The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

Summer Sonic


No not that one but the far more drilling sound of cicadas singing in the summer heat.

I both love and hate this sound. To be under a tree full of these curious insects is quite deafening, the noise cutting right to the pain centres of your brain via what feels like your gums. But nothing speaks of farawayness and summer like the rattle of the cicada and when I hear them I am travelling again across lonely roads of halcyon freedoms where I need to to nowhere fast and everywhere I am is the the right place to be. Of course, in reality, I usually spend my days struggling under sweaty suns to jobs and routine in this mega-metropolis but for a moment the sound does transport me and I have to like the Japanese summer for that alone. Indeed Japan, even Tokyo, is full of insects and nature in general. It really surprised me how sterile the countryside in Kent looked and felt when I went home last year. There were only a few insects buzzing through the shrub and forests there, even in a nature reserve I went to; and though the rolling Kentish farmland still looked pretty, with the fields wide and green and the trees heavy with leaves, it all seemed so still and quiet. Of course there are no cicadas rattling the trees with their lust to give the woodland that wild jungle feel of Japan`s forests but there were also almost none of the bees, wasps, grasshoppers, butterflies and even birds that I remembered as a child. In fact there was nothing of that messy, uncontrollable nature that seemed so red in tooth and claw (or at least painful stings) to me before. Not all of this is a trick of youthful memory either as this article from 2003 points out. I guess Rachel Carson`s Silent Spring, from which the following quote is taken, is finally here. How could it not be if we are doing what she talks about. And we are.

“These sprays, dusts, and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes — nonselective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the “good” and the “bad,” to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in soil — all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called “insecticides,” but “biocides.” “

For now at least, Japan is a haven for all that crawls, slithers and wings I had never seen stag or rhino beetles before I came here; I see wonderful dragonflies almost everyday in my local park whereas in the UK they were a rare treat and even though I am surrounded my concrete, birds from the humble sparrow to massive jungle crows share this space with me and we can more or less co-exist. But it is cicadas that have my true affection even though I actually see no point to their existance as they acheive nothing in their lives apart from the next generation of pointless insects.  I love them however because they are so basically silly, you have to really don`t you? Get this, they live underground for anything from 2 to 17 years as a caterpiller-like larvae drinking root juice and waiting. They then mutate into an seriously ugly but disarmingly determined nymph instar stage to burrow out of the ground one summer`s evening. How do they know it`s summer, how do they know it`s night-time and never minding that; how do they dig through half a metre`s depth of hard earth without any special digging limbs?  Beats me!Once out of the ground they doggedly climb a nearby tree to a dizzying roost whereupon they basically remove themselves from their own skin; split-open  their backs and another, very different (and bigger!!) adult cicada pops out to sing and shag for a week or so before dying.

Now isn`t nature amazing? Anyone who says evolution is impossible and that some sentiant, surreal intelligence must have designed it all is, in my humble opinion, talking out of their lower-down the food chain arse. Really, if you were going to design a life-cycle you couldn`t do a much worse job than that suffered by the cicada so, so much for intelligence if you ask me. And if successful mutations are your considered stumbling block to acceptance of natural selection note that one rather silly little insect does it twice in its life and carries on being a successful being. Which I personally think that is truely amazing and I find it facinating. 

So much so that I was up to 3:30 am last night taking pictures of the little beasties in the local park. It was fun painting with light and bouncing flash off distant trees and all that. Luckily at three am no-one could see me pleading with bugs to stay still as the exposures dragged.  Nor, at that time of night (morning) could neighbours see the rather strange contortions I had to undertake to balance the tripod, shine the light on the insect so the camera could focus; adjust the light settings, because it was darker when I removed the torch; move the flash around to bounce it up and down; open or close the soft box; wiggle the torch to paint the tree bark, but not to much; de-mist lens which fogged-up repeatedly and unseen in the dark humidity of an approaching typhoon and yes, well press the shutter and take the picture too. Not easy but I had a blast. Yes it is a little strange and difficult to explain to normal peopl but I hope his post helps do that a little.

Maybe I`ll do it all again soon as there are better pictures to be had, I`m sure.

Anyway it is 4am I have got to go to bed.



3 responses

  1. Some amazing shots.

    August 10, 2009 at 8:58 pm

  2. Andy

    Ugly looking critters but great shots.

    August 16, 2009 at 8:06 pm

  3. Really nice shots, a lot of effort went into getting them. The one with the wee beast coming out of it’s shell was brilliant.

    Not long until all the wee beasts are gone (along with the humidity) and we can all have some more peaceful nights….

    August 23, 2009 at 2:14 am

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