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A dispatch from the land of the cicadas



Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 06/06/24

I just happen to be lucky enough to live where both broods of cicadas emerged, overlapping for the first time in 221 years.

I’m sharing with you something completely different from my usual topics today, and it’s about a very odd historic and scientific event I’m living through right now. It’s about the cicadas.

Have you heard about them? North America is the only part of the world that experiences periodical waves of cicadas, meaning large insects that show up after a certain number of years (the rest of the world does get cicadas annually but in much smaller numbers). The species of cicadas in the U.S. have either 13-year life cycles or 17-year cycles, meaning they emerge from the ground to cover everything in sight only once every 13 or 17 years.

The two different life cycles almost never occur at the same time … but they’re both here in 2024. By “here” I mean literally here, because per the New York Times, I just happen to be lucky enough to live in one of the “small patches of Illinois [where they are] likely to come out of the ground in the same place.” You can see a map of this once-in-a-lifetime event (I hope) here. Look for the small patch where Broods XIII and XIX intersect — that’s me!

I’m pretty sure that at least one million of the projected trillion cicadas are in my backyard. 

What’s it like here in Cicada-land?

Frankly, it feels like living in a science fiction movie. I’ll give you a Captain’s Log timeline of the progression, a la Star Trek.

Thursday, May 16

We knew they were coming. We had been warned. The news was full of the Coming of the Bug. 

Today we saw them for the first time, dotting the trees and bushes along the route walking from Mass to the farmer’s market with some friends. 

There weren’t too many of them, and they were easy to step around on the sidewalk, so we thought their emergence wouldn’t be too bad. 

We were wrong.

Tuesday, May 21

Earlier this month my kids and I had planted some tomatoes, strawberries, and herbs in the raised beds in our backyard, and I wanted to water them.

I trekked out to the far side of the house to turn on the hose, but as I approached the hose spigot, it gradually dawned on me that I wasn’t alone.

The bushes surrounding the hose were densely covered with cicadas. I stepped back, horrified, and then slowly looked around to see that they carpeted trees and bushes all over the yard. 

Like a scene from a horror movie, I looked down and saw what I’d failed to notice before: They were clinging thickly to the tall grass all around my feet.

I ran back into the house, trying not to step on any of them in my frantic flight.

The plants did not get watered.

Every plant around my house is absolutely covered in cicadas.

Monday, May 27

When it’s warm out, my kids like going running with me. They ride bikes or scooters alongside me, and the little ones go in the jogging stroller, while we complete a 2- or 3-mile circuit.

We headed out for a run this morning, and soon found ourselves in what my kids call “the world’s worst video game,” dodging cicadas that flew toward us in their erratic course and picking our way over the dead cicadas that covered the sidewalk wherever it ran under a tree. 

The kids started to cry and we cut our run short. 

I consider myself super outdoorsy; I love camping, hiking, horseback riding, kayaking. But this is a bridge too far for me. 

Today I decided I’m staying inside until they’re gone, hopefully by the end of June.

Monday, June 3

My kids have become curious about the cicadas, picking them up by the wings (“they feel like damp paper!”) and observing their habits. But they lose it if the cicadas fly toward them or land on them, and I can see why.

Cicadas are harmless, but they’re huge and look creepy and gross. They sing their mating call at top volume, a sound like shaking a maraca, rattling but constant. When our community pool opened for the summer, my kids reported, “We can hear the cicadas even when our heads are under water!”

Cicadas cover the fence around my yard.

Not all kids hate them: One afternoon I had to stop my friend’s preschooler from bringing a cup full of live cicadas into my house. Her toddler likes to hold a cicada like a comfort object any time she’s outside, enjoying the noise they make and throwing them into the air to watch them fly away. My kids do like “harassing” them, they say, which apparently can mean anything from throwing dirt or sand at them to poking them with sticks to trying to whack them with a baseball bat. 

But for myself, I have to agree with my daughter, who called them “one of the disgustingest things ever.”

I’m bummed that the cicadas are keeping us inside. It feels like a waste of the beautiful summer weather, which is especially trying after the long and cold winter. As they have started to die off just in the past day or two, decomposing cicadas are leaving a pervasive awful smell everywhere outdoors. 

I feel tempted to get grumpy and bitter about it. I mean, what are the odds that I’d live in the small part of the world where both broods emerge? 

But then I remember my New Year’s resolution to take what comes my way with grateful acceptance, and I realize I have to find a reason to tolerate the cicadas, even if I can’t quite work my way up to actual gratitude for their raucous presence. 

3 reasons living in Cicada-land is kind of cool

We are experiencing a super rare historical event

The last time these two broods of cicadas emerged together, in 1803, Illinois was not a state and the city of Chicago didn’t exist. How much this landscape has changed in the past 221 years boggles the mind! 

These two broods will not sing together again until 2245, and I’m so intrigued thinking and wondering about what this land will be like then. Meanwhile, as I tell my kids all the time, “We are living through a really rare part of history! You can tell your kids and grandkids what it was like!”

Hopefully this is some consolation for spending our summer living in “the world’s worst video game” every time we go outside!

We’re living an entomologist’s dream

I read about scientists who traveled some 4,000 miles to Chicago from Norway just to see the cicadas. Of course I told my kids about it, and whenever the cicadas are really annoying us, I remind them, “Just think of those scientists who traveled across the world to see these cicadas!”

I think talking about those entomologists has helped my kids take a more observational approach to the cicadas instead of just being scared of them.

God’s design is just incredible

I can’t get over how the cicadas figured out to emerge only in years that are prime numbers so that predators can’t get the hang of the pattern. While the cicadas are infesting my yard, I happened to come across something that helped me make sense of it all, which was this description of the sacramental worldview:

“Matter is never just matter. Dirt is never just dirt, butterflies are never just butterflies, and flesh is never just flesh. All were created by God. As such, all communicate something about God. Everything in the universe — every star, every tree, every body — proclaims some truth about its Maker. They are all … a metaphor. They are all a revelation. Every atom in the universe is pregnant with mystery, pregnant with grace, capable of helping man discover the truth about himself and God.”

As gross and ridiculous as they are, even the cicadas are part of God’s design. God’s creation is a great mystery, full of so many things we will never entirely understand, even if we spend all our lives learning and studying them. And even these big dumb insects can help us to know the truth about ourselves and God. 

I’m grateful for God’s incredible creation … but I will admit I’m even more grateful these two broods won’t overlap again for 221 years!

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