Chasing Cicadas

Amid the cacophony of a cicada emergence, Anisa George reflects on her choice to leave the Bahá’í faith and its promise of a new civilization. Following her own rhythms of becoming, she seeks unity in a new chorus of voices.

You are blessed!
On the earth’s bed
you die drunk with light.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
May my heart be Cicada
upon the divine fields.

—Federico García Lorc

This year the periodical cicadas of my region emerged after seventeen years of subterranean living. I learned about their impending arrival back in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, while many of us were leading contracted, if not light-deprived, lives. During that particularly dejected year, the cicada emergence began to take on a mythic dimension for me. They would arrive in a great awakening of tymbaling hordes, just as we hoped to be stripping away our masks and rolling up our sleeves for the vaccine. I knew, rationally speaking, that the cicadas had been performing these emergences for millions of years. I knew they wouldn’t adjust their schedule because we were dying by the millions up here. Nevertheless, to me, their imminent arrival seemed proof that we, too, could make it out alive.

The genus Magicicada lives in North America alone and consists of seven species that are broken into two types: three Magicicada species have a seventeen-year cycle, and four have a thirteen-year cycle. Most of us are used to annual cycles. We experience how everything dies in the fall and then is reborn six months later, but we rarely become aware of cycles longer than this. Occasionally, a partial or complete eclipse, the sighting of a distant star, of two planets “kissing,” will tie us to an interval longer than the three hundred and sixty-five days of the year. The emergence of the cicadas is one of these moments, a wrinkle in time, a glimpse of the incomprehensible world that expands beyond us in all directions. In addition to their longevity, the ability of the seven Magicicada species to synchronize their emergence makes them unique among the more than three thousand species of cicadas that exist worldwide. Most species of cicada stagger their emergence, exposing only a segment of their population to predation annually, while the vast majority remain safe underground. But periodical cicadas demonstrate no such discretion—they enter all at once.

Normally, the story of an insect’s life starts with a single egg, but I prefer to begin my telling in the dark—the dark, loamy rhizosphere of the forest’s underbelly. Here, under a foot or two of soil, all tangled up with hyphae and root, our young periodical cicada lives for seventeen years, a blanched, six-legged vampire sucking root sap for sustenance. The xylem she extracts is mostly water and hardly nourishes. She hugs her root and hopes to evade subterranean insectivores, perhaps in the form of an occasional grub-loving mole. Every couple of years, she gets the itch to shed her skin. Four times she does the trick, sloughing it off, enriching the duff.

When the seventeen-year mark arrives and the soil begins warming in the late spring, she starts digging a chimney, a little mud igloo escape route that exits into the open air. But how, oh how, does she tell the difference between the final May and the one that came the year before? What makes the seventeenth seasonal thaw distinct from all the rest? Do her fellow cicadas signal her? Is there a stinky pheromone exuded, a telepathic forest announcement, a whistle to the brood from the captain bug; or does some third party—a secret, subterranean, seventeen-year zeitgeber—at last flash the green light?

The last time Brood X emerged, it was 2004. We still had flip phones in our pockets, and Mark Zuckerberg was a student at Harvard University. George W. Bush waged war as Donald Trump hosted The Apprentice. The last time Brood X arrived, same-sex marriage was legal only in the state of Massachusetts, and Prince was still with us. Brood X have missed a lot of headlines, but they do not care. They do not care who won the United States election on November 3, 2020. They do not care who stormed the Capitol a few months afterward. They do not even care about the vaccine. When they emerged, in the spring of 2020, they didn’t have the faintest awareness that a larger, two-legged species was also emerging from a rather lengthy sequestration. Periodical cicadas have been staging their seventeen-year resurrection for millions of years, and human history is barely a blip compared with the epic saga of their cyclical existence. About ten thousand years ago, the continental glaciers receded, and the periodical cicadas colonized the land revealed by the great thaw, solidifying their genetic inheritance and temporal life cycles. Though cicadas are found worldwide, periodical cicadas are a predominantly North American phenomenon—a hometown marvel that, a year ago, this Yankee in particular knew nothing about.

Zooming out, the last four visitations of Brood X occurred in 1953, 1970, 1987, and 2004. I was not even born in 1953. Were you born? Were your parents born? And 1970? Have you arrived yet? Any memories of 1987? How about 2004? Are you feeling any kind of rhythm here? How about this little beat: every 221 years (multiply 13 and 17), thirteen- and seventeen-year cicada species co-emerge and there is what is called a “super emergence.”

When I was about thirteen, I decided to follow in my mother’s footsteps and started studying the tabla. The first rhythm I learned to play on these drums was called Teentaal. Teentaal is sixteen beats long, but when you think about it, sixteen breaks down into four fours and is more familiar to your average gum-chewing American teenager than you might expect. But Rupak taal, which I learned a bit later, is seven beats—a prime number. Weird. It took years of playing Rupak taal before I could sink into it the way I could any pop song coming out of the radio. With enough repetition I began to feel the downbeat, which is called the sum, winding its way back to strike again. Through the course of the taal, the sum gains gravity, until the drummer begins to feel it like a muscle in the heart contracting, sending forth the pulse of a new cycle.

There is a seventeen-beat taal called Shikhar taal. I never mastered it. But seventeen years?! Seventeen years is an unscannable, run-on kind of verse. How do cicadas feel their way into this temporal poetry? Is it like everyone going into puberty at the same moment? Suddenly your whole society is having the same wet dream? Scientists around the world shrug their shoulders in response to this question. It’s a mystery, they say. There are these triggers in nature sometimes, and no one knows who fingers the gun. Similarly, my midwife could not tell me if it was my body that would evict the baby in my belly after nine months or if my daughter herself would choose the moment of her birth.

Most of the research around the periodical cicada life cycle speaks about their need to evade predators who follow even-numbered life cycles. By emerging at thirteen- and seventeen-year intervals, the cicadas, in a kind of off-rhythm sneak attack, catch the predacious twos and fours off guard with the immensity of their emergence. We must satisfy ourselves with this answer because there is so much more to say, and I must move on.

Suddenly, after seventeen years, it’s GO, GO, GO—up the chimney, up the first perpendicular surface they can find, the ground seething with a billion red-eyed, soil-scented critters scaling the trees as fast as their six legs can carry them. They are delicious, some say, and there are plenty of predators eager for a bite. With no poison or sting to protect them, their only hope of survival is to overwhelm their environs with a tsunami of bodies. The first few waves of nymphs are pure cannon fodder. Squirrels, skunks, birds, experimental chefs—anything with a mouth, really, gorges itself on the movable feast, but there are just too many. They cannot possibly eat them all. There are enough periodical cicadas to fill the maw of every predatory species on the prowl and still have enough survivors left to begin the next cycle. The lucky ones scurry to the treetops, while the predators, their stomachs distended, roll over and moan.

Climb, climb, climb—up the trunks whose roots sustained them through the dark years below. The cicadas drag their succulent abdomens over the grooves and furrows of jagged bark until they find a place to perform their next big act—ecdysis, from the ancient Greek, meaning “to strip away.” The adult cicada anchors his tiny tarsal claws into the tree and starts to judder and roll. His back splits open, and for the last time he slips out of his own skin in a backward dive—tender bodied, lemony white, his two iridescent wings crumpled, like deflated balloons waiting for an exhale. In just a few hours, his skin hardens, turns black (magic again), and he begins to fly. And now it’s time to sing. All together now! A collective Magicicada chorus can exceed one hundred and twenty decibels at close range, louder than a rumbling subway car—close to a jackhammer or a jet taking off. Only the males sing, while the ladies snap their wings in the treetops like a bunch of enthusiastic millennials. If you snap your fingers long enough in their vicinity, you may even get a lusty male cicada to alight upon you. Scientists in the field sometimes carry light switches, flipping them on and off as lures for the males. The females gravitate toward leaf blowers and electric drills for the same reason—they are used to being serenaded at deafening decibels, and after seventeen years of abstinence, a chainsaw can entice.

Each of the three species of seventeen-year periodicals that will emerge with Brood X has its own uniquely percussive song. Magicicada septendecim’s call is the most iconic: “PHAAA-RAOH, PHAAA-RAOH,” they chant, like a legion of sycophantic subjects. Magicicada cassini is the loudest and sounds more like a live electric wire, which revs several times and then stutters out a series of clicks. Magicicada septendecula, the least common, shakes out a maraca-like pulse that underscores the other two. Together they create an orchestral complexity of alarm calls and mating croons described as simultaneously terrifying, obnoxious, and sublime—akin to the landing of a UFO (as if we know what that sounds like). There is a mythical, almost prophetic dimension to the emergence of cicadas that one cannot help but feel. What is all this incantation? Why together? Why now?

When a female and a male at last meet, they join abdomens, becoming for a moment two-headed—a sensual, scurrying single being. The male is polyamorous and flies off to find another girl as soon as he’s done with the first, mating as often as he can before he dies—dying, I’d like to imagine, in an act of passion, or, as Lorca writes, “drunk with light.” Perhaps a lethal shudder of satisfaction snuffs him out. Was all of this erotic frenzy brought on by a consciousness of their impending death, a come-what-may sexual melee to toast the end-times, or did they sally forth ignorant of the fact that their days were numbered? As Bashō writes:

Cicadas sing—
know not how soon
They all will die

The pregnant female, left behind by her lover, saws a slit in a slender twig and deposits about thirty eggs there. She repeats these furtive deposits until she’s stashed away four hundred to six hundred eggs, her final creative act before she drops dead as well, her decomposing body nourishing the tree who may have mothered her through the majority of her life. Billions of dead and dying cicadas litter the ground—a veritable carpet of death. Silence reigns.

Almost too small to be detected, the newly hatched larvae squirm out of their egg cases and dive to the ground. With no bones to break and weighing about as much as a grain of rice, they confetti down from the treetops in a bonanza of births. Wriggling under the corpses and carapaces of their parents, the nymphs burrow as quickly as they can beneath the soil to begin the seventeen-year cycle once again.

Originally published in Emergence Magazine. Read the full piece there.


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