The cicadas are coming. Drawing/photocollage by Julie Seyler.
BY BOB SMITH
It’s an entomological Paul Revere moment: the cicadas are coming. Every 17 years these giant, ugly bugs burrow out of their holes in the ground and crawl up every tree in sight en route to the upper branches to mate. On the way,
they make a cacophonous clacking racket as they molt, leaving empty husks of themselves clinging to crevices in the bark. Once the ground temperature reaches 64 degrees Fahrenheit or so, here they come.
The first time cicadas appeared in my lifetime I was seven years old, in second grade at Merritt Memorial School. I was in love with my teacher and a little girl named Charlotte with curly brown hair. I remember reading aloud in class and feeling frustrated when my friend Pete struggled with simple words.
When they emerged again in 1979 I was 24. I was working full-time as a garbage man because it paid roughly twice what I’d earned as a textbook editor, the only job for which I was qualified by my undergraduate degree in English. I had been married for less than a year and was just beginning to realize that it was a disastrous mistake.
I was 41 when the cicadas came again in 1996. I was divorced and fourteen years into my second (much happier) marriage. With three kids between 6 and 11, and an intense career as an attorney, I was too busy to notice the emergence of lumbering red-eyed bugs.
This year’s appearance of the cicadas finds me approaching 60. The kids are fully grown and pursuing their own lives. (Although my youngest son, for now, is doing so under our roof.) The prospect of retirement is a cold reality as opposed to a theoretical, far-off possibility. And for some reason this year’s appearance of the cicadas fills me with foreboding.
Their raucous chorus of mating calls, alien eyes and zombie demeanor, and eerie exoskeleton shadows clinging to tree trunks are bad enough. But what makes me uneasy, what really knaws at me now, is their periodicity.
I’m looking at the timeline: when they come again, I’ll be 75. What quantum changes will have happened in my life by then? What will I have gained and lost in those years while the cicadas lay deep in their burrows, sucking at the tree roots and slowly maturing, marking time until their time comes to dig out again?
And the next time they emerge – as insurance salespeople are so fond of saying, “God willing” – I’ll be 92. Will I be able to see and hear them at all? Will I care? In the words of T.S. Eliot, do I dare to eat a peach?
My chances of living to see a third cicada emergence beyond the one expected this spring are nil. Chances are I will have been deposited into my own hole in the ground long before they crawl out of theirs.
In ancient China cicadas were viewed as symbols of rebirth. Many cultures today see this periodic influx as a gastronomic opportunity. After all, these are billions of slow-moving vegetarians that don’t fly away and can’t bite humans. They’re bundles of readily available nourishment on the hoof (or the wing or weird sticky leg, whatever). Yes, for many people, cicadas are what’s for dinner. Periodically.
I’m not a cicada, so I can’t crawl into a hole and count on coming back in 17 years to climb a tree and get jiggy. But I am a bipedal, meat-eating, surface-dwelling top predator, so why not revel in my role? These fugly bugs may have a high gag factor but they’re incredibly low in cholesterol, and they’re packed with protein and nutrients.
I’ve already found a couple of good recipes. If you can’t join them, eat them.
Maybe I’ll live longer.