They only come out every 17 years. An annual variety – the dog day cicada – emerges each August, but they have blue eyes rather than red, and their synthetic rattle keeps me from sleep as they trill deep into the hot nights, sometimes lasting until late September.
But I’d only heard and seen the 17-year cicada once before, at age 11. I didn’t really contemplate it at the time, but the cicadas were older than me. A Chicago boy, I’d come up to Winnetka, a North Shore suburb, to visit my friend, Anthony. I only remember they lay everywhere – on Anthony’s basketball court, floating in his pool, clutching onto elm bark where their camouflage prevented the robins from picking them off. I remember that Anthony, who could be quite the bully, became rather squeamish about them. At age 11, I had no opinions, no feelings about the 17-year locust one way or another. They seemed like flying brooches.
The next time they crawled out of the ground, I was 28 and still living in the City and preoccupied with the law and women and other really significant stuff.
Now, I’m 45 and living in their midst, in Glenview, Illinois, 11 miles north of Chicago. I can mark out certain developmental stages by their emergence. At 11 I saw them and didn’t care except to the extent I got a sadistic thrill out of watching Anthony freak whenever one got landed in his hair. At 28, I was too busy to know they even surfaced. At 45, I paid attention.
As I walked the woods across the river from my home, I didn’t see but a few at first. My sister, who lived across the river from me, had many buzzing in her backyard. Harm’s Woods and Linne Prairie, two branches of the local Cook County Forest Preserve nearby, had none. About a week later, they appeared in those woods, too. They emerged within broods; different patches crawl out at different times.
Almost like a mini War of the Worlds, the creatures invaded my sister’s place first, more numerous than the leaves that festooned the great boughs of her honey locusts in front and back of her Cape Cod. Her golden retriever dined on so many that he threw up a dark puree of locust pesto. In her front and back yards, thick-trunked honey locusts held the ground. Those trees had stood almost as large during the last emergence of the cicadae, too. But the nearby forests woods yielded big trees 17 years ago, too, so my hypothesis had a flaw. I couldn’t figure why they were.
Two weeks after the invasion at my sister’s, the cicadas crawled out of the earth at my townhome complex in such great numbers that their calls became a majestic din that never ceased. Altogether, they sung out an extraterrestrial drone, like the kind made by those 1950’s UFO’s in the old movies. They started about 6 a.m., one or two sounding out, joined by a couple of others, like the separate instruments of an orchestra tuning up before a symphony. When they finally all synched together a little over an hour later, it built into a chorus that sometimes crowded out the sounds of the planes overhead and the cars on nearby fastwater avenues. Their music didn’t sound forbidding. It resonated in the powerful and yet angelic majesty of a Gospel chorus, or in the way the surf roars. Their calls oscillated in waves.
The 17-year locust, which isn’t really a locust at all, in reality represents an aggregation of three species that exist nowhere else in the world except the northeast U.S. Even there, they live only in relatively small swatches that have the nerve to cross state lines, and these regional patches may contain a cicadae species different from the species in another region. Some of these regions overlap with one another so that the same area can contain more than one species of the 17-year locust. Entomologists divide them into numbered broods.
The 17-year cicada has been extirpated throughout most of their former ranges and it’s easy to see why. One reason has to do with reproduction rates and life cycle. These three species wouldn’t make it in the Who’s Who of survival of the fittest. They only reproduce every 17 years, all at once. They have the longest lifecycle of any insect on earth. So all people have to do is plow the land under, dig with the back hoe past killing depth where the pupae slumber for 17 years, and we reduce the historic range of the insect.
All the dozer has to do is uproot the trees the cicadas depend on. Then, after 17 years, they will emerge into a land where they can’t lay their eggs beneath tree bark. Instead, they may confuse a brown garage door or red brick wall with trees and crawl up them, only to die unconsummated.
Tell me orgies aren’t condoned in God’s world. These guys engage in a veritable fun fest (euphemism intended). They make love butt to butt. One day I saw two rear to rear, but they couldn’t quite get it on since one was upside down. I kept trying to flip one of them over but they’d locked onto each other like paperclips, so the couple flipped over. The inexperience of youth. Either that or their own version of position 69. And just like with paperclips, I fussed with them and finally I did something and they flicked into place like gears meshing.
Different species make different music. The morning variety, in the minority in Brood XIII up here in the Chicago area, sound like the old-fashioned push mower I had to use as a kid to cut the grass. They’re the ones that shrill like an extraterrestrial choir. They’re the background hum in the symphony, the constant string that never varies. In the mornings, before the thrash of the construction scoop next door and the drone of the gas mowers get going, the force of the unvarying hum, the single note of the cicadae song, rings out in background harmony.
But the construction powers decided to replace the sewers. What’re the odds that they’d be doing this now? But then a voice would whistle somewhere inside: What’re the odds you’d be lucky enough to live in a cicadae hotspot on the 17th year. Someone once said that life was like licking honey from a thorn. Accept it.
And change the things you can. On these days of the Great 17 Year Awakening, I spend as much time as I can ambling through the woods and meadows at Linne Prairie, where the cicadae seem thickest.
The second species in the chorus gets going a little later in the morning. They make up the louder sound in the foreground, pulsing every few seconds and building into something so thunderous that it would even drown out the cacophonic dozers and mowers.
When the cicadae get that loud, I stop and I gaze up into the oaks and the ash and the sycamore that rim the bowl-shaped prairie, and at first see thousands of nymph husks clinging to the bark or the undersides of leave, some mating, some looking for mates. If I stare at the upper story for a few moments, it comes alive with movement. I see what’s hidden but obvious – continuous movement – hundreds of cicadas in gracile flight from branch to branch. It’s like breaking open the yoke of a camouflaged dimension, where umber-colored matter fills a liquid sky. Above their caonpy flight, one cicada buzzes a hundred feet higher, and a thousand feet in the sky, a red tail hawk circles in the thermals.
From the prairie’s edge, I tramp deep into the forest, along the high bank of the North Branch of the Chicago River. A few dozen, mid-growth oaks and cottonwoods host the majority of the brood. The trees crawl with them. Their mating call saws in and out in a collective heave – an inhalation, then an out-breath. I tread farther down a shady footpath, past older growth cottonwoods, oaks and maples. The calls of the early morning cicadae and the later waking species explode without any rhythm into a hard rain of sizzles and what sounds like chirping birds. It reminds me of the heavy metal rock concerts of my youth, where I sat in front of stadium amps that knocked out my hearing to the point where the guitars decayed into unintelligible braids of sound.
I wacked through brush so thick in the muddy floodplain of the river that I lost the path. The cicadas hummed everywhere, sometimes hugging the tiniest saplings, which they like the best. But I’d emerge from a forest filled with them, and not one stuck to my green sweatshirt or my green pants, and they prefer olive. Once they lock on to a branch, they tend not to be battered about by wind or rain or me.
Their clumsy flight wasn’t evident as they flew from branch to branch, but only I when they banged into the ground like paratroopers or my bumbled into my windshield. I found myself rushing to rescue of one that I collided with my car. Found it in the middle of the crosswalk, unphased, with no threat of a citation for vehicular homicide or even a lawsuit. I scanned the bark of a nearby locust, found the closest set of double, cellophane wings with which it might find conjugal bliss, and hooked its mantid-like forelegs to the rough bark. You may think that’s crazy to take such measures to rescue one creature when millions sung and glided and clung all around, but I figured that they lived for 17 years underground, preparing for this one short season. Why shouldn’t this one fulfill its destiny? It may not matter to the whole, but saving this one creature might mean a great deal to it.
They surfaced from their nymph stage black-bodied and black-eyed, with crushed wings. But after a time of drying, their eyes band their legs burn like embers, completing their alien likeness. Burnt pumpkin stripes details the edges of their oversized wings, a color match to chasses with ribs so perfectly straight they seem like something out of a Chinese factory. On the abdomen – that’s where the males’ have their noise makers.
Some trees carry up to 40,000 carapaces, and empty shells gather like potato chips at the base of trees. I watch nymphs hatching into final adult form, see dead ones littering up the dirt at the roots of trees. In various stages of birth and death, one stillborn half-out of its pupae sheath, another in final molt from the nymph’s shell like a soul leaving its body. A powdery fungus parasitizes some, rotting off the ends of their abdomens. I even find a few crawling around with stumps like that. The infected ones seemed more prevalent in Harms Wood than any other place I’d seen them. The fungus times its lifecycle to match the 17-year reproductive cycle of the cicadae. Fo this reason, some species of cicadae have evolved 13 year cycles.
My own townhome development seems a ground zero for their invasion. Rumors fly:
You know why so many of them hatch here? Al Waters says as he chomps on his cigar and walks his pretty spaniel. This place used to be a tree nursery.
All I know is that I can walk a block south and I hear no music and see no inch- long winged things with pod-like, dire red eyes in stumbling flight making for tree branches. I can walk a few blocks more and they litter the streets. People have cicadae parties, roasting them and eating what they say tastes like popcorn shrimp. WTF.
Tires crush them. Kids squash them. A favored prey species of both bird and wasp, the cicadae use an old strategy: overwhelm predators by making so many more offspring then can possibly be eaten in one place at one time. If you only reproduce every 17 years, you have to come up with strategies like that. And so they swam in their tens of millions.
They land from their awkward aerial maneuvers upside down, kicking their legs, waiting like doomed beetles for unlikely rescue. Each morning, so many have crawled into my green recycling bin that them empty it out like unpopped kettle corn.
Living for 18 years as larvae, surviving subzero winters, then crawling up one fine time through the skin of the earth, puncturing its surface to be born into the airy world, pupating into beetles, avoiding pick off by cardinals and cats, breaking out of their old husks, letting their wings parch, mating, then dying. Seeing one in its bumble bee flight careen into my window or, exhausted from flight, land in the middle of a major intersection and then get mashed; I hated that wasted life. That’s an existential nightmare for people like me. LOL.
And each morning I’d wake and think, “This is it. They peaked yesterday.” But each day more and more were born. I’d see the pen-sized holes under the trees but never a nymph emerging from one. I’d witness the final instar pupate from its last wingless shell, cracking out pure white except for black eyes and two large spots that looked like a second pair of eyes above the wings. A pallid, shimmering skin; wet and soft. They’d dry for hours on the trunks of trees, growing black-bodied and iridescent, red-eyed and translucent double-wings, as if a balsam wood curing in a fire to coals. In the clear solstice light, they’d dive backlit by the sun from tree to tree. Any one time, I could glance out my window and see a few dozen float by. Their shorter flight paths graceful and slow, more like ballet than a fast dance. With their large double wings, it reminded me of butterfly flight.
And they’d glide high in the upper story of the trees. In the forests at their highest, thousands in just a few tree tops leapt from branch to branch, from tree to tree. With their pulsing chirps, it looked and sounded like an immense aviary, made for air as much as they lived underground for 99.99999% of their long lives. What a glory for something subterranean to end its life in the heavens, even if for a fraction of its long day. Did they know they’d soon die, in the way a cat knows and slinks off to die under a porch? In the way a salmon seems to know as its beak hooks and it struggles upstream to spawn?
I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and just listen to them hum and whistle. I’d rush to the forests to swim within their one long song. One day, I felt so swaddled in the symphony that I even ignored the white tail buck that browsed just 10 feet away. Only a zigzagging flock of grapefruit sized chicks that someone had released into the forest got my mind off the cicadae for an hour or so. Chickens weren’t native to Cook County Forest Preserves. I called animal control and waited. Then I watched the 300 pound animal control officer leap at them with his net like the clown at the gladiatorial games. OMG!
Then I faded back into the forest and let the near violent cicadae noise rain down on me. Every once in awhile, like a tiny clarion, something that sounded like a naval whistle gone electric peeled out a twang that would drop out of the main course of music; the mating call of an individual without the benefit of the chorus to harmonize with it. I’d find one in harm’s way – upside down and kicking or on the footpath – I’d nab it by the back of its wings and clip it back on a tree like a clothespin. It would hissed out in irritation.
And sometimes near sunset the whole refrain fizzled and buzzed, old sots singing out of tune. And some lay dying like drunkards do.
Yet their song goes all night, but they dial down the volume as they wait for the heat of the day to energize their love songs. You hear one or two twanging. The sound of one doesn’t sound anything like they do en masse, just like a single string resembles not the chord.
I wake at sunrise to hear the pristine warble, but then at 7 am the cranes and gravel trucks burying sewer pipe at the end of the block drown out the music. The whining comes back: Why this? Why now, the precise summer when millions of tiny animals sing that will not come again until I’m . . . what? 62!
I dress and fall out my front door. The locusts climb up the stands of clay sewer pipe by the hundreds to lay their eggs, fooled into thinking they climb trees. More futility brought to them by the people who think it’s so important to give me a new storm sewer.
I decide again on escape. I study a cicadae map and discover that the cicadas are most concentrated in three regions of the greater Chicagoland area. Lombard, Wilmette, and here, in Glenview. And in all of Glenview, they are most pronounced here in Carriage Hill on the West Fork Townhome Association, on the west bank of the West Fork of the North Branch of the Chicago River. So why this, then, too? Why the happenstance that I wake each morning at the epicenter of the largest concentration of a brood of the longest-lived hexapods on the planet in the year of the their emergence? If I accept the miracle of their birth in such numbers right outside my door, then I need to accept the sewer people, too.
They finally peaked in Linne Wood around June 13th, 14th. I could tell because their sound didn’t rain down on me and drench me in one long saw on June 16th like it had a couple days before. I could tell because I counted more and more dead ones than live ones, the carcasses too legion to be carted away by ants or bothered with by carrion beetles.
But even now, on June 16th, a fresh nymph crawls across my path on its way to a final, wing-liberating molt. What took it so long to emerge from the underworld? Did it oversleep? Miss its biological alarm? Did it need an extra couple weeks to mature? Was it battling some obstacle underground? Or had it cocooned itself so deep that it took this long just to dig out? I felt pity that it had missed the main bash while the party thrummed in full swing, but comforted myself in guessing I would hook up with some other late bloomer. I hooked its giant forelegs to a tree and it resumed its crawl-climbwithout a hitch.
The next day I’d see more molting. And right next to my house, of all places, they seemed more numerous and louder than ever, the sky splotched with them, on June 17th.
I walked on, feeling blessed. Who else in the whole world lives at the eye of this sound storm? I found myself recalling who I was the first time I saw them, at 11. What was my life like back then? What about when I was 28? What were my preoccupations? This time, this six or so weeks with them, is so precious. What will my life be like when I’m 62, the next time they come by – if I’m still here, in Chicago or on the planet.
They gave me gratitude for insect life. A friend of mine half-crushed one on his patio the other day just as it landed, and it suffered in that crumpled state. I put my finger on the quivering iridescent wings and pressed the life from its oval body.
“Putting it out of its misery,” I explained.
“Can’t save ’em all,” he said.
FU! I felt like telling him: What would it be like if a creature a thousand times your size and thousand times your weight and million times your IQ put the hurt on you, so that your body was crushed but only half way, and your legs and arms flailed helplessly. You’d die but die a long slow death. What would you think of that giant? Wouldn’t it be a heartless giant to you? And would your suffering mean any less to you and to whoever human happened stand with you on the patio of life just because you were a fraction of the giant’s size and smarts.
All those 17-year metamorphoses terminated at the moment of arising by my heel or the beak of a blue jay. So much angst in watching one crash into the asphalt in the middle of six lane Waukegan Road, only to be squelched by rubber. All that futility. And they each represented the futility of my own, squirming existence—SQUAT. The dreams of my individual little I—SPLAT. The vulnerability of this damned aging body—SQUINCH.
And yet, they had more resilience than I gave them credit for, those little bugs. I’d see them smack against a tree trunk head on, bounce off, then just keep bumbling along. Reinforced skulls, who knew? I’d watch them bounce off car grills, roll like stunt men across the gummy blacktop in mid-traffic, land on their legs and just fly off. Most got smashed. But instead of moaning about what a waste of 17 years as a slug that was, the exceptions that kept on going taught me something about my own life: after 45 years, I still stood and grew as big as the next guy and maybe I could still learn something.
Chuang Tzu wrote about the True Governor behind it all: He acts, but has no form.
It is the Being that lives its life through numberless beings. To fall for the form is to grieve. If I am to derive any comfort out of loss, any meaning out of the futility, any strength out of the vulnerability of life, it cannot be in the individual adult cicada I see now frozen in stillbirth at the base of an oak, half-arisen from the sleeve of the nymph, its dead black eyes reflecting back my own, the inanimate reflecting back the animate. I could swear that even in death it sees me. The invulnerability is in the We of the species. The meaning is then the collective rhythm, not the single drumbeat of a lone male caught on some branch of a river soon to flow through a great city.
The little things, the tiniest of the tiny, they teach me the most about Love. When confronted with suffering, I can choose four responses:
- I can trivialize it, like my friend on the patio who likened a cicada he’d crunched to a cigarette butt. Life is cheap. Pretend it doesn’t it bother you.
- I can take delight in the suffering of others. Bad choice. The Nazis tried it. Didn’t work for them or for the people they squashed.
- I can ignore it. I can deny it, overlook it, pretend its not there. That’s what I do when I turn off the TV when it shows a tiny child sitting in a pail, making it seem the size of a tub, a child small and boney with a head set too large for his shoulders.
- I can respond with compassion.
Number four is the only one that works. Yet if empathy was easy, everyone would do it. Compassion forces me to acknowledge – and to feel – anytime anyone anywhere hurts. It crushes my heart in a million small heartbreaks, powdering the heart into a glass dust made of small grievings. But then something unexpected happens: it heals all the stronger at the places where it broken. The heart remains the only vessel which grows stronger from its breaking. It took 17 years for me to uncover that.
How can I claim compassion for other people when I don’t possess it for the little things? And if I crush the tiny and the defenseless, won’t that be my fate, to be crushed or to crush myself? Life is life. It doesn’t measure itself by size or intelligence. Used to be, I looked down on the cicada, a bumbling creature that spent the vast majority of its long life in an inchoate form, then arose from a grave-like earth and died shortly after its final transformation. What a foolish strategy. What a poor choice. What a lack of life. What a way to not live. Who am I to question evolution?
Now, as they uncocooned in ever greater millions, the spectacle of their cycle and of their vast song contributed to an unexpected profundity, an unpredicted power. They grew louder than the bulldozers, snuffing out the hoarse diesel complaints with an unrivalled hum. Their power was in their We, not in the individual bugs that seemed dumb enough to snuff themselves out by bad flying or an unlucky bounce on the tarmac or mis-assignation of a tricycle for a tree to land and drop its eggs on.
The swarms in their great song; that was the Ineffable Self. It was numberless beings that comprised the great Being.
A few days before the summer solstice of June 21st, they’re random, dying clicks filled the moist night air along with their final flight. Then they’d drop to earth, spent. The landscapers would come in the morning with their blowers and whisk them away to some unknown limbo. But at night, the cicadae be back again – dying, fallen. I’d reach down and nudged them back to standing with my shoe, but they just teetered over again and kicked helplessly. They were spent like salmon after spawn. The clicks came sometimes like sizzling electric cables, the limned abdomens vibrating like the drum skins they were.
The steady morning trill grew fainter. Drowned out by the scoop and the back hoe down the block. No more crawling tree tops in Linne Woods. No more small branches loaded like fruit-ripened fronds. Didn’t find them flying at my windshield anymore either, or buzzing from tree to tree. I expected a gradual decline. But they disappeared suddenly on the uncharacteristically cool, autumnal morning after the summer solstice, when days would be get shorter from now until the other prow of the year. Their last day had been their longest; our longest, too. The skies emptied unexpectedly, just like the day after 9-11. Their morning song subtracted from the sunrise. A cool, thunderous rain came after midnight and washed the last of their bodies away.
From June 21st until the 24th, a Sunday, the early utumn stayed with us. The woods more and more filled with a quietus, the morning hum fading into a distance marked by time. The sky cool, gray, but with no rain.
An article in Saturday’s Tribune quoted an entomologist from Connecticut as saying that the few remaining cicadas represented “the walking dead.” The cicadae maps published by researchers were old, the article insisted. Some maps came straight out of the 19th century. In southern Michigan, they expected an emergence but none came. Everyone I talked to said the cicadae was dead. My familiar haunts in the woods concurred.
That left a vacancy on Sunday afternoon. The cicadae tell the tale of birth and of transformation. They’re vast and collective compulsion to give rise to before they die. I understood them, finally. To live with something you’re compelled to give birth to, like the cicadae compelled to mate and lay eggs before they die. Giving birth to what lies inside no matter how awkward and stumbling and halting the way. To allow what compels itself to hatch from its shell, whether or not someone else understands or agrees with it. My writing might or might not take off. It didn’t matter. To complete the cycle. That’s all the cicadae were supposed to do, and they’d done it. See you in 2024.
I let a few tears stream down my old and drying face. Giving birth to that metamorphosed self – that’s a hard thing to stand by and to midwife and to witness, especially when no one else witnesses that birth with you. I went back to the park to finish my tears, the one at the end of my block where I’d greeted them in the morning and clipped them to trees and watched them hatch gleaming white from crispy shells.
They swarmed there in the thousands, a wave still before crest. Landing on my khaki shirt more than ever. Littering the bases of trees, and especially one particular ash. I looked toward sky, a powder sky, a warm sunny sky that hadn’t been summery in days. The warmth of the sun must be bringing them out. They made the branches come alive like arms. Always landing upright and graceful on the tiniest twigs.
And like an opera or a musical, this tale too remained about songs. There couldn’t have been a narrative, a through-line, without their songs. They played so loud I couldn’t hear my own voice. It had never been like that before. The experts, they were all wrong. My neighbors who predicted their demise: wrong. I’d been wrong. They gathered back in numbers as strong as ever. My eyes, my heart knew something the smartest man didn’t know. My eyes peered into something every person I knew couldn’t see and therefore wouldn’t believe. Just when I’m sure something lays dead, life comes back ’round to let me know that what lives never dies, never can die, since life and death are contradictions, mutually exclusive opposites that never meet and can never become one another. What is dead can never give rise to life. What lives can never die anymore than a guitar can refuse to play music – or a cicadae its song – when it is plucked in just the right way.
One landed on my chest and seemed to stare straight up at my face with its ember eyes. It crawled toward my chin. Others struggled through the grass, clambering over one another toward the base camp of an Everest cottonwood at the center of the field. I counted 80 in a few green-stemmed weeds alone. The sawing pulse of afternoon callers rolled in waves from tree to tree, stabilized by the steady locomotive whistle of the morning singers. Their refrain rose along the river, swarming a willow, dozens in the rushes, glomming on to ferns like gold-trimmed pendants on jade-colored dresses. One landed on my green shoulder and stroked its synthesizer in two tones. Bumble bee wings twittered in the late Sunday sky.
I stepped over them like broken glass and as I wrote down that metaphor on my legal pad, one landed on line 2 and crawled toward my quivering pen,
forcing me to write shorter
and shorter so as not
to disturb its
Solo tenors sizzled and buzzed. As I plucked them off and attached them to trees, distress cries clanged like tiny alarm bells. One landed on a picnic table, clicking rapid like a dolphin underwater, followed by a high-frequency zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. So many new sounds, it was as if I’d never heard them. A lone crow, a relict in these parts where it remains locally extinct from West Nile virus, landed and cawed. Every species seemed invited to the party. Every living thing revived, for the moment
Before I left the park, my eye tracked a lone cicadae making the long-distance flight across the field. Maybe it would be the last one, but somehow I doubted it.
© 2015 by Michael C. Just