Periodical cicadas have begun to prowl the air this week, ending seventeen years of purgatorial root-sucking in the soil. They’re molting out of their thin, flightless shells and emerging en masse to deafen and terrify us with their shrill abdominal drumming and apocalyptic numbers.
A periodical cicada, seventeen years in the making.
So many all at once; a plague of winged ghouls, coming out of the darkness like Orpheus, singing.
They’ll make their way to the treetops, where they’ll spend a few weeks conducting a thrumming orchestra of sex and birth and death, mating and laying eggs in the green wood of branch tips before a final rattle of life and skyfall turns them to chicken feed.
Their hatched nymphs will emerge, too, and fall to earth, burrowing down into an incubation of darkness to begin the next brood cycle. All of this just to keep on keepin’ on, and at seventeen years from grub to gone, they’re the longest lived insect on the planet.
Fruit in the orchard, protected from cicadas and other beasties with a dusting of clay.
Cicadas are strange, otherworldly creatures, armored and bloody-eyed, with a blunt head and cellophane wings. At almost two inches, they fly about like cargo planes, in slow, seemingly aimless paths, looking for mates. And though I know the damage they can cause to trees with their egg-laying wounds (I can hear my young orchard screaming), I can’t bring myself to kill them. Any insect that waits so many years to be unbound and on the wing deserves its moment in the sun.
The summer my wife (then girlfriend) and I first bought this place, we were coming up from the city on weekends and bushwhacking overgrown lilac and bittersweet, and they had just emerged. We were on a garden tour, and the cicadas were rasping and whirring in the trees with such desperate enthusiasm that we couldn’t hear anyone speak. As the insects bonked clumsily into people’s heads, we huddled in tight, protective circles and talked plants. It was the most intimate garden tour I’ve ever been on.
Gooseberries netted against that other winged predator: birds
Sometimes cicadas get it wrong, and emerge in years when the rest of the brood is still sub-terra. Like showing up for a party as a hapless fool because you got the date wrong, they send their lonely rattle out into the void and die unrequited. The cicada story does seem like a sad love affair – an existential lark. All that time waiting for a short spasm of life in the sky and then death. What’s the point?
Well, for us humans, burdened by heavy brains we have, life is about more than mere consciousness: we fret over significance and purpose. We fill the space between the bookends with the struggle for meaning. Maybe the joke is on us?
So I let the cicadas have their day in the sun. They have a purpose-driven life and their sole aim is to keep the whole, strange dance going. I do protect my apple, pear and quince from them and other damaging insects with a ghost-like dusting of micro-fine clay, however. It irritates their tiny, interlocking membranes (think of sand in your ear) and, clogged and bothered, they move on. The birds, squirrels and chipmunks are thwarted with netting. In an organic orchard, an ounce of prevention (in a backpack sprayer) is always worth a pound of cure.
We parade the orchard netting out each year after bloom.
I’ve been on this property now for as long as the last brood of cicadas droned in the trees, and have done my own share of incubation and emergence. The farm has come out from a tangle of neglect and taken flight. That’s meaning enough for me. –Mb
…underground the blind nymphs waken and move.
They must begin at last to struggle towards love…
This is the wild light that our dreams foretold
while unaware we prepared these eyes and wings-
while in our sleep we learned the song the world sings.
–Judith Wright, The Cicadas
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