Seasons in the Sun
Last spring, the seventeen-year cicadas, called Magicicadas, emerged from their burrows along the eastern seaboard. This was Brood II and involved seven states. Last year Brood I emerged in Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee; next year Brood III will surface in Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri.
I love this chart—it’s like a treasure map. How wonderful to know that if I’d shown up in a woods in east Kansas in the spring of 2015, I would have witnessed the emergence of millions of cicadas. I would have liked to have been there, peering at the ground, when the very first one stuck his head up. “Welcome,” I’d have said. “Welcome to this world.”
When the nymphs emerge, their bodies are soft and cave-white. I imagine they are blind, too, which might explain why they show up after sunset: sunlight must be shocking after seventeen years underground. The first thing they do is find a bit of vegetation to rest on while they complete a final molt that takes them into adulthood. In a week’s time, their exoskeletons have hardened and darkened, and they have grown transparent wings with orange veins. Their eyes, now quite large, are bright red. Like stubborn ghosts, the skins of their youth remain in the places they were.
The males, seeking mates, begin contracting their abdomens to make a series of loud buzzing and clicking noises. Often they form choruses high in the sunlit branches of trees, and their considerable racket attracts females of the same species. While the females don’t sing, they answer the males with a noise of their own, a movement called a wing flick, which can vary from a rustle to a sharp pop. Eventually they all find each other, and a mass mating occurs overhead, after which the females cut slits in twigs and lay their several hundred eggs. Six weeks later the eggs hatch, releasing nymphs the size of ants that fall to the ground and immediately burrow in. For nearly two decades, these pale bugs tunnel through a black world, sucking tree root sap as needed and growing ever so slowly. No one knows why they stay hidden for so long, or what finally beckons them skyward all at once.
Cicadas don’t live long as adults, not even long enough to see their progeny. In a month’s time, they sing, mate, lay eggs, and die, leaving an immense litter of dry husks. So many of them come into the world that even after the birds and rodents are satiated, the population remains intact.
I suppose those four weeks of glory is the point of a cicada’s life, but I wonder about the young, who live seventeen years in silence, impervious to cold and wind and noise. I see them tunneling away, no clue there’s another world waiting, no need to know anything but the next quarter inch. It seems a kindness, all that time to be young.