“I do not at all know what to think of your extraordinary case of the Cicadas.”
—Charles Darwin, in a letter to Benjamin Walsh of Rock Island, Illinois, October 31, 1868
They came in the summer of my birth, and returned just before and senior year of high school. Every seventeen years billions of them burst forth from the ground in the Chicagoland area. They are estimating 5 billion this year, in our region alone. These numbers make up Brood XIII.
They cannot hurt you. They do not bite or sting, and are not classified as a pest. They make an awful lot of noise, though: their mating calls can reach 106 dB, louder than a jet engine. This makes them the loudest insects in the world, thanks to their unique muscle drums. They are not locusts. They are vegetarians.
An adult cicada is called an imagine.
They have developed this seventeen year cycle to keep from falling into step with predators with a shorter life cycle. Seventeen, being prime, ensures that nothing relies on the cicada for food.
They grow slowly underground over the years, drinking sap from tree roots and biding their time. Once their year arrives and the ground temperature reaches 60°, they construct an exit tunnel and emerge into the world once more.
In 1990, when they last emerged, people began eating them in great quantities. Eating cicadas will not hurt you, and they are rich in protein, but I have no plans to eat any myself.
I feel somehow kindred to these creatures. As I said, they sang at my birth. When they came back and sang again, I was just beginning a hugely rewarding period of my life as an actor. Now they return as I work on my novel. While this is coincidence it is also perhaps not coincidence. There are cycles in life, and the 17-year cycle is one I think I know.
Most of these creatures—who will outnumber all of the humans on Earth in our little region—emerge in a single night, perhaps tonight. They will swarm and swarm, perhaps even on me when I go outside. I have no sap, so I am not afraid.
So much has changed since I heard them last. How much will have changed before they return?