Friday, June 10, 2011

Cicada Brood XIX: Generations

I’ve always been fascinated by cicadas. (Okay, I like all kinds of critters!)

You could measure the passage of time by cicadas, the way Indians measure time in “moons.” It’s kind of like when Halley’s Comet visits—only the cicada periods are much closer together, so that we can experience more than just one emergence in a lifetime.

For instance, thirteen years ago it was 1998, and we were living in Columbia; behind our duplex was an empty field that was surrounded by the trees that line Hinkson Creek and one of its tributaries.

The waves of cicada sound whirled in repeating circles around that ring of trees. We sat on our patio, drank beers, and marveled at the sound. It was hypnotic, almost tantric. It was a truly awesome experience. (Ah, my beer-drinkin’ days . . . Oh, well.)

Hmmm . . . minus another thirteen years . . . it was May 1985 when we had the thrill of meeting the grandparents of this year’s cicadas. I’d just finished my first year of college! I was distracted quite a bit that spring—trumpeting in a summer orchestra and going out on dates a lot, if memory serves!

But I recall it being a hot spring, and the cicadas being rather messy, especially toward the end. One of my friends, in particular, complained bitterly, but I was thrilled by the cicadas’ vast numbers.

Back another thirteen years, and I was six, just finishing kindergarten at Blue Ridge Elementary. I vividly remember the morning Mom and I noticed them clambering out of the earth in our backyard and dragging themselves across the grass (kind of how newborn opossums grapple through their mother’s fur from birth canal to pouch). We watched them creep up the bark of trees.

And there, we watched them push, then pull themselves from their shells and emerge as pearly white, newborn adults!

I had great patience; I watched the whole molting process over and over again. (And I still never get tired of it.)

I’m so grateful my mom isn’t the sissy-girl type—never once did she go “Ew! Yukky bugs! Don’t touch!”

She and my dad encouraged me to treat them with respect, to watch, to touch them gently.

They taught me never to harass them while they were molting or while their wings were hardening. We talked about them, and I learned. I even put some in a bug container and brought them to show Mrs. Terry and the rest of my class!

How many more times will I be able to witness this phenomenon? My dad told me a few days ago that he was wondering if he would get to see the periodical cicadas again—a rather sobering thought. It has inspired him to appreciate this mass emergence all the more.

And what will any of us be doing in 2024, or 2037? I’ll be lucky if I live to see them in 2050. (And, while we’re at it, who knows what the future holds for them? Cicada broods have been known to go extinct.)

Heck; who knows what the future holds within just the next thirteen years—? About anything?

At any rate, by the end of June, the periodical cicadas will all be gone, so we’d better experience—enjoy—glory in!—this wonderful miracle of nature while we can. Eh?


There’s lots of fun stuff online about periodical cicadas. To learn more about these amazing little animals, start with the Cicadamania website, where they’re tracking Brood XIX (the thirteen-year cicadas we have around here), sponsoring contests for finding cicadas with white eyes, selling mugs and tee-shirts, and generally having a grand time! I know you’ll like it! (There’s even a “Cicada Wedding Planner” for those anticipating a “big fat cicada wedding”!)

Special thanks for Susan Ferber for supplying the lovely photos in this post. I took the picture of the deceased cicadas; my parents took the picture of me in the sycamore. And I don't know who took the picture of the MOSSPAC orchestra of 1985--sorry I cropped out the violins. Hah--can you find me in that picture?

Bonus fun: Thirteen years ago I discovered that you can press cicada wings and glue them onto pages just as you can leaves. Here's a page from my 1998 journal! (Naturally, these wings came from already-dead cicadas!)

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