By Matt Stansberry, Illustrations by David Wilson
I wanted wings and a voice, my own tree to climb, and someone else to answer, clear across loud acres of sun. –poet John Haines, “Cicada”
The cicadas have been winding down. Chitinous, black bodies crunch underfoot on my driveway every time I step out the front door. My car, parked in the shade of a large maple tree, is coated in sticky bug urine, xylem passed through the bugs onto my roof and windshield.
The last of the cicadas in my neighborhood stutter and whir, looking for a mate in the waning swarm. It’s last call. The party is nearly over. All but the next generation are either dead or dying.
Flagging brown leaves give a sense that the fall is arriving early. Female cicadas have deposited eggs in the tips of deciduous tree branches, and many of clusters of leaves have turned brown, branch tips drooping. The twigs will drop and the rice-sized larvae will burrow into the ground and begin another long cycle.
Seventeen years feels like a strangely satisfying period to divide up phases of a life.
This was my third emergence of the Brood V Periodical cicada. The first emergence happened when I was four, but I must have been too young to retain a memory. The second happened when I was 21 – and I was almost certainly too drunk and foolish to have been paying any attention.
Now 38, I watched this emergence closely. The next two are somewhat ominous – 55 and 72. It somehow makes those future versions of myself more real. Twenty-one doesn’t feel like it was that long ago.
Fifty-five will be here sooner than I hope.
* * *
In late May, hordes of large insects emerged from the ground in patches of woods all over eastern Ohio.
“It was epic,” said naturalist and music professor Lisa Rainsong, who witnessed an emergence at Geauga Park District’s Big Creek. “I’d never seen this before, the whole ground was moving as the cicadas were climbing out of their holes and up our legs. When they split their nymphal skins, the white cicadas dangled like Christmas ornaments. When they inflated their new wings they just looked like angels.
“Many of the insects didn’t make it, emerging with deformed wings. Everything was happening right there, and it was emotionally overwhelming. I came home and couldn’t’ talk, didn’t turn on the computer. I needed to process this.”
I never made it to an emergence. I got caught up in the hectic bedtime routines of my three little boys. But I did get a sense of the experience by watching Return of the Cicadas, a short film by Samuel Orr.
“They’ve been waiting 17 years under the trees and beneath our feet, but on a warm spring night their wait comes to an end,” writes Orr in the subtitles. “For a lifetime they’ve been underground, always alone. But night after night they emerge together as billions of cicadas gather into one of the greatest insect outbreaks on earth.”
The brown nymphal insects crawl out of holes in the dirt, and then climb onto any vertical surface to molt into the adult form. The back of the exoskeleton splits open and the white adult form emerges, pulsing and writhing. The cicadas lean back, and loosen themselves from their exoskeletons, crawl from their husks, and pump their wings with fluid. You would find the exoskeletons still clinging to tree trunks everywhere.
“If you stood silently, you could hear the newly emerged cicadas crawling in the leaf litter,” said Cleveland Metroparks Naturalist Sharon Hosko. “That was one of the coolest things, hearing them crawling through the woods.”
All of this happens in the dark to cut down on predation, as the newly emerged insects are very vulnerable. It takes hours, up to even days for their exoskeletons to harden.
“I don’t know how many nights I’ve been out the last couple weeks watching the emergences, but it gets addictive,” Hosko said. “I’m going to be seventy next time around. I want to make sure I get it all in, because you don’t know how long your hearing and vision are going to last.”
* * *
In the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in the last week of May, I started spotting them in the low saplings. A dozen black and orange adult cicadas and empty, translucent nymphal husks clung to each small tree. The newly emerged insects barely moved.
A squirrel scolded me from a nearby dogwood. I was thwarting his feast. Everything eats them – squirrels, birds, dogs — especially in this vulnerable “teneral” state immediately after an emergence. Even I wanted to eat them – the abundance of flesh almost demanded a response.
Several of my friends in the lead up to the emergence shared tips for cooking cicadas, including a savory recipe for cicada pie.
From the publication “In Ohio’s Backyard: Periodic Cicadas” by Ohio Biological Survey:
Take 50 newly emerged white female cicadas and remove the wings, legs and head. Chop up the cicadas into pieces and place in a bowl with stale bread that has been soaked in milk. Add sugar, rhubarb flavor, and cream to soften the ingredients. Put the mixture into a piecrust and cover with strips of piecrust placed in a cross pattern similar to that of an apple pie. Bake in an oven at 400 till crust is done.
That sounded tempting, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat them. I imagined these bugs soaking in lawn fertilizer and absorbing mercury for 17 years. I thought of their bright red eyes. I decided I liked them better whole, alive and uncooked.
Each passing day, more cicadas emerged. One morning, my three young boys hiked through a meadow on the Buckeye Trail, and found so many slow-moving insects, we could comb a half-dozen cicadas into each hand with a single swipe of the tall prairie weeds. They wouldn’t bite or sting, but just clung to our fingers and shirts.
We placed them on our heads, let them cling to our backs. We let them crawl all over us.
* * *
Three days after I noticed the first emergence, the male cicadas started calling for mates.
I’ll never forget the morning I first heard them. I stood in my driveway holding my newspaper and I could hear a far off, high pitched whine. As I stood there, the sound coalesced into a chorus of thousands of bugs screaming into the summer sky. It is a sound that will haunt my dreams. When I went back inside, I could hear the scream over the air conditioner. I felt the sound in my jaw, like a Theremin transmitting through my dental fillings. It was the soundtrack of a 1960s B-movie alien abduction. I loved it.
Periodical cicadas are found only in eastern North America. There are seven species — four with 13-year life cycles and three with 17-year cycles. Of these, there are about fifteen distinct broods – geographic areas where the periodical cicadas emerge en masse in predictable time tables.
Brood V is a medium sized emergence, and stretches from eastern Ohio to Western PA and northern West Virginia, with oddball pockets in Virginia and Long Island, NY. It features all three species of 17-year cicada. All of the 17-year species basically look alike — big black insects with orange accents and red eyes. But each species differs in song.
Magicicada septendecim are the alien opera singers.
Later that day, I heard the cicada that sounded more like what I expected – like a person running a weedwhacker over an uneven, scrubby hillside. It was an oscillating ticking, mechanical and rhythmic noise. Like someone playing a bullroarer. These were Magicicada cassini.
I did not immediately hear any Magicicada septendecula, which have a more rhythmic call.
I sought out Lisa Rainsong, an expert in insect sounds, to better understand what I was hearing. When we met at the Bath Nature Preserve, we could hear M. septendecim all around us.
The chorus of cicadas sounded like a single note, and Lisa sang it matching the pitch. “It’s probably about an E,” she said, taking out her digital tuner app on the cell phone to confirm.
“It sounds like a single pitch, but each cicada singing ‘pharaoh, pharaoh.’ There’s a drop at the end,” Rainsong said. “When it drops it’s the end of the song, and the pitch falls. But when there’s a whole wall of cicadas singing, we don’t hear the drop offs. It’s a complex sound.”
Lisa and I walked the bridle trail on this rolling, 410-acre property west of Akron. The landscape is a mix of meadows, restored wetlands and beech-maple forests. The property was once owned by the Firestone family, and now serves as a wildlife refuge, and research station for the University of Akron biology programs.
As we walked the bridle trail we came to a bowl, a natural amphitheater where the sound of two species of cicadas grew and swelled in waves. This was the place where Lisa would bring author, musician and scholar David Rothenberg later that week to perform with the singing insects.
Teneral insects crawled in the tall grass, remarkably agreeable and docile bugs. Hundreds or even thousands of cicadas flew between the tree tops overhead as we listened to the drone – the song swelling into a crescendo.
“It seems like the pitch of the song has gotten higher as the day warmed up,” Rainsong said, looking again at the tuner. “Yep, it’s gone up almost a half step. There is something so cool about learning something new. Hopefully I’ll be out in the field for the next emergence, as I’ll be seventy nine.”
* * *
Life is a vast music with irregular rhythms swirling op top of one another, which we can choose to tap into and appraise when we wish.–David Rothenberg, Bug Music
A few days later, I joined an audience of about thirty people to listen to one of the strangest musical performances of my life. David Rothenberg and Czech composer Lucie Vítková led our group through the Bath Nature Preserve, and stopped beside a path where the cicadas were singing and flying.
Rothenberg had published the book Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise in 2013, and had been staging interspecies performances – opportunities to coordinate musically with nature’s singing insects.
Cicadas flew overhead as clouds scudded past quickly on the wind. Vítková and Rothenberg brought out a portable, cylindrical speaker and began making tentative sounds on their instruments – Rothenberg on Clarinet, and Vítková playing electronic music on an iPad.
The performance sounded like a strange conversation. I heard heartbeats and dissonant bagpipes. It sounded like a cross between jazz and the soundtrack of a Ridley Scott’s Alien. I watched Rothenberg twitch and sway. Vítková picked up a harmonica, and then played an ancient Japanese double-reed instrument.
“One of the ways to learn about something is to join in,” Rothenberg said.
I wondered what the cicadas thought about the human song.
Probably not much, according to Dr. John Cooley, professor and likely the world’s foremost researcher on periodical cicadas. For several years, Cooley has been working on mapping species and brood boundaries, and also studying cicada sound production and perception.
Cooley had attended the concert, and spoke alongside Rothenberg to the audience. It was strange – watching two of the bug world’s biggest thinkers sparring, it was like watching Spock and Captain Kirk, this conflict of emotion versus logic.
“Cicada brains have only two neurons. Do they really make music?” Cooley asked. “These guys only have one thing to say. The male can’t think. He doesn’t believe anything. He’s communicating a signal.”
I spoke to Rothenberg after the event about the philosophical differences with Cooley.
“I have nothing but complete admiration for John Cooley, he’s a great artist of the natural world,” Rothenberg said. “I’ve always thought of him like Salvador Dali, following these bugs around and keeping track of this data, trying to find something so singular and crazy. He’s working like a mad performance artist. This whole quest is like Don Quixote. You can’t approach where the sound is coming from, you get closer and closer and never get to it, searching for what can’t be found.
“Art and science come together in unusual ways. I can make one performance with humans and music, and it can be beautiful and successful. But for science, I’d need to do it 1,000 times – to analyze it in a statistical manner. It’s a different criteria for truth. I want to develop a piece of music that learns from the animal world.”
To perceive these insect sounds as music changes our relationship with nature. These rhythms and sounds are much more accessible to us if we consider them aesthetically, rather than focusing on a communicated message.
“The sonic declarations of animals make much more sense to us humans if we consider them to be music rather than language. Music is immediately meaningful even if we cannot translate it, so once heard as music, the world of animal communication is immediately accessible, emotional, and interesting,” writes Rothenberg in Bug Music. “The message, usually having to do with attracting a mate or defending a territory, is not really the point, since that is all the same throughout the animal world. It is the music that differs, its qualities evolved to make each species have its own identity and stand out from the fray. The diversity of life is what is most interesting about evolution, not the simple rules that explain what each sound is for.”
In Bug Music, Rothenberg suggests that the individual noises, the high frequency vibrations of tymbals or drum-like organs on the cicadas, are part of a vast rhythm. The whole emergence can be seen as a single beat, set to swell and repeat as a macrosound, coalescing at this prime-numbered 17-year pattern.
There’s something about this 17-year rhythm of a cicada emergence that inspires us to reflect. It reminds us that we haven’t always been attentive. It connects us to the landscape and the past.
I think about why the seventeen year cycle developed, how the various broods formed. I think about the changes in the landscape, the loss of chestnut trees, and now the loss of ash. They’ve survived tens of thousands of years, and will persist.
I wonder if all of the people I care about will be here for the next beat, the next cycle. I worry about how much of this I will remember next time. Will I remember the way the bugs swarmed in the treetops outside my bedroom window, how they climbed over my boys?
The next time they come, all of my babies that I could carry in my arms will be grown men.
The woods are now too quiet.
Matt Stansberry was born in Akron, Ohio. He is a dad, nature writer, and fly fisherman. Find him on Twitter @LakeErieFlyFish. More of David Wilson’s illustration work can be found at dwillustration.com.
Matt and David’s monthly column, “North Coast Biodiversity,” is collected here. Order copies of the first edition of Redhorse — a print collection of the first six “North Coast Biodiversity” columns — here, and signed prints of David Wilson’s original art for the column here.
Find out more about Matt & David’s publications/additional projects on the newly launched Redhorse site: http://redhorsemag.com.
Bravo. Very interesting read. Intriguing the way you compared the emergence to our time in human life and the changes that we will probably face as well. Bravo.