Imagine a grandfather clock pendulum that ticks and then waits 17 years before the swing hits another high point and tocks. Cicadas are buzzing among us that do the same. An emergence of a 17-year cicada brood is upon us. I have them in my yard in central Platte County and have heard reports of others. Entomologists told us they were coming.
Periodical cicadas are punctual in a very strange way. Some things in nature, unlike many, we can predict. For people, there is much we cannot predict about our lives over a 17-year period.
What will your life be like in 2032?
Cicadas are insects with wings that resemble old cellophane. Their big heads resemble science fiction creatures. An abdomen organ produces rapid-fire clicks that make a raspy, buzzing sound. They get loud when thousands of the males gather together in the tree tops to entice females. Their chorus is a daytime song that peaks in midday. They’ve waited a long time underground to come into the sunlight and mate.
Then their life will end after a month or so of summer song.
There are annual cicada species that come every summer but later in July and August. They are bigger than the periodicals, which come in late spring.
Our current visitors’ moms laid eggs inside openings they sliced in thin tree branches. I have a backyard cherry tree that was never the same after their last visit. Most large trees they won’t harm, but small trees they can stress if they’re present in great numbers.
Critters and fish feast on them, but they are so numerous their type will survive thanks to sheer numbers.
Eggs will hatch and small cicada nymphs will drop to the ground, burrow into the soil, suck sap from plant roots and grow into the form that makes round tunnels as they emerge from the ground 17 years later. Then they shed their exoskeletons and emerge as adults with wings, leaving brown husks attached to plants, houses and tree trunks.
Those husks are notable to me.
A newborn baby daughter was in my household when these cicadas last appeared. I took paternity leave to help out. Part of the helping was walking around outside with my then two-year-old son to help provide restful quiet inside the house.
The empty brown nymph husks are interesting to an adult but extra fascinating to a toddler. We collected them as we found them. A pile grew out beside the backyard ash tree.
I veered the lawnmower around the pile into autumn. A mushy remnant lasted into the following spring, but time moves on and very few things in nature or human lives stand still.
Antique shops are interesting places thanks to change. Some things survive and linger when so much does not.
The words “long lasting” appear attractive on product labels and advertising because the older you get the less long-lasting anything seems.
Nature has an inspiring persistence, however. If a small, soft, fragile insect can worm round deep in our soil for 17 years and emerge in impressive fashion, perhaps the Kansas City Royals baseball team can establish at least a 30-year World Series title cycle (like 1985, though last year’s close call was plenty nice).
Back in 1998, when these cicadas were a gleam in their parent’s bug eyes, our boys in blue had a record of 21 wins and 32 losses when June began, nine games below .500. They managed to win two more games than they lost in the month of June. Mike Sweeney was listed on the roster as a starting catcher. Johnny Damon played center field and Jermaine Dye was in right field. Kevin Appier was a star pitcher.
The Royals would go on to finish in third place in the American League Central Division. We didn’t know it then, but Royals baseball fans were at a midpoint in decades of futility.
Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky were in the news that summer. Microsoft launched Windows 98. We were worried about computers and the entire world crashing down in a few years on Jan. 1, 2000. A communications satellite did fail that summer of ’98 and left most of the world’s pagers without service.
I still feel for one on my belt every now and then.
Platte County didn’t have a parks, trails and recreation center system the last time these cicadas sang. Voters were a few years away from approving a tax to support parks, something they’ve done twice because they enjoy them. Many houses, businesses and streets visible now were yet to appear in the county.
These cicadas make us look backward and forward.
Looking back, we see that careers changed, kids grew up, people we know — and some we love dearest — passed on. We know these cicadas will be back hanging on our trees 17 years from now.
But not all of us will be here.
I’m taking time to look them over closely this summer. I advise that you pick one up and admire patterns on the wings, colors and shapes on the body. Feel their texture; hear them buzz.
Some things in life seem common in a moment, yet time proves them rare and miraculous.
Bill Graham, who lives in the Platte City area with his family, may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.