It’s early September and the Magicicada septendecim are still moving through the southeast, numbering in the millions in a deafening display of mating calls. And yet I recently heard the song of a lone cicada during a hike in the north Georgia mountains.
I’ve read of instances when a stray cicada or two miss their timing, but hearing this one’s unmistakable trill above the roar of a nearby waterfall underscored the event as a real catastrophe in the insect world. Let’s anthropomorphize a little, shall we?
Imagine yourself as a newly hatched cicada nymph, living at least six inches under the fertile loam. Your home is the sediment of decomposing leaves, the occasional mouse torn asunder by an eager cat, and regular visitors include centipedes, spiders and worms.
In the vast crisscrossing tree roots you find sustenance, draining the network of sap until you become plumper and plumper. And each year that passes there’s a mounting sense that the data is ticking off — knowing that one day the temperature will be just so and you will wonder at the number of earthworms you have entertained, and you will know it is time to dig your way skyward.
For 17 years you live like this. Maybe knowing or not knowing that before this there was a sun hanging over the horizon; there was an above-ground branch that suspended you in a fine oval yolk until you ripped through it, no bigger than a grain of rice, falling into a crunch of cast-off shells on the ground. Then burrowing into the dirt for safety, only to one day re-emerge fattened and destiny-filled.
For 17 years you toil under the earth for one reason and one reason only: to survive to mate. To find the one who will respond to the finally tuned notes of your tymbal, making her way through a thicket of a thousand other cries to you, and only you.
And then suddenly the soil is slightly fetid and warmed, and the urge to push up and out consumes you. You scale a tree where you shed the skin of your former subterranean self and unfurl your wings, sometimes a pair of gleaming ruby red eyes in the bargain, to boot.
And there you sing your song. No wing flicks return your overture. No other chorus to wail above. And as the sun sinks lower it becomes clear that you have misread the data.
About the author: Julie Douglas is a podcaster, writer and editor at HowStuffWorks and a sometimes phlebotomist and pyrotechnician, not to mention a fabulist of bios and the co-host of the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast.