Hudson Valley musicians, scientists, artists and poets celebrate the cicada

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(Photo by Will Dendis)

They’re here, in their billions: the bug-eyed monsters (or rather, monster-eyed bugs), invaders from a strange world beneath our own. If you live in one of the pockets of territory paralleling the Appalachian Mountain chain where Brood II of Magicicada Septendecim, the 17-year cicada, makes its nurseries, you don’t need me to tell you that by now. And you may be a little weirded out, as the long intervals between mass emergences from the soil of these large, noisy insects do not give us humans much of a chance to get used to the idea. Some folks even get a little panicky, associating the poor innocent arthropods – who eat exactly nothing during their brief sojourn aboveground – with crop-consuming locust swarms of Biblical proportions, and demand to know what can be done to “control” them.

Mikhail Horowitz isn’t buying it. “A pox on those who refer to them as a pestilence!” cries the Saugerties-based poet and performance artist, who also works as an editor for the publications office at Bard College. “I feel that it’s something that should be honored.” Rather than an invading horde, Horowitz sees the cicadas’ short visit at the end of a 17-year dirt nap as “their afterlife,” and says so in a sonnet (plus three lines, to add up to 17) that he wrote for the occasion [see sidebar]. “Our world is their Brigadoon,” he says in wonder, referring to the mythical Scottish town that appears to mortal sight only once every hundred years.

Horowitz, who grew up in Brooklyn, far from the haunts of Brood II, became intrigued with the mysterious life cycle of the cicada from an early age. “The first inkling I had was in summer camp in 1962, in Rifton. It was a little too late for the emergence, but I saw all these papery husks on the maple trees…Then, in New Paltz in 1979, there it was!” He recalls accompanying painter Bob Crimi as he hauled his mobile easel from place to place where the cicadas could be found, trying to capture their ephemeral beauty before they completed their ritual of mating, laying eggs and dying. Horowitz found himself entranced.

“It’s such an incredibly poetic event – poignant and soul-stirring,” he says. “For them it’s a Dionysian revel…There’s sunlight, there’s singing, there are other cicadas!” He compares the cicada’s “odyssey over time” to the Pacific salmon’s “odyssey over distance” to return to the streams of their birth to spawn: “a heroic cycle.”

It’s tough not to get caught up in Horowitz’s enthusiasm for this rarely experienced wonder of nature, even though this correspondent can clearly remember feeling driven to the edge of madness in 1996 after about a month’s worth of the incessant high-pitched din of insect ecstasy. Horowitz waggishly terms the chorus, at its peak, “the Hades Philharmonic,” and compares it to the sound of “millions of gamelans in the trees. You have to be made of stone not to respond to this.”

When he knew that another visitation was coming due in 1996, Horowitz got together with avant-garde music doyenne Pauline Oliveros and art gallery owners Georg and Nancy Donskoj to organize Kingston’s first Cicada Celebration: a “hail and farewell” display of art, video, music, poetry and a scientific presentation from an entomologist at the old location of Donskoj and Co. on lower Broadway in the Rondout. He jokes that some of that same “brood” is reemerging for the Second Septendecimal Cicada Celebration, which kicked off on June 5 with a series of cicada-themed events at Mohonk Mountain House.

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