Tuesday, May 22, 2007


“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?


Reading the Signs said...

Absolutely fascinating, Mr. Moon. And one should always (as an artist) take on the personal significance of these things. I have heard 18-year cycles referred to as "moon nodes". It is particularly special that the cicadas sang at your birth.

basest said...

I was almost 2 when they were singing you awake. It's likely that I ate some...

the next time, I remember there were a significant amount of them around my dad's apartment building across from the cemetary....you know...where you ended up living about 6 or 7 years later. I guess they were a little early for you then...

Unknown said...

The fact that adult cicadas are called IMAGINE is pretty special. And it's pretty special that you have this connection with these fantastic insects. Seems that this has to be a good omen.

Also... does that mean you've got a birthday coming up soon?

Anonymous said...

I am so creeped out. Fascinated but creeped out. The crackle, crackle under my feet for 6 weeks. Ugh.

Anonymous said...

Very nice post. I really enjoyed it. We actually get cicadas every year or two near where I work. Obviously the ones we get have a much shorter life cycle. Still, I know what you mean about the noise they make.

I have a co-worker who always brings a cicada into the office to scare people.

The Moon Topples said...

RTS: Thanks for the "moon nodes" reference. I hadn't heard that before. And rest assured that I have no difficulty assigning personal meaning to random events.

Basest: Perhaps they were merely preparing for my arrival?

Ver: Yes, my birthday is coming soon. I'm sure I'll mention it when it comes. Yours, from what I gathered in your recent comment, is the same as Basest's, at the extreme other end of the month in which I was born.

GT: That crackle will likely be just the shed skins they leave everywhere when they first emerge. Hopefully the live ones'll get out of the way.

Struggly: Sometimes people bring me in to work to scare folks as well. The connections continue! And I'm weirdly fascinated by the sounds they produce. No other creature is built in this way, with the drum muscle and hollow abdomen. Why do you suppose they feel the need to make such a fuss when they arrive?

Joni said...

I love this post.

Unknown said...

I am intrigued. I knew nothing about cicadas other than their noise. English insects are rather boring in comparison.

Nikki Neurotic said...

I don't think we have them here in N.J. Locusts yes, I love hearing them, but cicadas no. In fact, the only thing I really think of when I hear the word "cicada" is that it's the second to last track on Silverchair debut album...which I probably listened to about a million or so times during my teen years.

Anonymous said...

Cicadas are my all time favorite. Their sound is the embodiment of summer.

nmj said...

Lordy, Mr Moon, I haven't been by for a while & come to pay my respects only to be met by a red-eyed beast!

The Moon Topples said...

Joni: Thank you very much.

Minx: Sorry English insects are dull. I guess you'll have to make do with your fine musicians, actors, writers and what-not.

SilverN: I don't know that song, but will probably look it up.

Jason: Yay! A fellow cicada-sympathiser. The embodiment of summer indeed.

NMJ: Well, that's what you get for not stopping by more often. There's rarely a red-eyed specimen of any kind awaiting you on my page.

Anna MR said...

I can't lie and say I don't find the creatures themselves scary-horrifying (Scandinavian insects are tiny and benign), but, like Ms Signs, I find the cycle you share with them fascinating and the stuff of great storytelling. And like Verilion (sorry, fellow blogger, don't know you at all so cannot give you a title - will come for a silent visit in a minute to rectify the matter), I was blown away by the fact the adult specimen are called imagine. That is pretty poetic from the scientist who came up with it.

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pedro velasquez said...

A cicada (pronounced /sɪˈkɑːdə/ or pronounced /sɪˈkeɪdə/) is an insect of the order Hemiptera, suborder Auchenorrhyncha, in the superfamily Cicadoidea, Sportsbook with large eyes wide apart on the head and usually transparent, well-veined wings. There are about 2,500 species of cicada around the world, and many remain unclassified. Cicadas live in temperate to tropical climates where they are among the most widely recognized of all insects, mainly due to their large size and remarkable acoustic talents. Cicadas are sometimes colloquially called "locusts", although they are unrelated to true locusts, which are a kind of grasshopper. They are also known as "jar flies". Cicadas are related to leafhoppers and spittlebugs. march madness In parts of the southern Appalachian Mountains in the United States, they are known as "dry flies" because of the dry shell that they leave behind.
Cicadas are benign to humans and do not bite or sting, but can cause damage to several cultivated crops, shrubs, and trees. Many people around the world regularly eat cicadas; the female is prized, as it is meatier. Cicadas have been (or are still) eaten in Ancient Greece, China, Malaysia, Burma, Latin America, and the Congo. Shells of cicadas are employed in the traditional medicines of China

kimberly sayer said...

A cicada is an insect of the order Hemiptera, suborder Auchenorrhyncha, in the superfamily Cicadoidea,costa rica fishingwith large eyes wide apart on the head and usually transparent, well-veined wings.

Anonymous said...

The name is a direct derivation of the Latin cicada, meaning "buzzer". In classical Greek,Costa rica toursit was called a tettix, and in modern Greek tzitzikas—both names being onomatopoeic.