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.