Thursday, June 07, 2007


This morning they were so loud they woke me up. I dreamed someone was using a power drill but when I awoke I realized it was the cicadas, already starting their daily drone.

The seventeen-year plague of cicadas is in full swing here in the Chicago suburbs. For those of you not enjoying this phenomenon of nature let me enlighten you. Most of us have heard cicadas--they're the bugs high in the trees who buzz on a hot, August afternoon--those are the annual cicadas and you seldom see them. These are relatives--but they only appear every 17 years in droves and cause a mass infestation that lasts about six weeks.

They are incredibly large bugs--about two inches long with goofy red, beady eyes. They crawl out of the ground at night as nymphs, climb up a tree, shed their shell, let their new wings dry out, and go find a mate.

After feasting underground on tree sap for 17 years they have no need to eat. Like crazed bachelors on a Vegas bender they have one thing in mind and they don't bother to stop to eat or sleep. Once they've mated, the male has a cigarette and dies with a smile on his face. The female finds another tree, burrows her tail into the bark, lays 600 eggs and then, exhausted and cranky, dies. Her eggs will hatch into ant-sized nymphs that will fall from the trees like rain to burrow underground where they will wait for another 17 years to repeat the process.

The paper says there are about a million per acre out there. I think that number is low. Four and five cling to every leaf of our maple tree. For some reason they love my car tires and I find a dozen on each wheel every time I get into the car. They sun themselves on my back fence and as I type I see them whirring through the air of my back yard.

They started to come out exactly when the scientists told us they would on May22 which by sheer coincidence, is the day we went to the shelter and got our new puppy, Molly. She finds them very tasty. The first time she gobbled one up I was appalled. They're still quite active when she eats them and sometimes if she opens her mouth up too soon they fly away. The paper says they are good protein and we should let the dogs eat them. As if I could stop her.

They came somewhat gradually. The first weekend, as we came out of church I said, "Do you hear that?" It was a roar in the distance, not unlike the sound you hear when you leave the undergrad library at University of Michigan on a game-day Saturday afternoon. But by now, two and a half weeks into it, the sound is more like we live in the stadium. When we are outside we have to shout to be heard. They are more active now too as time is running out--flying in a frenzy from shrub to tree to car in search of each other like patrons in a bar just before closing time.

I'm deathly afraid of bugs but I have become de-sensitized. The key is to not look too closesly at anything. If you do you will see them in Hitchock-ian numbers crawling in the grass, littering the sidewalk, covering a plant. Driving down the street we see pedestrians doing "The Cicada Dance" as we've dubbed it--the crazed herky-jerky movements we do to shake one off when it lands on you. They don't bite or anything but they are so big they give anyone the willies if they land on you.

Yesterday, two of them were copulating on my windshield as I drove along. I kind of felt sorry for them as I flicked them off--(they were distracting the driver). Imagine being underground for 17 years, finally hooking up, and being tossed aside by a windshield wiper in mid-act.

It's been fun watching them and learning about them. The kids are experts on them and collect them and tell me the blue-eyed ones are rare and "valuable" (to whom I don't know). They are indeed an awesome display of nature. Coming up from out of the ground on cue. Like my neighbor says, how do they know to come out at 17 years? Not 16, not 18 but 17? And what kind of life cycle is that? To only be above ground 6 weeks after being underground 878 weeks? Do they communicate while they're under there? Talk about what they're going to do when they finally see the light of day? I doubt that any of them plan to take their maiden flight and get eaten by a pup who has only been on earth 9 weeks. What the hell kind of ending is that?

I think we're all growing rather fond of them and take pity on them for having such a desperately short life above ground. As Coffee Friend 1 says, "I even flip them over on their feet if they get stuck on their backs. Imagine waiting all this time and then getting stuck on your back before you find someone."

They are also a reassuring reminder that despite alarming news of global warming and inane news of Paris Hilton some things are constant and the cicadas will return in 17 years.
When they come back our new pup will be an old 17-year-old dog (if she is still with us). Perhaps she'll gobble up a cicada and the sweet tickling sensation on her tongue will remind her of the summer she was a pup and first came to live with us and just for a moment she will be young again.

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