The entomologists call them Brood X—the United States’ east coast seventeen-year cicadas. The name appeals to me, reminiscent of a late-seventies punk band. Each generation emerges from deep underground, molts, mates, lays eggs and then dies. Their path to sexual maturity extending longer than even humans. Their bizarre life-span leaves them without an obvious predator. Any animal that fed on them last time they arrived is now probably dead.
In 2004, Sophie, approaching just two years old, toddled out of our house daily, plucked the giant bugs from tree trunks, the wooden fence bordering our front yard, or our home’s red brick façade, and attached them to her skin. She stood, proud and defiant, with four or six cicadas adorning her arms, face and hair. The rhythmic buzzing of a billion bugs so loud, we needed to shout to one another to be heard.
In 1987, eating them was the rage. Newspapers touted their protein content, offered recipes for fine dining. Eat the nymphs they said, newly emerged from the ground. Fresh and chewy, better flavor, better texture. Fry them up in a bit of oil.
My cat, Madison, a teeny gray, longhaired muffin, barely six pounds, repeatedly hopped out the window, returned with a cicada, batted it about the room until its fight was gone, and then gobbled it up, leaving a pair of wings on the floor. Over and over. Two months in, fat hung off that cat in disgusting rolls.
A mid-summer house party at my brother’s house, blast furnace hot, no air conditioning, everyone swilling beer to satisfy their thirst. My brother’s roommate Andy, drunk and dehydrated, fainted cold off his feet. On his way down, he slammed his chin on a table. His beard never grew back in that spot. Me, barely more sober than Andy, and disappointed in myself that I never got around to eating one of the prehistoric bugs, went on a hunt. By July the cicadas were all but gone.
After searching for several minutes, I found a grandfather cicada, huge, crusty, his shell hardened by his long summer searching for a mate, slowly dying on a garbage can lid. I popped him in my mouth and crunched my teeth together. I steeled my will-power not to gag and chased him down with warm beer. Of all the recipes I read in the Washington Post, none remotely mirrored my late-night snack.
Today, looking out my back door and through our screened porch, I bummed about the gloom. Cool and cloudy. Not the morning I hoped for. Yesterday, I spent the day trail-building. Knee deep in grass, a weed whacker mulching the underlying poison ivy and spraying it in my face. Yesterday was a beautiful day—sunny and seventy-five, but lost to hard work. Today, rain threatened as I gathered my clothes to head out for a long run in the state forest. On the porch, backlit against the garden, I thought I saw a slug three feet up the screen. When I went out to investigate, I found a young cicada drying his wings. The first of bazillions. The start of Brood X.
Sophie doesn’t remember it, and Eli hasn’t lived through it. In 2004, Susan and I found the cicada invasion to be one of the most amazing events of our lives. At times, while standing in our front yard, we just started laughing because it was so loud, there was really nothing else to do. We no longer live in DC, but looking at a map this morning, I found Gettysburg dead center in the Brood X disbursement area. We’re in a cicada hotspot. Now that they are emerging, I’m beyond excited. I can’t wait to share this experience with my kids. After this year, I’ll see them possibly one, or if I’m really lucky, two more times in my life. Welcome back Brood X.