The Thinker

Return of the 17-Year Cicadas, Part Two

Memory can play tricks on you sometimes. As you may recall from this entry my memory of the 1987 return of the 17-year cicadas was not a happy one. Thankfully this time around the memories are somewhat more pleasant.

For one thing in 1987 I lived in Reston, Virginia. There are some great things about Reston. One of the greatest is that when they build developments they don’t unnecessarily cut down the old trees. So in 1987 we lived in a townhouse surrounded by established trees, and tall trees at that. They don’t get much taller here on the east coast than sycamore trees. Sycamores lined the back of our property and towered hundreds of feet into the air. It was rumored they were a hundred years old and planted back when Reston actually was a town called Wiehle (since dissolved). In addition there were plenty of fir and other deciduous trees near my house. So the cicadas were everywhere and they were absolutely deafening. I understood this anew today when I went running on a path in our neighborhood by a creek with an old established little forest. There were places where you could not hear what someone was saying six feet away from you with all the cicada noise.

But in our new neighborhood cicadas are not too bad a problem. Rolling back the clock I realized in 1987 our neighborhood was in the middle of development. My house was then about a year old, but the land had been torn up. The first thing the developers did was tear down all the trees. Cicadas probably emerged in 1987 but there were no trees worth climbing. So they likely either died rather quickly or found a nearby forest and habited there. Since the cicada eggs are deposited on the leaves of trees, the new and maturing trees in our development were largely spared. In a few generations, probably after I am dead, they will return in force to my neighborhood.

Even so they can be surprisingly loud. They start as soon as there is daylight. It begins with a low and gentle almost metallic like hum that greats me around six a.m. when I groggily retrieve my newspaper. As the day progresses and particularly when the sun is out the hum disappears and it turns into a persistent whine rising to a crescendo and then falling. Here near my house the cycle takes about six seconds. But it varies from spot to spot. On the running trail in the woods it was every three to five seconds. I wonder why it varies from place to place.

I am hearing two distinct noises. About thirty percent of the noise comes from summer sounding cicadas. I assume it’s the 17-year cicadas that provide the server-room like hum. But I am puzzled by the noise of the summer-like cicadas because it is not summer, and we don’t usually get the summer cicadas until late July.

I also remembered black cicadas. But my memory must have been faulty. These cicadas are universally brown, except for their beady red eyes. Now that I am steeped in cicada trivia I realize that if they land on me they won’t be biting me. I’ve been landed on at least once so far. 17 years ago though I had to deal with a panic stricken wife. This time my wife has coping strategies. Her main strategy involves basically not going outside until they’re gone. If she absolutely has to go outside she’ll pick spots far away from the trees as possible. This also works for me since last time I came close to serving divorce papers.

Only in the last couple days have I noticed the cicadas getting in my face. They are now flying everywhere. I am glad I have my car windows closed because I’m sure they’d get in otherwise. My drive home means a couple of them will run into my windshield.

My office is on the fifth floor and overlooks a number of tall and established trees. From a vantage point I did not have in 1987 I can see what is going on. A week ago I was watching droves of cicadas slowly climbing the trees. Now I see them flitting between the trees. It can be hypnotic to watch them at times as they constantly and awkwardly move from tree to tree. Each is looking no doubt for a quick insect-like roll in the hay. Their mortality rate is already surprisingly high. At the U.S. Geological Survey where I work the trees are old and established. In the morning the sidewalks are often littered with the bugs. By the afternoon most are gone. I assume this is a result of the landscaping crew coming by with the brooms and the leaf blowers.

It’s a real change of pace, that’s for sure. I live in suburbia partially to escape the city noise. But now there is no escape until dusk. Only then do the cicadas seem to finally call an end to their lovemaking and settle down. In a few weeks they will be dead and gone. I suspect it will seem strange to take a walk in the woods and find it so quiet again.

They will be back again when I am 64 and then again when I am 81. Almost certainly I will be dead in 2055, but perhaps I will survive to 98 to hear them for a fifth time. By that time I may feel nostalgic. I hope my hearing aid will work. These long passages between cicada generations are perhaps the creepiest thing about them. I can’t help but realize they mark major passages in my life. Ask not for whom the bells tolls, ask for whom the cicada tolls. I hope if I am dead in 2055 that my daughter, then 65 years old will hear them, mark her own passage of time, and relive her own somewhat poignant cicada memories.


One Response to “Return of the 17-Year Cicadas, Part Two”

  1. 11:57 am on June 8 2004, Magentamist said:

    Mark, I must admit, I like the rewrite best. I’ve always enjoyed a good story/short story/essay. I hope to read more in the future.

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