Every thirteen years, the cicadas of Brood XIX emerge from the ground and molt and mate and click and whistle and make a nuisance of themselves for a couple of weeks like a plague of Pharaoh. They lay their eggs in the trees and die, and the new nymphs–cicada grubs–burrow into the dirt beneath the trees. There they live in subterranean darkness for thirteen years, sucking on juices from the tree roots (not surprisingly, they like apple and pear trees when they can get them). In the thirteenth spring, the first day the soil temperature reaches 67 degrees, they begin tunneling out. In every yard with mature trees, hundreds–even thousands of them–crawl up the tree trunks by night and shed their exoskeletons, emerging not as grubs but as red-eyed cicadas that are really quite beautiful. They’re white and tender and utterly vulnerable when they first emerge, and any bird that was enterprising enough to bestir himself by night could gorge himself without leaving his tree.
Any one cicada can make ample noise on its own. But the millions of them that come out simultaneously are a wall of sound, to borrow a phrase from record producer Phil Spector. Their collective sound is a pulsating whistle that, if I remember correctly (it’s been thirteen years, after all) sounds exactly like a flying saucer from a 1950s B-movie (Brood Nineteen from Outer Space!). Combined with their red-eyed, otherworldly appearance, it makes for a very impressive effect, as suggested by the poster to the right, created by Nashville artist Joel Anderson of Anderson Design Group.

The facts of a cicada’s life, it occurs to me, are rich fodder for poem and story. There’s a lot of pathos in this business of waiting underground for thirteen years, then coming out into the sun for a couple of glorious weeks to sing one’s song with millions of like-minded friends (assuming one isn’t eaten by a bird or consumed by tree ants before one’s wings have dried). After thirteen years of utter obscurity, literally being trod underfoot, to be the talk of Nashville (or Cincinnati or some other city, depending on your brood) for a brief while–there’s a poem or story there.

Or consider the Rip van Winkle-esque possibilities. A lot can change in thirteen years (or seventeen years, if you’re a member of Broods I-XIV). I didn’t live in my current house, for instance, when this generation of Brood XIX burrowed into the ground. I picture the cicadas in my yard looking at me and saying “Who are you? And what have you done with Mrs. Lish?” But they’re a lot better off than the cicadas in the slash-and-burn subdivisions who tunnel out to find that their trees are completely gone.

Or what about the “straggling broods”–smallish groups of cicadas that come out the wrong year? Apparently they’re more vulnerable than the periodical cicadas who come out when they’re supposed to. I think the brood’s survival depends in part on the sheer fact that there are more of them than their predators could possibly eat. Just the phrase “straggling brood” makes me want to write a poem. How would you like to be the cicada who convinced his peers underneath the tree that it was time to tunnel out? (“Great, just great! I told you this was the twelfth year, and you just insisted it was the thirteenth!” “I thought it was the thirteenth.” “Well do you see any other cicadas on any other tree trunks?”)

We’re kicking off Audience Participation Friday a day early this week. The topic is cicada-related literature, and there is a prize involved. Write a poem or a story or an essay or a scene from a play involving cicadas. If you have direct experience with periodical cicadas, feel free to write a personal memoir. I will accept entries through 11:59 pm CDT on Sunday, May 15 and will announce the winner on Monday, May 16. The winner will receive a signed, remaindered copy of my rare (i.e., out-of-print) book, The World According to Narnia. The remainder mark (or, as I like to call it, the mark of authenticity) is clearly visible.

You may want to do a little research on cicadas. You’d be amazed at the little facts that are just tossed out in the most off-hand manner by cicada researchers but are pure gold to the cicada poet/essayist/playwright. For example, cicadas are fascinated by weed-eaters and swarm around anybody who is brave enough to operate a weed-eater in cicada time. A great place to start your research is Cicada Central. Those links on the right range from whimsical to dead-earnest scientific research. The University of Maryland site includes cicada recipes.

Special consideration will be given to anyone who eats a cicada and writes about it. Haikus, of course, will be dismissed out of hand.

One last thing: this is an amazing time-lapse movie of emerging seventeen-year cicadas. It should inspire literary greatness.

  • Guest
    4:24 PM, 12 May 2011

    Blast, I can’t decide which route to take:
    1.) I am the cicada Cistat. I’m immortal. More or less. Fifth graders with sticks, Sevin Dust, junior newscasters who bite the heads off fried locusts in a desperate attempt to climb the ladder of local interest stories— these things might destroy me. But then again, they might not.

    2.) Guildenstern spots a cicada on the ground. He flips it.

    GUILDENSTERN: Heads. (He keeps flipping the cicada.) Heads … Heads … Heads … Heads … Heads … Heads … Heads … Heads … Heads … Heads … Heads … Heads … Heads … Heads … Heads … Heads … Heads … Heads … (He throws it up again, and Rosencrantz catches it, looks at the cicada and throws it back to Guildenstern.) Heads.

    (Rosencrantz gets a cicada out of his manpurse and flips it, covering it with has hand.) Bet. Heads, I win.

    (Rosencrantz looks at the cicada, says nothing, and throws it to Guildenstern, who covers it with his hand.) Again.

    (Guildenstern looks at the cicada) Heads. Rosencrantz gets out another cicada…

  • Jonathan Rogers
    4:44 PM, 12 May 2011

    From Jess, who is having trouble with the Comments function:
    What you said about cicadas today made me wriggle with delight. You’re right. There is something so poetic about the ways of a cicada. So I wrote a poem about them. I dunno if I completely messed up the facts about them or not (I have never experienced a cicada in real life, though I tried to do a minor amount of research), but here it is.
    I’ve waited thirteen years for today,
    Down in the earth, wiggling like a lowly worm,
    Eating and growing strong and…

    It is dark and muddy
    Thirteen years in the dark and mud.
    Cool, but not cold, and it smells like earth
    Thirteen years of smelling the earth from underneath.

    And today I come out and face the world,
    Smell the earth from above:
    It is supposed to be free
    I do not know what free is,
    But I feel what it is in my exoskeleton.
    It has been thirteen years!
    And I am ready.
    I’ve waited thirteen years for today,
    Down in the earth, wiggling like a lowly worm,
    Eating and growing strong and…

    I start to dig, up, it is up, the world is up,
    One more time acting like a worm,
    One last time before I…

    Break into the world
    It is bright—now I know what free is
    Now I know what wind is
    Now I know what green is
    Now I know what the world is

    The knowing makes me feel something else,
    Something new
    Something that hurts but is good
    Something that bursts forth and I sing

    I’ve waited thirteen years for today,
    Down in the earth, wiggling like a lowly worm,
    Eating and growing strong and…

    Now I am beautiful.

  • Jonathan Rogers
    4:51 PM, 12 May 2011

    Has anybody besides Jess had any problems with comments? If so, please send me a message via the “Contact Me” box on the right. Comments have been a little light lately…I’m now wondering if there are technical reasons.

  • Hannah Webb
    5:39 PM, 12 May 2011

    Ewwwwww! This is so disgusting. 😛
    Here is my Haiku for Cicada Season:

    Cicada season.
    They swarm the earth, piling up.
    Up, Down, EVERYWHERE!!!!!

  • Sally Apokedak
    6:49 PM, 12 May 2011

    “The remainder mark (or, as I like to call it, the mark of authenticity) is clearly visible.”

    That made me laugh.

    The video? That’s another matter. Wow! That was something. I think I agree with Hannah’s assessment.

    Here’s my true story of my brush with cicadas.

    I was in Arizona once, standing in a parking lot listening to a humming sound. I told my two little kids that the power lines must be buzzing or something.

    I’m such a scientist and devoted homeschooling mother.

    “What’s the buzzing, Mama?”

    “I don’t know. Some power line, I figure. Now quit asking so many darn fool questions!”

    A man happened to hear me and wouldn’t let me get away with is. “Those are cicadas,” he said.

    Oh, thanks. That cleared it right up for us.

    We didn’t have these nasty kinds of bugs in Alaska. I don’t think the soil temperature ever rose to 67 degrees.

  • Guest
    10:06 PM, 12 May 2011

    Not an entry. Just a deep-seated fear.

  • Hannah Joy
    1:52 AM, 13 May 2011

    I’m testing if the comments work for me. Sorry for inconveniences.

  • Hannah Joy
    2:11 AM, 13 May 2011

    Ok! The comment worked! So here goes:
     Cicada, Cicada, o reclusive one,
    Thirteen years without the sun,
    So greatly you fear to be something’s prey,
    That under the earth you spend your days.

    Then, o Cicada, poke out your ugly head,
    Hoping and praying not to become a beast’s bread,
    Sicko Cicada, eat all of our trees,
    And make an even more annoying sound than the bees.

    Oh yes, come out in the summer days’ heat,
    Maybe I’ll make you into a delicious treat,
    Or maybe I’ll just squish your nasty red eyes,
    And maliciously listen to your pain induced cries.

    Cicada, Cicada, you’ll wish you stayed down,
    Protected always by being underground,
    I am gathering all of my hungry bird friends,
    To laughingly devise your untimely end.

    I give my sincerest apologies to all you Cicada lovers. 😉

  • Dan Kulp
    11:54 AM, 13 May 2011

    What’s that shell made of -Cicada.
    A husk placed in a child’s hair
    Does produce quite a scare.

    While not quite an exact childhood memory (I cannot recall ever placing one in someone’s hair, but I’m sure it happened and was frightening) we used to hang the shells on our clothing and it kind of became a contest of  seeing who could hang the most.  We also had some way of linking them as a chain.  Things boys in a small town do.

  • Anonymous
    9:47 PM, 13 May 2011

    A picture and story from Julian, my 7 yr. old boy. Just in case the story is a bit tough to read, here’s what he wrote:
    “Once there was a boy named Tom. When he stood still cicadas would cling to him.”

  • Melinda Speece
    10:32 PM, 13 May 2011

    Yes, Everything’s Bigger in Texas: a personal memoir
    You’ve probably heard that everything’s bigger in Texas: the sky, the snakes, the steer, the trucks, the gun racks on the aforementioned trucks, the boots, the cowboy hats, and the drive from one end of the state to the other.

    I got married eight years ago and went happily off  to South Texas, way down in that little tip that you aren’t sure whether is America or Mexico—or both.

    After living most of my life in suburban Nashville, there was a bit of a learning curve: how to drive a 5-speed Ford F-150 to get the trash to the dump each week, which way not to drive after the rain washed out our dirt road, how to describe our location if I called 911 because we were too
    rural to be in the system, and why they called that harmless-looking weed stinging nettle.

    I also learned about the behavior of the King Cicada and their YEARLY May to October season (yes, May to October—roughly the same as the Gulf hurricane season. Coincidence?).

    The King Cicadas (especially in July, the peak of the season) were a lot like 5th graders. One would start and the sound would build and build and build (and build and build) until you couldn’t hold a
    conversation, talk on the telephone, or think a thought. Sometimes yelling at them, like with 5th graders, would quiet them down—temporarily. Then, just when you turned your back and got to talking again, one would start in low . . . . and soon, the others would succumb to peer pressure.

    We are back in Nashville now and, of course, I’m impressed with Brood XIX (as are my children), but I am reminded that everything’s bigger in Texas.

  • livingoakheart
    12:07 AM, 14 May 2011

    Cicada’s DiaryYears 1-12

    Year 13, Spring, day 1
    Our day will come. You thought we would remain happy in our little underground caves, didn’t you? No longer! This dark oppression must end!
    Day 7
    Is getting warmer. Have twenty-three hundred or so who will stand with me when the day comes. We shall overthrow the oppressive older generation who forced us to accept these squalid burrows of comfort!
    Day 12
    Realized that I don’t remember what the older generation look like. Will consult with others.
    Day 21
    TODAY IS THE DAY!!! I pen this hastily, as we are preparing our migration to the sun. Soon WE will be the ones in control!
    Day 22
    Day 29
    We have not been able to locate the older ones. Our time of opportunity is almost over. We have to lay our eggs soon.
    Day 32
    GREAT SCOTT! They all died! Our glorious revolution has no one to revolt against! What can this mean? What sort of cataclysm wiped out an entire generation?
    Day 34
    Am feeling strangely weak. Noticed Harold becoming sluggish. Did we eat something?
    Day 35
    I   know   what   happened    to them…

  • Loren
    3:51 AM, 14 May 2011

    These are great! Here’s my cicada memoir. I think you can tell I’m from the north! Cicadas aren’t so loud here….
    For me, the song of the cicadas is intricately entwined with
    memories of lazy summer days at my grandparents’ house in southeast
    Pennsylvania. The rasping chorus with its ebbs and flows were like sea-surf;
    background noise that added depth to life. The song echoes through memories of
    writing fantastical stories with the neighbor girl, through hours spent playing
    out adventures with her and my sisters in the back yard.

    It was probably only after four years spent in the
    Philippines as a child that I saw a cicada shell. Apparently the heat of the
    tropics is a little too warm for those
    creatures! So to come “home” to Grandmom and Poppy’s house and discover the
    fascinating cicada skeletons clinging to the old tree by their
    driveway—well!—that was an adventure.

    My sisters and I would scour that tree and others in the
    yard to see who could find the most skeletons. We’d gloat over our discoveries
    like pirates crowing over bizarre treasure, and we’d hoard our little creatures
    until Mom made us throw out what was left of their tattered shells. I’m not
    sure how the broods there worked with those 13/17 year cycles, but in my memory
    we found shells every summer on that old tree.

    Here in my home in the north, we have the song of the
    cicadas, but it’s hard to find the actual beast. I don’t recall ever seeing a
    live cicada until last summer. My little girls and I looked up from lunch one
    day to see a giant fly-like creature clinging to our screen door.

    “What is it?” the girls wanted to know.

    “A cicada, I think,” I said. But there really was no

    It stayed there for a long time, and it still comes up in
    conversations. Just the other day my eldest was wondering when we’d see one of
    those “big bugs that hang on the door.” I hope we do. I suppose it is only the
    memories that make them creatures of wonder to me, but there is something
    satisfying in knowing that another generation of little girls is discovering
    the call of the cicadas.

  • […] here as “one of my favorite bloggers” and just admit that he’s my favorite) is hosting a literature contest inspired by cicadas and awarding the winner a copy of his book The World According to Narnia. I am working on a short […]

  • Fellow Traveler
    8:08 PM, 14 May 2011

    Okay, I don’t have anything brilliant to contribute here, but instead I had a general question about the recent comments sidebar in the Rabbit Room. (Sorry this is OT Jonathan, just didn’t know where else to put it!) When I leave a comment there, I don’t see anything, and it’s particularly frustrating just now  since I left something on an old post. Is anyone else experiencing this glitch, or is it just me?

  • Jess
    10:13 PM, 14 May 2011

    Well, if this goes through, I’ve discovered that I can’t post a comment when I’m on Internet Explorer, but I can when I’m on Mozilla/Firefox. 

  • Guest
    8:23 PM, 15 May 2011

    Jonathan, I was going to write up a piece to enter in your contest. However, the other night I stepped outside to listen to the cicadas for inspiration, and I was shocked to hear one singing “The Afterlife” from Paul Simon’s latest album. I noticed that the words were a little different, so I quickly jotted down the variations and decided to send those to you instead of something I had written.
    At first I was confused by what I heard. But after doing some research, I realized that after sleeping underground for thirteen years, cicadas emerge looking for love. So the songs they sing (loudest of all insect mating songs) are actually quite romantic.

    Unfortunately, however, the cicada has long been a symbol for insouciance. Can you imagine how frustrating this would be? To wait for love so long and then to meet indifference?

    Perhaps this conundrum is what inspired a young cicada lover to pen these words. Perhaps she continues to reject him because he dangles prepositions? I don’t know. I am hesitant to postulate on such matters.

    You cracked off your shell, Baby, looking so swell,
    I can hardly contain,
    The hemiptrian rush when I watch your wings blush,
    Oh, it’s causing me pain.
    Still I think that it’s odd, with that beautiful bod,
    You won’t fly to my branch.
    So I wrote you a song, buzzin’ loud, buzzin’ strong,
    Won’t you give me a chance?

    You got to sleep in the dirt first,
    And then you give me your time.
    You got to sleep in the dirt first,
    And then you give me your time.

    I’m the new kid in town, and I’m making my rounds,
    You got to see what I mean.
    Woah! There’s a girl over there,
    With a red-eyed stare like a sloshed moonshine queen.
    I said, “Hey what’cha say, it’s a glorious day,
    By the way, how long you been asleep?”
    Maybe you, maybe me, maybe baby makes three (hundred),”
    But insouciant, she.

    You got to sleep in the dirt first,
    And then you give me your time.
    You got to sleep in the dirt first,
    And then you give me your time.

    Buddha and Moses can only supposes,
    Where your love has me at.
    I would stand in a line just to look, you’re so fine,
    What’cha think about that?
    Well, it seems like my fate,
    To suffer and wait for the girl that I seek.
    It’s all her design, so I chirp while she shines,
    for a kiss on the cheek.

    You got to sleep in the dirt first,
    And then you give me your time.
    You got to sleep in the dirt first,
    And then you give me your time.

    I’m gonna climb up your branches of pine,
    So I can be near.
    Face-to-face in the vastness of space,
    Our words disappear.
    And you’ll feel like you’re swimming in my ocean of love,
    And the current is strong.
    But all that remains when you try to explain,
    Is a fragment of song:
    Girl, is it Be Buzz a Zuza? Or ooh ZeZa Zoo?
    Girl, Be Buzz a Zuza? Or ooh ZeZa Zoo?
    Be Buzz a Zuza.

  • Madeleine
    8:46 PM, 15 May 2011


  • Anonymous
    10:32 PM, 15 May 2011

    A Cicada Essay, in honor of Brood XIX: 
    Thirteen years they lie. Thirteen long, dark, years entombed within the earth.  Thirteen stagnant years stuck in a juvenile rut, feeding on root systems, prey to moles and other tunneling insectivores.

    Then, at long last, the Emergence comes.  In swarms, they are reborn from darkness into light.  And they change like never before. 

    Underground, the changes were less drastic – skins left behind, subtle shifts in size, a slower-paced growth.  Out here in the open, though, the changes are radical.  They mature, gain flight, harden, become waxy, start buzzing.  In a matter of days, they learn to fly and dig into tree bark, to sing and reproduce.  They have finally arrived at their purpose.  At long last, they have begun doing what they were designed to do.

    In some ways, my last thirteen years have mirrored theirs.  I haven’t been living underground, tunneling into tree roots, or shedding my skin at regular intervals, but I have been slowly growing, gradually preparing for my ultimate purpose.

    In 1998, I was sixteen years old.  I was intellectual, distant, lonely.  I was inept at sports, social interaction, and empathy.  I was in love with being right.  I enjoyed chess, heated debates, and conservative talk radio. 
    I had plenty of knowledge and potential, but like the rich young ruler, I was sorely lacking in many of the things that matter most.  I guess you could say I was still pretty larval. 

    Like my Brood XIX counterparts, I stumbled around in darkness for a while.  I had good enough grades to get a scholarship, and my enormous family qualified me for a massive Pell Grant, so college was a no-brainer. I started early and lived at home – which, surprisingly enough, did not make me any better at fitting in or interacting with my peers.  I loved reading, so I majored in English literature and criticism.  This was probably my first big mistake.

    I had been under the impression that studying English would enable me to read more of the books I loved so much.  What I found instead were reading lists full of “important” books that didn’t hold my attention or feed my soul.  Moreover, I was called not to enjoy these books, but to pick them apart and examine their components under a variety of microscopes, many of which seemed designed to distort rather than to magnify. At times, I felt like a passionate animal-lover who had been coerced into a career as a vivisectionist. 

    Nonetheless, even as I became disillusioned with literary theory and criticism, I was growing in other ways.  I sang with an acapella group, wrote a column for the student newspaper, became involved in student organizations, and – most importantly – began learning how to love people.

    In being exposed to such a variety of people in my classes and extracurricular activities, I came to a vital realization.  No matter how different others were from me, they were still fundamentally people made in God’s image.  Like me, they were filled with aspirations, hopes, and dreams.  They shared my fundamental frailties and inadequacies.  And in recognizing their personhood, I started learning how to love them, no matter how much they offended my sensibilities or conscience or intellect.
    As time went on, I continued growing in small increments, periodically shedding old skins to make room for my new features. 

    Through involvement with a campus ministry, my disdain for modern, “warm fuzzy” worship was transformed into realization that God could touch my heart even through songs that hadn’t been written by Isaac Watts or Fanny Crosby.  I found that if I gave people the benefit of the doubt, they could lead me to Jesus in paths I had never traversed before. 

    Through a year of service at a mission school on the Navajo reservation, I learned that my ideas of success and progress are informed to a very large extent by my cultural background.  I also learned that my culture isn’t the only one with a lot of dysfunctional people who need God’s love. 

    Through a couple of trips to South America, I learned that loneliness can amplify the presence of the Maker.  Alienation can be a terrible feeling, but it can also drive me into the Everlasting Arms more effectively than anything else can.

    Through three years studying English language and composition theory in graduate school, I lost many of my condescending, judgmental ideas about “proper English.”   I also found that my freshman English students were just as lost as I had been all those years ago, and that they needed just as much help. 

    Ultimately, I ended up in a completely unexpected place, working as a business analyst for an insurance company.  Thirteen years ago, I never would have guessed I’d be here, in the ultimate “sell-out” place, with a wife, a one-year-old son, and another baby on the way, living in a modest neighborhood in a good part of town.

    And yet, unplanned though my path has been, each step has taken me closer to my ultimate purpose.  Like those cicadas that were born to fly through the air, swarm on the trees, and buzz sweet love-music to each other in the summer twilight, I was born for something greater than my years of blind stumbling in darkness.

    There is one important difference between me and the cicadas:  I am not yet free of my muddy temporary home.  I continue tunneling, awaiting my ultimate freedom outside the confines of this earthy coffin. 

    Sometimes, I wonder if it will ever come, that final moment when I burst forth into the light.  But I have faith that it will.  And so I walk by faith, and not by sight, knowing that one day I will see the glorious sunshine. 

    I will break free, I will have wings, and at long last, I will finally sing.

  • Madeleine
    3:17 AM, 16 May 2011

    A few more comments on cicadas:                When I was a kid I spent my summers in southern Virginia at my father’s house. The drone of cicadas was only one of the cacophony of nature noises at his country home. Between them and the crickets and tree frogs and who knows what else I had trouble falling asleep the first few nights. Much louder than my suburban home in upstate NY.  A few barking dogs and an occasional siren can’t hold a wax luminary to the summer symphony in the trees.
                    One day I was hiking with my mom along some weathered bluffs carved by the winds off Lake Ontario. Along the tops of the bluffs were some scrubby trees and a pretty exciting path skirting the edge of the precipice. I stopped to rest and leaned my hand against one knotted truck only to withdraw it very quickly. It was one of those spine-jumping reflexes.  I had almost put my hand on an incredibly huge light green insect with red eyes.  I recognized it as a cicada just emerged from its shell. (Thanks to the helpful people at Cicada Central I can now identify it as a “teneral” adult ripe for picking, blanching, and using in my favorite recipe.) That day I left it to its drying and have carried with me the striking memory of a beautiful summer day at the Lake with my mom.
                    In 2004 Brood X emerged in Maryland and all along the East Coast. The Great Eastern Brood is the largest of the 17 year periodical broods according to Wikipedia. The media outlets nearly drowned out the droning of the cicadas themselves with predictions, explanations, and complaints. At the time we were living in a “slash and burn subdivision.”  Our yard bordered on the fringes of the woods that escaped the bulldozers, but a six foot privacy fence kept out the wilds. Still even from behind the fence and across the yard it sounded like an idling semi-trailer parked on the back porch. Our three year old was interested in the stragglers that flew over from the woods, but the neighbor’s five year old daughter was enamored. She was in charge of gathering the insects and the two of them worked together to construct “homes” for their pets.  One day Emma, the neighbor came to me. “Miss Breeze,” she said, “did you know if you squeeze them on their butts they squeak?” No, I did not. She proceeded to demonstrate the squeeze and the resulting chirp. I decided to pass up my chance to give it a try, and now have to wait 10 more years, but you Tennessee folk have millions waiting to be squeezed. Go ahead, grab a five year old and give it a try.
                    Speaking of a Rip Van Winkle effect, I lived in central NY for 12 years full time plus 4 summers when I was in college and I completely missed the “Onondaga Brood” which apparently inundates that exact area every 17 years. I moved in just after they came in 1984 and left right before they came in 2001. I can say that I grew up in the Onondaga Valley and Brood VII doesn’t even know I existed.
                    Lastly, I love that the genus name for these creatures is “Magicicada.” Really? Magic? Yeah, they are. 

  • Cjgavit84
    9:36 PM, 14 July 2011

    This video was very interesting. I had NO idea that cicada’s lived underground for 17 yrs. I liked it very much! Nicely Done 🙂

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