On our morning walks, Clancy, Riley, and I have smelled a change in the air over the past week. The angle of light has shifted, falling lower across the trail. Mornings are bathed in a honeyed-glow and the geese are flocking up along the river.
Along the trail we travel every day, the spring’s trilliums, wild geraniums, and columbines have long faded, the wild rose petals have fallen and the rose hips are shrinking from the heat. Bellflowers, thistle, Queen Anne’s Lace, goldenrod and yellow coneflowers now decorate the edges of the path.
In the constellation Canis Major (which means Big Dog, as it represents the larger hunting dog of Orion), Sirius (“scorching”) is the brightest star, so the ancient Romans called it the Dog Star. In their day, Sirius rose and set with the sun at this time of year, and they believed its fierce light added to the season’s heat, and that the dog days brought lethargy and disease to man and madness to dogs.
But the East Indians had another “dog story” related to Sirius, which is also known in India as Svana, the dog of Prince Yudhistira. The young prince, his brothers and dog set off in search of heaven’s gates. The brothers complained, resisted, and gradually abandoned the journey, but the dog, Svana, faithfully traveled through adventures and perils with his companion, all the way to the gates of heaven. The gatekeeper said the prince could enter, but not Svana, to which the prince replied there could be no heaven for him without his dog. This pleased Lord Indra, who then welcomed them both within.
Clancy and Riley like this story very much.
One morning we stopped on the bridge for our usual break and “treat party.” A resonant clicking and thrumming sounded near us and we jumped up to discover the source. There beside us was a beautiful male Tibicen cicada. This genus is the annual variety of cicada, unlike those which appear at 13 or 17-year intervals.
But to call our friend an annual visitor belies the fact he’s already spent three years or more underground as a nymph, eating tree roots and progressing through 5 instars (developmental stages) before emerging and undergoing his final molting above ground, when he shed his last larval shell and gained wings, becoming the fine fellow we met, singing for a mate by rapidly compressing and releasing his tymbal muscles.
He’s called a “Dog-Days Cicada” because this is the time of year he joins us at the topsoil level.
Cicadas have a prominent place in human mythology. Often in these stories, because their final molting leaves behind a shell of their former shape, cicadas are associated with reincarnation, resurrection, transformation, and the shedding of self-illusions one must surrender to attain enlightenment.
In some places on our endlessly amusing globe, cicadas have been, and remain, an epicurean delight. We assured our friend he would not be eaten by us, but warned him about the birds and squirrels who would find him very tasty indeed.
He replied that one who symbolizes rebirth long ago welcomed death as a necessary and harmonious traveling companion. Riley and Clancy nodded, agreeing that life is best lived now, because now is all there is.
Our friend flew away, but we remained in silence together on the bridge for a time, Riley and Clancy content to enjoy all the delights the morning brought to their senses, while I, the weaker spirit, sought–like my ancestors–to make myth and meaning of the world around me and to understand my origins, my purpose, and what may come. Clancy laid his paw on my right hand and Riley licked the left, calling me back to the present.
I settled back to watch the geese and smell the breeze, enjoying the dog day before me. Eventually, I thought that now must be heaven, for like the Indian prince, I believe there is no heaven without my 4-legged companions.