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.

Return of the 17-Year Cicadas

They had almost receded from my memory. In 1987 I had never seen anything like them.

Okay, I misspoke. I had seen things like them. I spent my teenage years in Florida. Cockroaches – big, black shiny cockroaches that skittled across floors at warp nine and crunched underfoot when you stepped on them – infested and doubtless still infest Florida. It didn’t matter how clean your house was or how many times you called the exterminator. Roaches were lurking somewhere near you. They were ready to make their presence known and disgust you at the most unwelcome times. Aside from the usual places like the kitchen, closets, cupboards and bookcases, I even occasionally found cockroaches in my shoes. I carried them around for hours at a time only to remove my shoes and find them smooshed or crawling out. Ick. Double ick.

Worse than the cockroaches in Florida were the palmetto bugs: veritable flying cockroaches. The etymologists would argue they were nothing like cockroaches, but they were the about the same size and black and icky. But these critters would zing at you from the lawn or a nearby bush when you entered or left the house. They could cause a cardiac arrest in a guy wearing a pacemaker. I am sure part of the reason I moved up north again after graduation was to get away from all the disgusting crawling things in Florida. (That and there were better paying jobs up north.)

The Washington area has its share of cockroaches, but you have to invite them in. I’ve never seen one in my house. Except for the autumn plague of cave crickets in the basement we are amazingly vermin free. They amuse my otherwise sweet cat Sprite. He enjoys spending his days waiting for them in the basement. When he finds one he slowly rips out their legs one by one then watches them die a painful death. He thinks it’s good sport. I’m sure if he could talk he’d express surprise that he actually hurt them. “I was just playing, Daddy,” I’m sure he would say.

An occasional bug that has slipped through our defenses will get inside our house. A mouse temporarily took up residence in my garage over the winter but wisely never tried to move in closer. That’s the way we like it. Nature belongs outside. Inside is sacred, bug-free and human friendly sanctuary.

So while I was somewhat used to icky things, I had pretty much tuned them out in 1987. I had lived in the Washington metropolitan area almost a decade by that time. And then they arrived. We called them the 17-year locusts. But they weren’t locusts. They were 17-year cicadas. Yes, since 1970, long before I arrived they had been hiding in the ground. In May 1987 they decided to emerge. Their life spans may be short (about a month) but during that time it was like living an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

I remember a lot of mixed feelings. First it was curiosity … there sure were a lot of bugs around … and what were those things littering the sidewalk? Later the feelings became all jumbled up. I felt disgust by the sheer number of the things. I felt amazement at the same time that so many critters could occupy the same space at the same time. I also felt helpless because the noise of millions of cicadas was deafening day and night. Even in the house we could hear them. It was like I had a semi parked outside my window with the engine running. And of course I felt on guard whenever I was outside. I couldn’t walk anywhere without these hissing black bugs about an inch long jumping at me, or staring at me with their beady little red eyes. Lastly I felt panic because my wife Terri is bug phobic. A spider on the wall will freak her out. And here she was surrounded by bugs jumping at her, hissing at her, screaming at her. It put her in high panic mode. And that meant I had to be in panic mode too because when she was panicking she made my life hell. It’s amazing I didn’t file divorce papers.

They were everywhere except (usually) indoors. Cicadas may be disgusting creatures, but they are not smart. They didn’t mind getting stepped on. They didn’t understand windows. They just loved to try to jump through them. This would cause periodic taps on the windows that became difficult to ignore. And they had a talent for fouling up machinery. On the Dulles Toll Road the toll machines kept breaking down as their innards filled with cicadas. Back then we were too poor to afford a car with air-conditioning. For my wife that meant driving in summer-like weather with the windows rolled up. But lord how the bugs tried to get in anyhow. They seemed to love air vents. For years afterward there were cicada wings in our car’s air vents we couldn’t dislodge.

Finally they died rather spectacularly and haphazardly, leaving their ugly black carcasses all over the lawns, roads and sidewalks. I repeatedly went out with a broom to sweep those things off my sidewalk and off my car. For weeks afterward the lawns were dark with decaying cicadas carcasses until finally they disintegrated. The regular summer cicadas were something of a relief. They used to annoy me but suddenly they seemed so … quiet.

And I had almost forgotten all this. But cicada stories are everywhere in the papers. The bad memories are returning. Somehow here it is 17 years later and they are about to start this cycle again. I saw them pupating on the grass and on the walks on my way to work: whitish little things with immature wings. Not a hiss nor a screech out of them yet but I know in a matter of days not only will we see them but hear them too. And the nightmare will begin again.

I tried to explain to my daughter what was going to happen. But words don’t really suffice so I stopped trying. This is something she will have to experience to get. To me it will be another hellish four weeks or so. I have been told though that I have the wrong outlook. I should marvel at nature in all its bizarre and ill-timed glory.

I’d much rather marvel at them from a distance than have such a personal encounter with so many of these insects again. Please put them on a documentary on the Discovery Channel instead. That’s as close an encounter as I want with these critters. 17 years wasn’t long enough.

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