I’ve been seeing a lot about the cicadas taking over the east coast right now. Apparently this seventeen year brood is causing a racket in the heavily populated areas with their mating calls. The Atlantic Wire says, “It will be loud. It will be gross. It will be pretty annoying.” After they’ve shed their exoskeleten on trees and lawns, they’ll irritate everyone, and get their freak on before dying. The new offspring will burrow into the ground, to live as xylem-sucking nymphs.
Until I was 23, I thought a cicada was a bird. I never paid attention in science classes, so I missed the bit about cicadas not being adorable songbirds. I must have seen the word in poem and used the whimsical context to determine it was a summer-singing bird. Because of its distinct sound, it’s supposed to be one of the most recognized insects in the world. At 23, I had been using the internet for about ten years, so you would have thought I would have asked all-knowing google about that summer buzz. I just never did.
When I was ten, an aunt told me it was a cicada. I noted that it had a unique call. Since I heard the sound so often, I thought it was a sadly common bird. I pictured a small grey thing with pink-flecked wings, anxiously flitting between tree branches.
Two summers ago, I traveled with my boyfriend at the time, Bill, and his father to Oklahoma to take Bill to grad school. They had loaded up the family SUV with Bill’s drums, leaving a pigeonhole in the back seat for me. I didn’t really know what to expect on the ride. His family was different than mine. Their conversations revolved around current events, politics, technology, and biology-heavy discussions about mysteries like why caffeine affects 40-somethings more than 20-somethings.
Somewhere in Illinois, I was awoken from a dramamine doze to a thunderous buzz that was different from the semi hums and vibration of tires beneath me. “What is that sound?” I asked.
“Cicadas,” Bill’s father said.
I pictured hundreds of grey birds. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard more than one at a time.”
“They’re probably in those clusters of trees along the highway,” He said. “Those are some weird bugs.”
I looked to the rearview mirror to see if Wyatt was joking. He was wearing sunglasses and not smiling. “When I was little, I thought they were birds,” I lied.
Bill laughed at the absurdity of it.
As I experienced that distinct sensation of inner humiliation, I realized this trip was going to be a lesson in my ignorance. I started to make a list of things to google when I got home.
“They make that buzzing sound with tymbals,” his father said, glancing over his right shoulder for a lane change, the sunset reflecting in his sunglasses. “They’re sort of like ribs that contract and buckle inwards. That’s what makes the click. It’s the males’ mating call.”
The first time, I remember hearing the call of a cicada was while chalking the sidewalk. Kneeling on the pavement, I clutched a knobby piece of yellow chalk. My eyes squinted in the bright sun as I tried to detect the source. It was electric and jarring, beginning modestly, then roaring to fortissimo only to quickly diminuendo to silence.
I decided it was the telephone pole, where the wires met. I figured the words were compressed and encrypted in the lonesome dark yarns. By some strange set of mathematics, they eventually settled into syllables and pauses. Happy with my conclusion, I studied the imprints of the sidewalk on my knees. The flesh was pink and achy from the cement’s angry pressure. I began to draw a telephone, crawling to draw the curlicue cord, ignoring the pulsing pain on my kneecaps.
When we finally reached Oklahoma, the three of us walked around Bill’s new campus. We were standing outside the music building when Wyatt noticed a cicada shell on a sycamore tree. He plucked the shell off the melty-looking bark. “They shed their skins after they emerge from the ground. It ends up just clinging to the bark,” Wyatt said.
I remember shuddering and leaning into Bill. “That’s creepy,” I said. The papery silhouette rested massless between Wyatt’s fingers. I imagined the thing springing to life and buzzing maniacally into my hair. Bill watched his father study the shell and smiled when I caught his eye. I was embarrassed and wondered what he would say if he knew I was just then solidifying an image of the creature whose sound had so perplexed me as a child.
“They have some really weird life cycles,” Wyatt said. “Some are pretty short, just five years or so. But some have seventeen-year cycles.”
“Seventeen years?” I asked.
“Yeah. It was developed as a defense against predators.”
“Okay,” I said, waiting for more information. I figured if I agreed it would reassure him that yes, I was on the same intellectual place as he and that I was following the conversation completely. But of course, I was embarrassed. Why did this work? What difference did it make if the cicada was seventeen-year species or a two-year? Couldn’t they still be preyed upon? Wyatt talked about it in such a plain, matter of fact way – like he was telling me something I probably already knew. I didn’t bother asking.
“They eat xylem from the roots of trees,” Wyatt went on. “They spent most of their time underground. I think as adults they drink sap.” He invited me to look closer at the skin. Setting aside my girlish fear of its attack, I leaned in. Thin and translucent, it was the hue of an old newspaper. It reminded me of a tiny, elaborately-designed balloon animal. I could crush it without effort. For a moment, I might be able to forget my embarrassment. Just maybe, if I could crush the molted skin, I could reverse the fact that I had never paid attention in science classes. If that wasn’t possible, then I could at least ignore my ignorance.
Cicada, tymbal, xylem.
I think the trip took four or five days roundtrip. After leaving Bill in a sort of dumpy apartment in Edmond, Wyatt and I spent the fifteen hour ride listening to Merchant of Venice, talking about his first cooking experience (burnt tomato soup), and Bill’s need to substitute the cream and cheese in alfredo sauce for a béchamel. He was a walking encylcopedia. I was the foolish girl dating his son – pretending to be confident despite the fact I knew nothing.
It took me a while, but the shame of my ignorance faded. After googling my list (cicada, tymbal, xylem, brood, Phillip Pullman, the history of Route 66, 3D technology, Merchant of Venice, béchamel), I realized I didn’t have to live in a constant state of wonder. I walked around with the largest encyclopedia in my purse. The answer to any of my wildest queries was dependent only on the strength of my 3g connection.
So for those of my readers who are enduring the cicadapocalypse, don’t worry. A quick google search will reassure you that it’s not one of the seven plagues – just a bunch of hideous and super horny insects.