Portals…

(portal made of willow fronds)

 

Lately, as I meander around the Bosque and down the paths to the river I am seeing portals everywhere I look. I walk under one made of golden cottonwood boughs, another graced by willows, a few created by rusty iron or wooden gates – all pathways to the beyond.

 

Portals are gateways or doorways into other worlds, or a different way of seeing and it is not lost on me that perhaps I am “seeing” portals everywhere in Nature because according to the Celtic/Native American calendars we are approaching the end of the wheel of the year here in Northern New Mexico as well as elsewhere. Perhaps I need to discover a new way of seeing. I can set this intention for the coming year even as I pass through each gate…Climbing through this mountainous twelve month cycle of steep ascents/descents has exhausted my soul, body, and spirit.

 

All Hallows, the Feast of the Dead, All Souls day, mark the end of the yearly cycle for many including me.

 

Then we will enter the space in between to emerge at winter solstice…

 

Although Indigenous people’s calendars are more fluid, around here, for example, the Tewa speaking peoples will tell you that in November “they do nothing” as one man from Santa Clara Pueblo recently quipped. The Harvest is in. Frost is on the horizon. There are no tribal dances until the winter solstice. Around us our beloved Cottonwoods are slowly losing their golden canopies. The owls are silent. Migrating Sand hill cranes serenade us with their haunting collective cries. Only the tracks and scat of animals remind us that our wild companions are still out and about.

 

image1.

 

Some Indigenous peoples from the North call this full moon “the leaves falling moon” or “the white frost on grass moon” names that seem particularly apt when describing what is happening. I could also name this moon “making tracks in the mud moon.”

 

The period that we are about to enter in about a week is a space where the veil lifts… It is a time of rest and reflection, a time to dream the world (and ourselves) into another way of being, perhaps. A mystical time for those of us who are sensitized to All That Is.

 

It is my favorite time of year.

 

In Northern New Mexico it is also the ‘season of light’. The dance between the sun star and her shadows is a source of ongoing amazement, exhilaration, and deep wonder, peaking at dawn and at eventide with each becoming a portal into the other.

 

As scalloped hearts and bear paw leaves drift to the ground and branches (some curved like claws), stretch their limbs and fingers towards an ever deepening blue or shark gray sky, I watch juncos, sparrows, and nuthatches feasting on fluffy chamisa and golden aster seeds. Last night the almost full moon hid her face behind rose pearled clouds.

 

I create a conscious intention beginning with this poignant and oh so beautiful “leaves falling in drifts” moon to find a way to move through this next year with more grace and less chaos in my life acknowledging that I am not certain how to Earth myself in a more generous way except by developing a new way of seeing.

 

Extremes of every sort have defined my days this year with me plunging into despair and grief over climate change and woman hatred.

 

Eerily, my concern for the Earth has often been mirrored by personal crisis. The veil between Earth and self seems to have evaporated like the mist that rises over the river in delicate plumes reaching towards a now golden sun or ever deepening dusk. I can’t help wondering if this merging might be a natural response to aging and/or my heightened sensitivity, a result of being in such an intimate relationship with Nature?

 

Perhaps as Earth Chaos intensifies I will continue to experience my own extremes even more deeply? If the latter is the case my hope and intention is to carry the awareness that this state is “natural” under the circumstances.

 

To accept what is, might be I the greatest challenge I face.

 

One portal to acceptance as I already mentioned might be to shift my awareness into a different way of seeing. I can create this intention without knowing exactly what I mean…

 

As I pass under the portal of the end of this year entering “the space in between” my earnest hope is that I will not lose myself, even when I stand alone in a sea of humanity whose (personal and political) behavior mystifies me, or that I will not succumb to despair, or make an unnecessary descent into rage or sorrow.

 

I remind myself that to stay with the truth of what is, as I experience it, is also heroic (although I never feel this way) and that others who cannot be present to their lives in a meaningful way will try to dismiss my life as inauthentic (too emotional, too sensitive, too fill – in – the blank, blah, blah, blah,) because witnessing human horrors is too threatening to them.

 

Rape is still rape regardless of disbelief.

 

Like the deer in my dreams who bed down in tall grasses before the open gate may I too surrender to what is, and to that which is unknown. Animal Peace is the gift offered when we are present to the moment.

 

And like the worms living in my compost heap who create ‘black gold’ in the process of living out their lives, may I find a way to do the same… perhaps through a different way of seeing.

 

A lot to ask for, I know.

 

Still, as I pass under this next portal the help I need is near… All I need to do is to follow the tracks of the animals that are so dear.

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The Compost Lizard

IMG_7699.JPGIMG_7710.JPG

(  Top picture is one taken of one of the house lizards a while back – 2nd picture is one of the house lizards sunning himself today (his mate disappears every time I go to take a picture but she’s out too), and the 3rd picture is the little compost lizard in his lair taken at noon. All are sunning themselves as I write!)

 

There is a wily sagebrush lizard

peeking out of star dry flowers

sunning himself on

brittle decaying leaves.

All but two of his

kind have disappeared

since the night freeze settled

kindly,

blackening few tender plants.

How brilliant that he

should choose such a practical

abode, a circular container

warmed by an autumn sun,

full of rotting greenery!

Assured of food from insects

for a while yet,

his eyes are narrow slits when

he slumbers, dreaming his next meal.

Imagine

the variety of bugs

who still visit this

compost heap in

wild abandon,

buzzing madly

at high noon,

oblivious to Lizard’s

canny presence in their midst!

 

It is mid October (10/18) and the mountain peaks wear snowy hats. Here in the valley we have had more rain in the last ten days than we have had all year … the first flakes swirl. The dark eyed juncos have arrived. For the last few days I have been noticing the absence of my house lizards who seem to have vanished with the heat. There are only two left out of the original 6 and these two hide behind the slat closest to the door, slipping out to sunbathe when the sun warms my adobe walls.

 

When I first met the “compost lizard” I knew he wasn’t one that lived here all summer. Earlier in the season I had a large compost lizard that moved to the south wall as it got cooler. So where did the small compost lizard come from, clever little fellow? A compost heap is a lizard heaven of sorts with all the leftovers watered routinely to keep the worms happy, and with heat trapped in a round plastic cylinder the wind is kept at bay. At noontime I go out to visit him noting his blue belly hoping that he will stay around a bit longer, perhaps fattening himself up for an intermittent winter sleep. I would like to think that he will find a safe burrow in this mountain of debris, and that we shall meet again in spring.

 

I recently read that adolescent lizards are more active in the fall, this might account for the sudden appearance of the compost lizard. I also learned that occasionally lizards will “hibernate” together… I wonder if this might be true for my two house lizards who are currently hunkered down behind the slats and the house… I will be watching to see how long they stay there.

 

Lizards are not active during winter; they enter a state of dormancy called brumation which is not the same as hibernation. With both, metabolic processes slow down but with brumation the lizards alternate dormancy with activity. They need to drink water to avoid dehydration. Lizards build up a high level of glycogen (sugar) that can be used for muscle activity. They also need less oxygen to breathe and this is a good thing because some dig holes in mud where oxygen levels are lower. Other lizards will hide underground in old burrows, in a hole in a tree or under leaves. I love knowing that my lizards will still be around even if I don’t see them!

Our Amazing Junipers

(Author’s Guardian Juniper Tree)

 

Tomorrow we are supposed to have the first freezing temperatures and I am watering my adopted juniper, the first tree species that I fell in love with when I came to Abiquiu, because of its fantastic myriad of shapes, its tenacious ability to cling to cliff edges and because so many of these trees are allowed to live out their natural lifespans of a few hundred to a thousand years or more. Now my love and amazement for these drought resistant trees has deepened into genuine concern because this summer’s drought has turned clumps of needles brown on most of the junipers on the mesas and many appear to be dying unnaturally (very old trees do have a strange half dead look that is normal). Anyone with eyes can see how dis – stressed these trees are.

 

Water is Life. Here in the river valley, including the Bosque there are fewer dead patches but little or no new growth on the junipers. A few days ago I took a tape measure to measure new spikes on the solitary juniper that I water, noting that most fronds had bright blue green spires measuring twelve inches or more. Although I am happy for my tree I am also frightened because it is clear that we are now living the ravages of climate change and most of the junipers around here have little or no new growth and are not doing well.

 

Western junipers are an “indicator species.” If they are showing signs of stress from lack of water then other less resilient trees are even more threatened. Not to take heed of this juniper tree warning would be a grave mistake. For me, the upside of this knowing has validated my belief that I must stay with native flowering plants and because of what the junipers are saying instead of planting fruit and other trees I am going to choose more junipers. Fortunately, there are many beautiful cultivars to choose from. My neighbor Bruce has a gorgeous blue green gray green teardrop shaped juniper that is definitely on my list. It even has a huge bird’s nest hidden within its boughs.

 

Western junipers are dimorphic, meaning that they have two growth forms. One is upright (like my tree), and the other, much more common is bush-like opening to the sun like a flower. Even the biggest trees are not taller than 40 feet. The seedlings especially bear bluish green awl shaped leaves that are pointed at the tip. Mature leaves are a darker green and scale – like in appearance. The older leaves are borne in pairs or whorls of three and are rounded at the tip. The arrangement of the adult “leaves” in a circular pattern gives the twigs and uncanny resemblance to coral.

 

Although juniper and cedar are related – both belong to the cypress family – cedars produce small woody cones while junipers produce a bluish berry –like cone. Most junipers are dioecious, meaning that male and female cones are found on separate trees and once you observe the difference it is easy to differentiate between the two (to make things confusing some junipers have both male and female cones on one tree). The male cones are brownish in appearance and very small. These latter produce pollen sacs that release pollen grains in spring and summer, as many people that suffer from allergies know. The female cones look like berries. As the trees age some of the trunks become twisted and gnarled.

 

Junipers are one of the top ten plants for wildlife. Many birds love their berries and around here the Cedar waxwings, the Townsend solitaire, and American robins flock to the juniper cluster that shades the ground. I also see Dark Eyed juncos, Canyon towhees, and House finches scratching the ground under the tree. Collared doves, Pinion jays, Magpies, sparrows, and Western bluebirds to mention a few, gather in these trees for protection from hawk predation. And when winter winds are fierce and deadly, birds of all kinds seek protection from the bitter cold in the junipers’ thick branches.

 

To survive in dry climates, western junipers have long taproots and extensive lateral root systems that can efficiently obtain moisture where none seems to exist. They are intolerant of shade, so if you are going to plant some give them space and lots of sun.

 

Of particular interest to us during climate change is the way Junipers use water. Rain falling on a juniper canopy is partially intercepted by the foliage, branches, and trunk (this of course is also true for other trees but less so if their canopies are not dense). In brief storms like the few we had this summer much of the intercepted moisture evaporated and did not reach the ground so the tree roots were never watered. Wind has a negative impact during storms also lessening the possibility of the trees’ ability to absorb moisture and we had wind with every brief rain.

Transpiration nourishes the trees and is the process by which water is carried from roots and trunks to the small pores on the underside of leaves, where it changes to vapor and is released to the atmosphere. Transpiration cannot occur in soil that is devoid of moisture so without rain or during brief deluges most of the water becomes run off and even the lateral roots of Junipers (and other trees if they have them) receive little or no water. Transpiration ceases as the Junipers try to conserve what water they already have. In Abiquiu all of our un -watered Junipers (as well as other trees) have been literally starving for water. It is no wonder leaves/ needles withered turned brown and dropped to the ground.

 

Now that it is October and we are getting the first real rain of the year we need to hope that the air temperatures stay mild enough to keep transpiration occurring. Soil water uptake is reduced when the soil temperature is below 50 degrees. If air temperatures are near or below freezing, then very little or no transpiration occurs at all.

 

Adult junipers define our unique landscape with their glacial growth and fragrant aroma. These trees are active during much of the year, and are able to absorb spring runoff to begin transpiration. They are also able to take advantage of soil nutrients long before other trees are awake, making junipers the ideal tree to plant in times of unwelcome planetary change.

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.

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.