The Cicadas Are Here, Singing a Song for the Future

For more than a week, I’ve been walking around my yard at night with a UV flashlight, looking for the white glow of cicada nymphs emerging from their exoskeletons. I walk around again in the morning looking for their spent shells clinging to a tree or a stalk of pokeweed. I look for the gentle creatures themselves, their new wings shining in the sunlight. And all the time I am thinking about the turning of the earth, the passing of the years. To think about periodic cicadas is necessarily to contemplate time.

These insects live underground as nymphs for 13 years — or 17, in some broods — sipping sap from the roots of the tree where they hatched. When the right amount of time has passed and the soil temperature eight inches down is just right, the nymphs rise to the surface and climb a tree or flower stem or a stalk of no-mow-May grass.

There they molt and emerge as new beings, creatures that occupy not the darkness but the treetops. Males vibrate a love song. Females quietly click a willingness to mate, later laying eggs on small twigs near the ends of branches. Then the parents die, the eggs hatch, the new nymphs fall to the ground and bury deep beneath the soil, and the whole magical process starts all over again. I cannot stop watching them climb out of the ground and out of their skins, entering a new shape with gorgeous glittering wings.

In 1998, I was hugely pregnant with my third child when Brood XIX cicadas, the group now emerging in Nashville, first began to erupt and fill our trees with music. We nicknamed our newborn Cicada Joe, the baby who emerged into a sunny new world just as millions of cicadas were also emerging into brightness. Our baby became a teenager during the last emergence. This time he is a man. As an ecosystem measures time — and also as a mother measures time — it all happened in a blink.

For the rest of my life, these cicadas will make me think of being so close to giving birth that my swollen feet could fit in no shoes. I was in love with the glorious bounty of these benign creatures climbing into the light. I, too, was bountiful. I, too, was living in a world filled with light and life and the urgency of the future. Our 6-year-old invited a cicada to ride around on his shoulder every time he walked outside. His younger brother’s eyes widened the first time I gently set a cicada on the back of his dimpled toddler hand.

We should all be filled with such wonder.

This year is the first time since 1803 that two different broods of periodic cicadas — up to a trillion of them — are emerging at the same time, though mostly not in the same place. The 13-year Brood XIX will emerge here in the South and the lower Midwest, and the 17-year Brood XIII will emerge in the upper Midwest. (The broods will overlap in only a few places in Illinois.)

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