Cicadas finally emerging? We know how they feel (Welcome to Montclair)
By KIRSTEN D. LEVINGSTON
For Montclair Local
This cicada brood has some company.
National Geographic is not known for puffery. So, when it says trillions of Brood X cicadas arrive this spring in New Jersey and other East Coast states, after 17 years underground, you take notice. Considering how antsy we are to cut loose after 17 months on pandemic lockdown, imagine how excited the cicadas must be. Our coming out parties share a few things in common.
When the magicicada burst to the surface, they’ll be encased in protective exoskeletons, which they shed within a couple of hours. In the days ahead you may hear the sound of those discarded, brittle exteriors crunching under your feet.
For months, face masks have been our exoskeletons of sorts, protecting our respiratory systems. While public health officials have said people who are fully vaccinated can unmask, I’m not ready to put my mask on moth balls just yet. My brain trusts the science, but the data has not yet sunk into my bones, which is where it needs to be before I’ll be comfortable going maskless around people, even other vaccinated people. For a while longer, blue surgical masks will remain the new black. And plenty of black is a good thing for those of us who have packed on extra pandemic pounds. While the morphology gods smiled down upon the cicada, giving it a sheddable exoskeleton and the ability to live on a liquid diet, homo sapiens are forced to hit the gym and count calories.
Understandably, cicadas are wobbly on their feet as they acclimate to life above ground, scaling trees and shrubs in search of the right spots for eating, mating and egg laying. Their wings are beautiful, but their flying skills are shaky. Some of us will also be in search of sea legs after a year of wearing fuzzy-slippers or nothing at all. The thought of slipping my feet into sensible loafers — god forbid anything with a heel — is terrifying. Liberation elicits exuberance from both species. The male cicada lets his joy — and desire to mate — be known through a “song” that’s been described as the sound of a tiny maraca shaken at high speed that then fades into a noise resembling an electric buzz. The New York Times reports that in a swarm, cicadas’ high-pitched hum can reach 85 decibels, or slightly louder than a passing diesel train. Montclair’s bustling restaurants and music venues have not hit those sound levels, even though our town is buzzing again.
Similarities between humans and cicadas diverge dramatically when it comes to our respective impacts on the planet. As cicadas move from underground to the earth’s surface, they build tunnels that aerate the soil. When the defenseless insects arrive above ground, they essentially offer themselves up as a smorgasbord. As entomologist John Cooley put it to National Geographic, “anything with a mouth is going to eat them, so it’s going to be a good year to be a bird.” And while Montclair Local has provided a “fried and battered cicada” recipe for readers, this mouth won’t be getting anywhere near a cica-dish.
Even in death, which occurs a mere two to four weeks after they emerge from the earth, cicadas’ decaying bodies contribute nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil.
During the 2013 cicada swarmaggedon, my daughter happened to have a pediatrician appointment in West Orange. As soon as we pulled into the parking lot, we heard the deafening sound of that diesel train. So many bugs were falling from the sky we ducked our heads and sprinted into the building, giving ourselves a good shake from head to toe once we got inside. We were not amused. This time I have a bit more empathy for this brood yearning to be free, with limited time to live and love before returning to the Earth.
Kirsten D. Levingston moved to Montclair in 2008. She works in the city and writes on the side. In “Welcome to Montclair” she explores the quirks of this special town. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Huffington Post and Baristanet. An essay of hers appears in “Of Courtiers and Princes: Stories of Lower Court Clerks and Their Judges.”