Here Come the Cicadas

I have always been fascinated by cicadas – the periodical ones that emerge every 13 or 17 years in a frenzy of feeding and mating. When I taught an introductory environmental science course, I would show the section from the Planet Earth movie that focuses on the cicadas and their emergence. Because Brood X (the 17-year cicadas) are limited to the northeast US, most of my students (and I) had never seen such a spectacle, and it was eye popping to see them on the screen, covering the ground and the trees in a mass of shifting, shuffling insect bodies. It was also cool to see predators such as raccoons lolling around amidst the cicada buffet, overfed and not even interested in the many insects still bustling around them. 

Copperhead snake eating a cicada, by Charlton McDaniel.

I feel like there is a lesson in the life of a cicada, 17 years of dormancy and then one brilliant summer of fecundity and noise.

I’ve just finished reading Katherine May’s Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. While she writes the book during an actual winter (September to March), what she means by “wintering” is not limited to the winter season, but has to do with fallow periods in life. These are periods when we shift our gaze inward, when our energy may be low, when we may experience depression or anxiety. Periods when we have to take extra care of ourselves, be kinder and more accommodating to ourselves.

One could argue that the cicadas “winter” for 16 years, coming out of their torpor in the 17th year with a bang. They have saved their precious energy for so many years that they are ready to take over the forest with their thousands of bodies and their cacophonous racket.

I can’t imagine wintering for 16 years – 18 months has been bad enough. But it’s true that wintering is cyclical – we don’t just live life at 100% every day, year after year. We have fallow periods and fecund periods, we spiral in and we spiral out. Maybe not on as long a timescale as Brood X, but perhaps on a monthly or annual cycle.

Imagine if you were born in the year of a Brood X emergence. You’d have your learner’s license and be finishing high school by the time they emerged again, the years of childhood long behind you. As the cicadas arrived, you’d be emerging into adulthood, with no memory of the cicadas that marked the year of your birth.

Perhaps there is a celebration to be had when Brood X emerges. The same way we celebrate the summer and winter solstices, we could celebrate the 17 years between emergences. Some people eat cicadas – I don’t think I’d go that far, but if I lived in the US northeast I’d likely mark their return.

Deep fried cicadas (two growth stages) from Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

In her book, May suggests marking time by nature’s calendar instead of our human calendar, like the solstices and equinoxes. These are ways to ground ourselves in time and place, to really pay attention to where we are in our lives and how we feel. Celebrating the cicadas could add to that groundedness.

There’s also the annual Perseid meteor shower, which peaks in the second week of August, or the 75-year cycle of Halley’s Comet – a once-in-a-lifetime event that won’t happen again until 2061. Or the annual chorus of frogs in the marsh at the bottom of our property, arriving at the beginning of March like clockwork. I can picture standing around a campfire in our back 40, raising a toast to the return of the frogs on a soggy March evening.

It’s heartening to see all the media coverage of Brood X: may people see it as a natural spectacle rather than a nuisance, and think back to what they were doing 17 years ago, and where they might be 17 years from now.

Note today’s feature image is by Alex Proimos (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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