Sunday, July 08, 2012

The cicada of life

“I want to keep it for a pet,” said The Champ, his attention split between me and a rather large, prehistoric-looking insect that had just emerged from the earth near where he'd been digging in the backyard.

I'd seen the hollow, amber-colored shells affixed to trees where the cicada nymphs had left behind their childish things and flew off with new adult wings to sing their songs, attract a mate, lay eggs and start the whole, long process of life underground again. Yet, with such long spaces in between sightings, a person tends to forget in the meantime.

After all, no matter how amazing these creatures are, cicadas have a face only a mother -- and it would seem a boy, newly five -- could love.

“I will name him Clorindo Ramindino Insectivorianda, and he can sleep in my room.”

Honestly, his declaration surprised me a little, having just hours earlier responded to five-alarm shrieks demanding that a tiny beetle and a slightly oversized cricket – neither of which were close enough to touch him – be inducted into the insect relocation program.

Though perhaps the attraction is something he inherited. As I watch him study the insect's almost iridescent segmented body, it occurs to me that so many big moments in our lives as a family have been marked by the reawakening of these gentle giants.

On our honeymoon, hiking in New Zealand, my husband and I tramped for miles along the coastal track of the Queen Charlotte Walkway as the cicadas made a wall of noise almost as impressive as the scenery and twice as memorable.

After Ittybit was born, five months after to be exact, we travelled to D.C. smack-dab in the middle of the cacophony that was the awakening of the 17-year-cicadas. Everywhere we went, golden hulls and red eyes followed us. It was an event that rivaled the emergence of cherry blossoms a thousand times over.

These bugs – harmless to humans – are found all over the world and are “born” in their own time. Although some are annual, most live underground for years, growing incrementally as they feed on the juices of roots. Once mature they burrow to the surface and shed their skins revealing transparent, veined wings and luminescent bodies. In the five or so weeks they live as adults, they are busy. The song the males sing to attract a mate comes not from air moving through a throat but vibrations bouncing around resonating chambers in their abdomen. The female deposits hundreds of eggs into slits she makes in tree branches. Six or so weeks later the eggs hatch and ant-like nymphs burrow into the ground where the life cycle continues.

It's no wonder they are seen by many cultures as symbols of longevity, love and renewal. They connect the past with the present.

The Champ has heard this all before as has Ittybit, who's been assured we will return to D.C. in May of her 17th year to meet her cicadas' sons and daughters.

She's got a while to wait.

The Champ can't wait another minute. He runs off to find a box, comfy pillow and fleece for his new pet. And returns to heartbreak.

“Mah-meeeee!” he wails. “You need to get rid of the dog. Clorindo Ramindino Insectivorianda is dead and she ATE him. Look, she sucked him right out of his shell!”

“Ah … honey. She didn't eat Chlorine Ramona Insectivous-er-whatever. He's just gone off to find a girlfriend. And guess what? Maybe, when you are 12, you will see his children. Right here in our backyard.”

Blank. Stare.

“He's going to have babies?!!! Here?!? Ewwwwwww.”

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