The Seventeen-Year Cicadas

The last of the seventeen-year cicadas disappeared last week. The few stragglers that could be spotted were heavily battered and drained of energy. The birds were aggressively conducting cicada mopping-up operations. A wing may still occasionally be tracked into the office, but even over where I work in Klingle park, they can be neither seen nor heard. Three weeks ago they were so thick that they interfered with the kids’ soccer games and filled the whole neighborhood with their chirp-din.

I was completely taken in by them, as if a little, bug-infatuated boy again. My upwelling of youthful enthusiasm was tempered by more adult-like naturalist imaginings, so I have recorded some observations of a natural philosophic purpose, of course.

When last they came out in 1987, I was an eleven-year-old living in Washington State, but I read all about them in, I think it must have been National Geographic. As a kid, I was enthralled at the idea that there was this normal phenomena, annual cicadas — normal, green, bugish — but that once every great while, there were special cicadas that were spectacularly colored, cause of much stir, more space invader than terrestrial creature. I have kept them in the back of my mind ever since — to the point that, during a visit with family in Missouri, I was totally excited when the cat seemed to be buzzing, and upon closer inspection found in the cat’s jaws one of the annual cicadas protesting its rude handling by the feline field hand. What a fabulous occurrence that my first spring in D.C. would coincide with such a rare event!

The articles in the papers appeared earlier than the bugs themselves and as some time had elapsed since their publishing and I still hadn’t seen any cicadas, I was beginning to worry that I had missed them. The neighbor told me that they were all over the suburbs. I thought that maybe I would have to travel to see them. Then, one afternoon while lounging in the back yard, the cat seemed particularly excided about something that he was rooting at in the ground cover. I went to investigate, as kitty’s excitement usually means trouble, and found that he had caught a seventeen-year cicada. Just as my first sighting of an annual cicada was courtesy a cat, so now with the seventeen-year cicada.

When the cat found a second and then a third, I began to have a look around and it turned out that they were everywhere. There weren’t so many of the insects themselves, but the empty claws of their molted carapaces were dug into the stems of all the low vegetation that I looked at. As I walked back outside from an errand into the kitchen, I spotted two more clung to the door frame of the laundry room.

Seventeen-year cicada posed on the chain-link fence in the back yard, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., circa June 2004

Seventeen-year cicada posed on the chain-link fence in the back yard, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., circa June 2004

Of course, the emergence of the cicadas is not all excitement. Cicadas were born to die and the macaw display of nature’s carelessness for her creatures is a little hard to handle. The whole of D.C. has become like the killing field of some third-world genocidal war. Most insects possess the winning combination of the will to live and lightening reflexes. Cicadas have neither. Their beady read eyes stoically look on as a boot-shaped shadow blocks out the sun. One actually has to make an effort not to kill them. They can be picked up with no trouble. Occasionally a particularly feisty one will issue a chirp of protest, but they are wholly pliant. Their sole survival skill is shear numbers.

I kept on trying to save them, carefully moving to a tree trunk or planter box each cicada that I came upon in the middle of a sidewalk, but after a while this became an empathy-exhausting exercise: if I am going to make such an effort to save these creatures, they should at least meet me half way. On more than one occasion, I tried to toss one into the bushes only to have it fly, in its suicidal frenzy, right back smack in the middle of the sidewalk.

I will count for you the myriad ways that cicadas die. I do this, not to disgust, but to truly represent the oppressiveness of the carnage:

  1. Owing to the damage done by onrushing automobile windshields, the sidewalks were littered with their corpses, always attended to by a phalanx of black ant pall bearers. Unlike most bugs which splatter against the glass, cicadas break apart and scatter as if they were made of balsa wood or very delicate aluminum parts affixed to one another with little bits of solder or eye-glass screws. So the sidewalks were littered with the crunchy segments of abdomens that split nicely at the seam between exoskeleton plates, heads, legs, whole bodies sheered of extremities, thoraxes with a full compliment of wings, wings with a black stump of wing muscles, miscellaneous unrecognizable bits of carapace, et cetera.

  2. I found one that had molted in the laundry room, looking rather ashen at his predicament, stuck in the window sill and all. I thought that I was doing him a favor by setting him free. I carried him out to the fence and tried to nudge him off my hand onto a high rail where the cat wouldn’t chew him to pieces. There were already a congregation of them there delivered from the cat. Rather than crawl off, he flew. About twenty feet out, a bird swept in and thwack!, caught him in mid flight. I could hear the thump of their collision. I didn’t know birds ate these things, but I guess it makes sense: they are bugs — and juicy feasts of bugs at that. It sucks to watch something you tried to save die.

  3. While walking home, I passed an ivy-covered lawn in which a squirrel was rooting among the vines. When I made a noise to alert him to my proximity he sat up, realized the situation and jumped three feet up a tree trunk. That was enough to put him at a safe distance as the yard was atop a wall at about chest level. He seemed all too proud of himself over the cicada, still squirming in his mouth, that he had dug out of the brush.

  4. Cicadas are like turtles: once on their back, they are screwed. On field sports day at the school, I watched one fly across the school lawn and crash land — the only sort of which they seem capable — in the dust of a track that the students were using to practice for the three-legged race. I considered this fellow beyond help and watched as she squirmed on her back for what must have been five minutes in this treacherous lane. At that point I reconsidered: she is lucky and deserving of a hand.

  5. Cicadas regularly plop down on the back of one’s shirt or in the middle of a high-traffic walkway after simply falling out of a tree. Maybe they are inattentive climbers and lose their footing. Maybe it’s because they are cold-blooded creatures and when they walk into a shadow, they shut down. Whatever the case, there is a certain tree that overhangs the sidewalk on my route to work that has made for quite a mess. In addition to a grossly disproportionate number of cicadas falling from this tree, it is also dumping tones of black berries. It is a well-traveled stretch of sidewalk so the trampled cicadas and mushed berries have made a disgusting black roux of the splattered sperm and egg filled bodies of the insects, their ruptured and smeared organs, the reproductive parts of plants and a juicy-sweet fruit. The scene is just a little too much nature to handle. It busts open the myth of resplendent nature and hoists upon the unwary morning walker the gruesomeness of it all. I think of Camille Paglia every time I tiptoe around it:

    Everything is melting in nature. We think we see objects, but our eyes are slow and partial. Nature is blooming and withering in long puffy respirations, rising and falling in oceanic wave-motion. A mind that opened itself fully to nature without sentimental preconceptions would be glutted by nature’s coarse materialism, its relentless superfluity. An apple tree laden with fruit: how peaceful, how picturesque. But remove the rosy filter of humanism from our gaze and look again. See nature spuming and frothing, its mad spermatic bubbles endlessly spilling out and smashing in that inhuman round of waste, rot, and carnage. From the jammed glassy cells of sea roe to the feathery spores poured out into the air from bursting green pods, nature is a festering hornet’s nest of aggression and overkill. (Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990] p. 28)

  6. In a parking lot I watched a cicada desperately trying to get away from a bird who delivered the coup de grace in a peck, before pulling the vanquished bug’s wings off by beating it on the pavement by them and then flying off with just the juicy bit in its beak. The birds really had it good for a few weeks.

  7. One was flapping about like mad on the sidewalk such that it could be heard all down the block. I went to right it, but it wouldn’t stop. I realized that it was not merely stuck upside-down, it was spasming, probably from neurological (I hesitate to say “brain”) damage inflicted by a car windshield.

  8. I picked one up off the sidewalk on Porter street on my way through Rock Creek Park and tried to toss it into the encroaching vines. It had other ideas and instead flew straight into the street. The first of the passing automobile sent it tumbling down the pavement like a piece of garbage. It got its footing just in time for the second car to splatter it. Again, sucks to watch something you tried to save die.

  9. Finally, Cicadas bite it because people eat them. As the cicadas started appearing, there were a number of stories about them in the papers, all of which mentioned the cicada eaters (e.g. Barr, Cameron W., “Cicada: The Other White Meat,” The Washington Post, 16 April 2004, p. A1). A restaurant here in D.C. was actually going to put them on the menu, fried in butter, white wine and a few sprigs of lemon grass. No one is waxing fantastic about eating the annual cicadas: they’re just green bugs. But, Oh! The seventeen-year cicadas are such a delicacy! It seems that the amount of glee people take in eating a thing is proportional to the amount of destruction accomplished in the thing’s consumption.

On to a few slightly less morbid observations. After some time seeing their molted exoskeletons around, I was lucky enough to come across one in the process of molting one morning on my way to work. I watched for a couple of minutes. I imagined the molting process to be hours of peril for an insect, but it seemed to be going very quickly. Little contractions moved from the end of the abdomen to the top of the thorax where the old carapace had split open. It made a little wriggle side to side to get its legs and antennae free. The wings were visible, crumpled, still not unfurled and hardened and, strangely, the body was white, not yet black. Perhaps the preliminary process of splitting the old shell and the post-molt waiting for wings and new carapace to harden are time consuming. I had to move on before the new insect was free. It is clearly a process that is not perfect as I came across a few cicadas with a still wilted wing and in one case, I found a cicada, still clinging half-way up a tree, that had died part way out of its old shell. Sorry, I said that I was done with the macaw aspects of the cicadas.

Surprisingly late in the season I came across two larval cicadas that had not yet molted. They are an almost entirely different creature. They seem a little fatter but they are much more quick and have a pointy snout, rather than the metallic face-mask like a Mortal Combat ninja villain. Rather than the outlandish colors of the mature insect, they are all the same shade of creamy brown. I tried for some time to follow these two to see if they would dig their claws into the wooden handrail on which I found them and begin the molting process, but they seem extremely finicky about their selection of molt location. In my back yard, it seemed that they just ran six inches up the first stalk they could find, but I do recall a large number of abandoned carapaces about ten feet up and way out on a limb of a tree in the neighbor’s yard.

Seventeen-year cicada posed on the chain-link fence in the back yard, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., circa June 2004

Seventeen-year cicada posed on the chain-link fence in the back yard, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., circa June 2004

They are a beautiful little insect. Their colors are so vibrant and the contrasts between their gun metal black bodies, the gold highlights of their exoskeletal plates and gold wings and their red eyes are striking. They look like little kid roaches wearing mom’s gold jewelry. They are fat, meaty little creatures that drag their too fat abdomens around behind them. Their thorax comes to a strong point where the shoulder blade meets the wing. The groove that extends back from there, into which the wings park nicely strikes this observer as one of those examples of evolution having perfectly molded a thing for its purpose. Their story — of nibbling on tree roots underground for seventeen years, to emerge into the bright world of day for a short few weeks of mating and to die in such staggering numbers — gives them a strange pathos. Strange especially because who would have ever attributed pathos to an insect, but it is there on their stoic, unmoving faces. That they are so unmoved by death almost implies a certain knowledge on their part of their inevitability. But I get a little carried away.

Many people complained about them. I loved them. They will be there, digging around in the roots. I can’t wait to see them again in the next seventeen years.