≡ Menu


Magical Magicada: The 17-Year Cicada Has Landed

Magicada septendecim, the magical 17-year cicada

Magicada septendecim, the magical 17-year cicada, at Olana

Updated 9 June, 2013

On June 1, sometime in the early morning, the cicadas arrived in southern Columbia County. Slowly they have made their way up the eastern seaboard, and day by day I’ve been hearing reports of their noisy arrival from friends to the south. On Friday May 31, my brother-in-law got his first earful in Carmel, just a few dozen miles south of us. The process is like a giant deck of cards unfurling. It began in Georgia and slowly the cards started falling in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and now New York. What tipped the first card? Some invisible finger? More incredible, it was an ancient bit of insect instinct that set off the alarm in one of nature’s most extraordinary and exquisite biological clocks.

We discovered the first Magicada septendecim of 2013 on Saturday morning, June 1, at Olana, home of the American landscape painter Frederic Church. We heard the buzzing first, but it wasn’t until we had reached the top of the newly restored Crown Hill — a dramatic spot Church created to provide panoramic views of his landscape — that we looked down and saw our first one. Within days they were everywhere, loudly playing out the final weeks of their miraculous seventeen-year life spans.

Many people are disturbed by swarms of locusts — and there are literally billions of them — but if you take a minute to think about the life cycle of these amazing creatures your horror will soon transform into unmitigated awe. David George Haskell, author of the illuminating book The Forest Unseen, put it best when he wrote on his blog: “For those lucky enough to live where the action is, remember what you’re hearing: seventeen years of stored sunlight being released all at once as acoustic energy. The terrestrial end product of nuclear fusion exploding into your consciousness.”

Molted cicada shells, Olana

Molted cicada shells, Olana

I’ve written about our experience of the 1996 brood in Germantown, and ever since news reports of this year’s awakening started coming in I’ve had a strange urge to think back on my life in 17 year increments. This is my fourth cicada season, and with any luck I have a few more ahead. With Haskell’s exhortation in mind, up there on Crown Hill, I did a bit of math and figured out that Church would have experienced a cicada invasion in 1860, the very year he started acquiring the lands that would become Olana.  Seventeen years later, in 1877, his Persian-style house was complete, but Church was still engaged in the process of creating the network of carriage roads and landscape events that he believed was his greatest work of all.  By the time he heard his last cicadas, in 1894, Frederic Church was crippled by rheumatoid arthritis and had stopped painting. He died six years later, in 1900.

What other creature beckons us so faithfully to think back in time, via the magic of “stored sunlight” transforming into “acoustic energy?” The life cycle of these insects has been honed and perfected over countless centuries, and for me their recreation of an ancient dance of life offers comfort, not horror. No matter how much and how radically our species has re-drawn the landscapes that surround us, an element of constancy exists just below our feet.  These cicadas hibernate underground for precisely 17 years, sucking xylem from surrounding trees, and then they emerge to live out the dramatic stage of their life by breeding for the future. Six weeks later they die, but in the treetops above us, their descendants slowly take form, and when they are ready, they drop to ground and burrow into the earth. We are without them underfoot for just six weeks every 17 years, and during that period — this period — they dive-bomb us and drown out our conversations. A farmer I know compared the cicada buzzing to the sound of “a flying saucer landing on earth.”  While they are here they make themselves impossible to ignore, and then they just disappear. We go on making scientific and technological advances; electing presidents; waging wars; re-creating landscapes.

What will you be doing in 17 years?

Click here to watch a truly gorgeous, fascinating stop-time video by Samuel Orr, “The Return of the Cicadas,” which documents the entire life span of the Magicada septendecim. 



Preparing for Cicadas

Germantown School House, early 1980s

Germantown School House, early 1980s

Seventeen years ago we were spending weekends in a small 19th century converted saltbox in Germantown, New York, that had once been home to the local school teacher. It was also her classroom. I bought the house in 1985 from an Episcopalian minister who was partly deaf but swore he could still hear the voices of 1860s school children echoing across the ancient floorboards. He loved the old wreck so much he hired a local contractor to restore it. The item he prized most highly about the lovely little house was a stairway bannister that dated from the Civil War.  It was a wonderful place where I spent many happy years, but little did I know that something — or, to be more precise, hundreds of thousands of something — was lurking below ground.


We’re hearing a lot about the seventeen-year cicadas these days. They are coming soon, and the memories of 1996 are returning to me like scenes from a Stephen King novel.  For weeks we couldn’t go outdoors without being dived-bombed by hundreds of them. Our dog tried to catch them in his mouth as they flew by, but they pelted him with their orange wings and drowned out his barking with their endless buzz. We would race to the car in the driveway, swatting locusts from our heads with both hands, and then slam the doors closed. Crunch. Many cicadas died a quick, Toyota death, but inevitably one would make it inside, onto someone’s lap.

“Well,” I once said to Ann, “it’s better than mouse, don’t you think?”

Disgusted silence.

The cicadas made so much noise we couldn’t read, or carry on a sensible conversation with the windows open.  When I played the piano I was accompanied by an orchestra that droned on and on in a weird, endless, Arnold Schoenberg track. It was like living in a chapter of the Bible. For six weeks the cicadas hurled themselves at the windows and doors, flying their crazy missions, 24/7, from pillar to post. And then, finally, they all died, and it got very, very, quiet.

17-year cicada, trapped by the author in a highball glass, 1996

17-year cicada, trapped by the author in a highball glass, 1996

I don’t know why it is that one patch of land would be more cicada-rich than another. Perhaps it’s that the Germantown place was once farmland, and the soil was rich and pliable, perfect for a cicada to hunker down and spend seventeen quiet years. Inexplicably, friends nearby didn’t have nearly as many of the creatures as we did. We were, it seemed, Cicada Ground Zero. Today we spend weekends five miles north of Cicadaville but on a rocky mountain that seems — or perhaps I am just in Pollyanna mode — highly cicada-unfriendly. We shall see.

Meantime, I’m taking to heart the advice of David Haskell, I writer a greatly admire. In a blog post yesterday he urges those of us who are “lucky enough” — his words — “to live where the action is, to remember what you’re hearing: seventeen years of stored sunlight being released all at once as acoustic energy. The terrestrial end product of nuclear fusion exploding into your consciousness.”

While I’m waiting for the cicadas to rejoin us, does anyone have a good recipe?