For me, the highlight of every summer is the opportunity to go camping. We used to endure the tenting ordeal; but last year we finally upgraded to an aging but very accommodating travel trailer. We've kept one favorite tradition from our tenting days, though: judging the quality of the night for camping. It doesn't matter so much anymore, this question of whether or not the night is "a perfect camping night." The decision remains, however, if only to note the weather and acknowledge those precious few ideal days. This year we counted (and lost count in the process) more than fifty "perfect camping nights." Most of the nights which actually fell during times spent in our newly-acquired camper failed to qualify, which is only to be expected. No matter, really, because I honestly love the sound of a warm summer rain on a metal roof. Talk about a perfect night's sleep!
Summer's nearly over now, though; and the camper sits lonely in the driveway waiting for the day when I'll admit there will be no more camping this year. I'll move the trailer off the pavement and into its winter spot by the garage, to make room for the inevitable snowplowing piles. There remain fewer than a handful of official summer days, by the calendar. Tonight, however, just happens to be a perfect camping night. This, despite the fact that the weather since Labor Day has been just a nuance short of dismal. I made a point to notice the quality of this nearly-fall evening--even though I stopped keeping score a couple weeks ago. I had to say the incantation aloud: "It's a perfect camping night."
How can you tell the perfect ones from the not-so-perfect? There's more to it than a lack of rain, of course. For one thing, the temperature has to be over sixty. Even though the camper has its nifty little furnace, I really hate the need to turn the thing on. A perfect camping night, in order to be included in the tally, has to be that quintessential summer evening. Not even a whisper of a breeze in the air. No lingering mist of rain or drizzle. At least a slice of the moon. But most of all, you have to have the sound of uncountable tiny night critters. That's the clincher. When all the conditions are just right, the symphony of the nighttime insects is so pure that you'd swear it was straight off the soundtrack of a movie. It's a sound that tells you, without any other clues at all, that this is one of those nights.
For the final half of summer, however, we've endured a strange intrusion on those otherwise impeccable evenings. We've had a visitor: a creature so vocal that it drowns out the sweet melodies produced by all the rest of the nocturnal orchestra. He's a cicada--what some folks would label a "locust." ("Locusts" are actually giant, swarming grasshoppers. Different critter all-together.) You won't often see one up close, except when you find an abandoned husk of crispy shell left behind in shedding. Alive and well, a cicada stays out of sight high in a tree. His grayish body (nearly as large as your little finger!) blends beautifully with tree bark. I haven't seen our border, but he's kept to the same tree for weeks now. He talks to us whenever the night is right.
He's capable of making a sustained sound louder than anything you or I could produce from our ordinary vocal chords. There's nothing musical about his song, either. It's similar to the sound you hear when you pass too close to an electrical substation. Usually, there would be at least two or three of these insects singing. When they perform together their shrill buzzing becomes an almost super-sonic background for the rest of the bugs. But when one of these screeching beasts decides to go solo he overwhelms the whole show. Our personal cicada has been auditioning every night for at least the past month.
I mentioned he talks to us, and that's exactly how it seems. His sentence is three identical words, sounding a bit like reeeet reeeet reeeet. The pitch and cadence is always the same; but he sometimes drops the third word. Mostly, though, it's three beats-pause, three beats-pause. For hours. He never tires. And the longer he talks, the less often he inserts the two-beat version. He's never disturbed or discouraged by anything we do: lights on or off, clapping or whistling. Doesn't matter; it's reeeet reeeet reeeet all evening and well past bedtime. He's a pest, and he spoils the idyllic sounds from all the rest of the nightime singers.
I'm done complaining, though. Listening to my invisible bug-friend carrying-on from his treetop hiding place, I'm reassured that summer is still with us. It's another perfect camping night; not the last, I hope. Soon enough the air will turn cooler and our personal evening soloist will go wherever big bugs go for the winter. Gone, too, will be the rest of the band: the crickets, grasshoppers, frogs, toads, and whatever else lives out there making summer music. After a brief, brilliant display of crystal-clear chilly nights and dazzling daylight leaf displays the only sound in the ever-earlier darkness will come from the north wind moving in. I'll sure miss that reeeet reeeet reeeet when that time comes--until spring returns and the cicada with it. I'm sure he'll be back.
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