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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?








Sandy and the Bald Eagles

During the last major storm, Hurricane Irene, a group of us hunkered down on this small mountaintop in Hudson, New York and were transfixed by a sailboat that had moored in the inlet near Roger Island, a tiny spit of land just a stone’s — or piece of railroad ballast — throw from the Amtrak tracks heading north to Albany and south to Manhattan.

Today, a year later, a new storm bears down on us. The sailboat has found another port of safety but we are again transfixed by Roger Island. A bald eagle and its mate are hopping from nest to tree, surveying the landscape, perhaps assessing the changes that are coming our way. The river has tossed up a slew of whitecaps and the wind is getting stronger. With my telescope I can see the feathers on the eagle’s tail blowing in the wind. In the photo above, taken with a telephoto lens, you can just make out a tiny white head in the tree, 2,500 feet to the west, and the massive nest just to the south (left).

What does the eagle see? What does he know about the oncoming storm? Will his nest hold up in 75 mile per hour winds?

I think about a villanelle by W.H. Auden.

Time can nothing but I told you so.
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you, I would let you know.

Good luck, Eagles.


Goodnight, Irene


Yesterday afternoon, apparently in preparation for the hurricane, a sailboat laid anchor just below us in a cove near Roger Island. All morning a parade of boats — small and medium-sized yachts — motored up the Hudson River, probably on their way to the St. Lawrence Seaway. They were getting out of New York Harbor before the storm arrived.

But not this boat. At dusk we we went out to the porch to grill fish, and stood there for a while with our glasses of wine and stared down at the river, speculating . Why here? we wondered. Why this particular spot? As lights winked on across the river the sailboat remained completely dark; even the running lights were off. We figured maybe they were sleeping while they could, before the storm hit. They had pulled in the dinghy, battened down the hatches, and apparently were tucked away, waiting for the worst of it.

Early this morning I went out into the teeth of the storm to take a photo through the pounding rain. Incredibly, the sailboat was in the exact same position, still facing north, buffeted by small whitecaps but otherwise rather peaceful.  A few hours later it shifted 90 degrees and now faces west, towards the Catskills. The storm rages on, the Internet has come and gone and come again, and the sailboat rocks in the waves, anchored three times in the silt. The bow again faces north.Those people will have a story to tell about this night in the land of Rip Van Winkle.

And when they finally emerge from below deck and look around them, the sailors will be forgiven if they come to believe that Hurricane Irene magically transported their sailboat to the muddy Mississippi River.