I simply love summer in Provence, the long hot days, warm evenings on the terrace, the scent of warm pine and lavender, golden sunrises and rich orange sunsets too.
But summer wouldn’t be summer without the constant kss-kss, of the soundtrack of cicacdas screaming in the trees. It’s a sound that people either love, or hate, and I am happy to say that I love it, and celebrate hearing the first one, with the same joy I have at seeing the first swallow of summer too.
The cicada is, without doubt, an emblem of Provence, you can buy ceramic ones to pop on the side of a house, metal ones in the form of pot stands and table-cloth weights, or any number of decorative items painted, stamped or designed to look like these beautiful little insects. You can even buy little wooden ones, that are filled with beads, making a sound similar to a cicada when shaken, which speaking from experience, can drive any rational parent slightly mad, if it is shaken constantly on the long trip back through France
The ‘fake’ cicada sounds can be annoying, but for some, the natural kss-kss is even worse. A couple of years ago there was an article about holidaymakers in a small village in the Var region France, having approached the local Mairie about the noise, complaining that it was too loud, went on all through the day, and was disturbing their break. They had even been to local shops looking for chemicals that they could spray into the trees to make them stop, which to me just seems incredible …. As the mayor said ‘it was the soundtrack of Provence, part of our folklore’ and I have to agree with him.
The folklore that he refers to, is that the cicadas were sent by God to rouse the peasants in the fields from their afternoon slumbers on hot summer days, and to stop them becoming too lazy. Apparently the plan backfired as the constant kss-kss acted like white-noise encouraging their rest and aiding sleep.
It really is the soundtrack of Provence, and just lying back, listening to the constant chatter has the same effect on me, as the sounds of waves breaking on a beach, causing me to breathe deeply, relax, and yes, on occasions doze off in the chair, so I can vouch for the soporific affect it had on the peasants.
Here, we can expect to hear them start their summer calling at around the summer solstice, and it starts with one or two, awkwardly shouting from their little spot on a tree, almost as if they are a little uncertain that is what they should be doing. As mid-June approaches, I start to listen out for them, always hearing the first ones in two clumps of trees along the Veloroute du Calavon – one near the Pont Julien, and the other near the junction with the road to Viens.
Those first sounds are so tentative, almost like an old engine trying to start on a cold, damp morning, as the earliest males start to shout, in their constant search for a mate. I understand that they can spend many years in the earth as nymphs, before making their way into the branches, so it’s understandable that they take a little while to really find their voices. But very quickly the decibels start to rise, as more and more fill the trees, shouting from sunrise until sunset, filling the air with that wonderful sound of summer.
Their activity is heat-related and they don’t function well when it is below the mid twenties centigrade (a little bit like me to be honest), which explains why they sound so slow and uncertain in the morning and wind down their chatter as the sun sets and the evenings start to cool. It is also why we tend not to hear them if we have a storm, with the temperature drop, rather than the rain being the reason they stop calling.
Out on the bikes we notice little spots where the decibels rise to pop-concert levels, the constant kss-kss chatter, drowning out any other background sounds that may be heard just a few metres down the road. The little road between Bonnieux and Lacoste is one of the noisiest….
Together with the road between Roussillon and Goult ….
I’m not sure whether it’s the type of trees (there are dense areas of pine) or perhaps something about their position, but the cicadas seem to congregate in greater numbers here than in other spots. Here they seem to all be capable of creating their maximum decibel level, which has been recorded as being above 120 decibels (a busy street is about 80), and with every tree hosting large numbers of the insects, it’s fair to say that you can hardly hear yourself think….
But that said, I always like to stop and let the sound wash over me, it’s so calming..
Once summer is over, the silence is almost palpable, the birdsong seems clearer and we can hear other noises too, that have been muted over the summer, hidden by the cicadas’ calls. It seems very strange for a few weeks, but we soon get used to it, although at this time of year I find myself longing for the noise again ….
All I can say is roll on summer, for me it can’t come soon enough …