The Great Cicada Summer

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Hello, 2021!

All over Maryland, there’s one sweet word I hear every day: cicada.

The cicadas are here.

Or, should I say, Magicicada? Or to be very precise—I can’t say it, but I can spell Magicicada septendecim, Magicicada Cassini and Magicicada septenecula, the three species making up Brood X which is based in Maryland and the Mid-Atlantic states nearby.

Do you know cicadas? They are much nicer than locusts. They don’t eat leaves, for a start.

They are such special “here today, gone tomorrow” friends. They bury to the ground as nymphs, wait seventeen years, and then come out to say hello. I am talking about a very special flying insect that emerges in eastern North America after a thirteen- or seventeen-year-long hibernation underground. This brood of cicadas manages to survive predators like birds and other small mammals by bursting forth in such numbers that the predators can eat their fill, and there are still enough left to mate and lay eggs for the future. Scientists don’t know if cicadas have an internal body clock that gives them a mid-spring alarm wake-up. That is one long battery, to go for seventeen years.

And what do cicadas have to do with writing? Well, some of us take seventeen years to get a career going. Others take seventeen years to write one book. Cicadas know how much time it takes to make art.

Molting on trees, where cicadas leave their exoskeletons
Hey, that old suit just isn’t me!

Maryland rightly considers itself the world’s cicada capital because our area has been home (for perhaps 40 and 200 million years!) to a brood (species) that is the largest in the country. The estimated density of a cicada emergence is 1.5 million emerging per acre. Before you start imagining my cicada summer as a sci-fi horror movie, let me confess I only saw two cicadas today during two hours of weeding. This could be related to environmental change, including the gardening “improvements” we’ve done, digging deep and adding more earth in various places. I was weeding this afternoon and only saw two cicadas. But when I walk through my neighborhood, I’m relieved to see some streets have healthy populations.

Looking for love in the right place

I remember so many more cicadas in years past.

My first experience was in 1987, when I was a young reporter at the Baltimore Evening Sun. I remember cicadas flying into my hair when I was leaving my city apartment for work and going out in early evening on dates. I saw their shells littered on the pavement. drove through wooded areas, the sound of the male cicadas contracting their abdominal muscles was like the most overpowering techno music. A single cicada can make noise of 110 decibels, on par with a lawn mower. They definitely interfered with the outdoor bar scene.

I was a young mother for the next generation of Brood X in 2004. I recall the kids swinging on swings and climbing up slides, not running in fear from flying bugs. But I wasn’t that focused on appreciating the cicadas. It was the height of the Iraq War, and the Navy had recalled my husband to active duty. Would he go to the front lines in the Middle East or somewhere else? How would I manage the young kids and finish the book that was due? The cicadas’ songs could not drown out the panicked noise in my head.

This time around, the cicadas arrived the week after my daughter’s death. At the start of April I’d told her they would be flying all summer,  and she’d winced, anticipating an insect invasion she didn’t remember from her childhood. But she missed every one of them. Neel’s here and keeping his eyes out, but he’s still waiting for the big show. As a musician, it could impact the outdoor concerts he hopes to play. My husband is anxious for the cicadas’ well-being, carefully lifting them off his car tires so they don’t perish, and dissing the few neighbors who have chosen to protect young trees with fine mesh.

As I watch the cicadas crawl up trees to gather strength, and burst from their shells, I marvel at their steadfastness—and how patiently they wait, underground, for a few dazzling weeks of communal joy.

I may see red, but I’m not dangerous!