Lessons from a Cicada Killer

Lessons from a Cicada Killer

Before we moved to our new house I’d never even seen one of them—never knew they even existed. The first reaction I had to the cicada killer was fear: at its size, its powerful stinger, the yellow-jacket coloring. They’re particularly large wasps, solitary creatures that burrow underground and feed on flowers—only killing cicadas to feed their young.

As I watched them over the course of a summer I began to realize how fear had predestined which aspects of the creature I’d noticed. The first thing was the size and then the stinger. In my brain I conjured a giant, quick-moving hypodermic needle incarnating all my childish terrors of pain, sickness, and inoculation. Because it was moving so fast I had only a few seconds to react, always in fright or disgust.

After a few weeks I realized on my own what the guidebooks said: that cicada killers aren’t especially threatening to humans. They kept their distance and so did I. Occasionally one might land near the butterfly garden, looking for some nectar. With butterflies you never felt repulsed or frightened—and they were much larger than the cicada killers. Of course growing up in the 1970s, I’d seen many a butterfly on tissue boxes, placemats, children’s books. They were one of the decade’s leitmotifs. Unfortunately for cicada killers, you usually didn’t see them on clothing patterns or soap dispensers.

Now the more attention I paid to them, the lovelier they became. I studied all the things fear had previously made invisible: their dragonfly form, the bilateral symmetry and pale yellow and black on their abdomen, their many similarities to the swallowtail butterflies that frequented the same garden. I could see their connection to other creatures while at the same time enjoying their uniqueness.

During that summer I was beginning to keep a nature journal. The act of drawing drew my attention to things like cicada killers—to notice the prosaic, or the things that inhabit the periphery of our conscious environment. Here’s the wonderful thing: the more I looked, the more I saw, all of it magical. A single blade of grass, a flower stem, a dried leaf from last year’s fall, my sons playing in the summer sun—all of them fascinating, ever-different. Then you go deeper, sometimes not by choice but simply by virtue of having put yourself at the threshold of your own perception—expectant but patient.

That’s how I witnessed a cicada killer die. Initially I only heard her buzzing, frantically. Then I saw her drop from the sky again and rest on the grass. Her wings beat furiously, as if she struggled against the gravitational pull of her own death to the last—not because she was conscious of what was happening or what it meant but because there was nothing else to do. When she was still and gone I peered closer than I’d dared while she was alive. That’s when I saw it: the universe at my feet.

The insect rested on the top of my front lawn, which, as I looked at it carefully, grew from the ground like a giant canopy, a rainforest teeming with life. Almost instantly, small ants arrived and began to explore the corpse of the cicada killer. Soon they would dismantle it, form disappearing like smoke in the air, becoming in part soil, part ant, part blade of grass and who knew what else? I saw that right there under the lawn which I walked over without thinking was a world of microscopic creatures who lived and died in successive dynasties and epochs prehistorically ancient. Somehow the earth became at that moment inconceivably more vast and precious.

When we pay attention, when we draw closer to someone or something, we begin to truly notice them. The more we notice, the more we care. And the more we care, the more we love.

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