The only reason I even noticed the cicada mating call in my backyard last week is that recently lots of people have been pointing out the presence of these bugs – after their 17-year absence. Otherwise, I would have assumed the steady buzz was one of the summer sounds I have loved since my River Road days: the background music birds and insects perform each morning as the sun breaks grandly over a dewy landscape.
No, there is a different scenario with cicadas, whose story I finally have time to consider. News reports, Facebook posts, pictures of these insects, elusive until they are not, have finally piqued at least my passing curiosity. It is about time. It will be 2038 before they return, and at the age of 90…
Simply stated, we are experiencing the end of the lifespan of one generation of 17-year cicadas and the beginning of the next. The current participants belong to Brood X that mostly appears in Pennsylvania, eastern Tennessee, and Indiana. In Ohio, locations in the central and southwestern parts of the state briefly experience their existence, which explains the comments about them my sister in Oxford has been passing along. After reading about 13-year cicadas in the South, I called Delbert Markley, a fellow alum from the GHS Class of 1966, who lives near Atlanta. He reported no sightings of cicadas of any age – although his sister in St. Paris mentioned their “songs” were drowning out the music on her car radio.
Still, I wonder why I have no recollection of the cicada invasion of 2004. Of course, 17 years is a long time: four presidents, accompanied by – or in conflict with – four House Speakers, four Senate Majority Leaders with the departures and arrivals of seven members of the Supreme Court. National politics aside, my own family has been adding and losing members that whole time. As much as I miss my parents who passed away during the past 17 years, we have celebrated a number of marriages and eight new greats-and-grands, whom we all adore. And late May into early June was always a busy time at school, as it has likewise been for these periodical bugs, I guess. No wonder their presence back then was not even a blip on my radar!
Regardless to which 17-year cycle I refer, the specifics remain the same. In 1987, when my students and I were making a 12th trip to our partner school in Germany, more than 300 kids were playing summer ball at Mitchell Field in St. Paris, and the Reagan administration was dealing with Iran-Contra, the cicadas emerged on schedule from their tunnels to mate during a 4-6 week timespan. The males buzzed to attract the females, who laid their eggs in small twigs of deciduous trees. That accomplished, the adults – their sole purpose reproduction – died. As the eggs developed, they fell to the ground to begin their 17-year sojourn out of sight.
Even further back in 1970, with student teaching completed, academic requirements fulfilled, college diploma and teaching contract in hand, I was still thinking about the kids killed at Kent State in early May. Although I am not sure I had even heard about cicadas at that point, I could have relied on their predictability even during the most frantic time of their lives. After growing and developing all those years on the nourishment from tree fluids, in their 17th year they tunneled to the surface, waited until the soil temperature reached 64 degrees, and showed up all over the place. Avoiding predators – hungry animals, adventurous humans, and the like – their exoskeletons hardened, and their wings inflated. They mated in the treetops, laid eggs, and died. What a timetable!
When I was five years old, any kind of bug was probably yucky to me. The politicians were trying to get us out of Korea, and the WLW television stations in major Ohio cities contracted to eventually broadcast programs in color. I, on the other hand, was getting used to the fourth child of our family, she who had arrived in January of 1953. From that very first cicada appearance during my lifetime 68 years ago, the mating call has remained unchanged. The males congregate in chorus centers and vibrate the tymbals on their abdomens to attract their female counterparts. Their songs reach a decibel level of nearly 100, the sound of a jackhammer at arm’s length. An acre of land may be populated by 1.5 million cicadas. No wonder, then, that in 2004 the cicadas “outplayed” the OSU marching band during the opening ceremonies of the Memorial Golf Tournament in Dublin!
Very soon the new cicada nymphs will be all nestled in the ground – as we humans continue to find our way out of the pandemic. Whether or not I remember any of these cicada factoids until even the end of this summer is an open question.
However, I already know what I will really take away from the 2021 cicada jamboree: that nature is a gloriously intricate force in our lives. In addition to its myriad of breathtaking demonstrations – the change of seasons, the ocean tides, the movement of the sun across the sky – the cicadas have provided yet another reason for me to believe in the Creator’s grand design for this planet and beyond, a plan that remains to this mere mortal totally and magnificently incomprehensible.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.