 

The cicada falls into one of two major groups, one called “dog day,” the other called “periodical.”  The dog-day cicadas, which usually appear during the hottest days of summer, hence the name, include all of the several dozen species of the Southwest.  They have a life cycle of two to five years. The periodical cicadas, which include several species, all east of the Great Plains, have a life cycle of 13 or 17 years.

 

Once one of the Southwestern female dog-day cicadas answers the call of a male cicadas and the two mate, she seeks out an inviting, tender twig or stem on a tree or a bush.  She uses the jagged tip at the end of her abdomen to gouge into a twig.  She lays eggs, each shaped like a grain of rice, into the wound eventually laying several hundred eggs.

 

Once a cicada nymph hatches, it drops to the ground, immediately burrowing into the soil, using its specially adapted front legs for the excavation.  It seeks out a root and uses its specially adapted mouthparts to penetrate through the epidermis and suck out the sap.  The cicada spends much of its time in its underground chambers.  Once grown, it tunnels upward, to near the surface, where it constructs a “waiting chamber.”  Upon receiving some mysterious signal, perhaps a temperature threshold, our nymph, along with its multiple kindred nymphs, emerges in a synchronized debut, one of the great pageants of the insect world.  It climbs up nearby vegetation, molts for the final time, emerging from its old nymphal skin as a fully winged adult, beginning the final celebration of its life.

 

The cicadas struggle for survival through their final days because they are nontoxic and relatively easily caught, especially during the final molt, and must deal with a crowd of potential predators, including birds such as boat-tail grackles, various woodpeckers, robins, red-winged blackbirds and even ducks; mammals such as squirrels and smaller animals; reptiles such as snakes and turtles; spiders such as the golden silk spider; and other insects such as its especially fearsome arch enemy, the cicada killer wasp.

 

Of course, the cicada does have certain defenses.  Once it has molted, it can fly swiftly to escape some potential predators.  The raucous male alarm call may startle some predators, especially birds.  It may occur in such numbers that it overwhelms the collective appetite of predators.

 

In perhaps its most novel defense, the desert cicada has developed an extraordinary ability to remain active throughout mid-day, when most would-be predators have to seek shelter from the desert heat.  Notably, the cicada, unlike any other known insect, can sweat, which helps it dissipate heat.  When threatened with overheating, desert cicadas extract water from their blood and transport it through large ducts to the surface of the thorax, where it evaporates.  The cooling that results permits a few desert cicada species to be active when temperatures are so high that their enemies are incapacitated by the heat.  No other insects have been shown to have the ducts required for sweating.

 

While the cicada may cause minor damage to the plants on which it feeds during its life cycle, it contributes in important ways to the environment.  Studies of the cicada in Colorado River riparian communities revealed the ecological importance of this species.  Feeding by the nymphs influences the vegetative structure of mixed stands of cottonwood and willow that occur in certain habitats.  Excess water removed from the host’s water conducting tissues (the xylem) during feeding is eliminated as waste and improves moisture conditions in the upper layer of the soil.  Xylem fluids are low in nutrients and the nymphs must consume large amounts of it to accommodate their energy needs.  Most of the water is quickly excreted and becomes available to shallow rooted plants.  Additionally, cicadas comprise an important prey species for birds and mammals, and the burrowing activity of nymphs facilitates water movement within the soil.”

 

The cicada has entered the realm of folklore across much of the world, possibly because its periodic emergence from darkness into light and song has been equated with rebirth and good fortune.

 

In one myth Cacama was the lord of the Aztec kingdom of Tezcuco who met his end at the hands of Spanish conquistadors. Cacama lives on in these winged desert treasures.

 

A Greek poet once wrote,  “We call you happy, O Cicada, because after you have drunk a little dew in the treetops you sing like a queen.”

 

An Italian myth held that “one day there was born on the earth a beautiful, good and very talented woman whose singing was so wonderful it even enchanted the gods.  When she died the world seemed so forlorn without the sweet sound of her singing that the gods allowed her to return to life every summer as the cicadas so that her singing could lift up the hearts of man and beast once again.”

In our desert Southwest Zuni mythology, the cicada outwitted the traditional trickster, the coyote.  The insect produced heat in Hopi mythology, heralding the arrival of summer, and it is “the patron of Hopi Flute societies in charge of both music and healing,” according to Stephen W. Hill, Kokopelli Ceremonies.  The cicada played a key role as a scout and a conqueror in Navajo creation myths.  It brought renewal and healing to other tribes.

Across the Southwest, from prehistory into historic times, the cicada became identified with the hump-backed flute player, or Kokopelli, a charismatic and iconic figure portrayed in rock art and ceramic imagery.

Kokopelli risked his life to lead the Ant People from mythological inner worlds to the present world, where they became The First People, after agreeing to follow the teaching of the Great Spirit.

“Kokopelli’s transparent wings have now unfolded and dried, and he is able to take to the sky.  Kokopelli’s reward is flight.  His continued gift to us is his reminder to be grateful that we no longer live in darkness.