Brood XIV

17-year cicada

Walking into the house after dark, I snap on the light and notice a thumb-sized lump under my shirt, right above my navel. It’s moving, though I don’t feel anything. I lift the shirt and there, clinging to the other side of the green cotton, is a periodical cicada. I pull it off, carry it outside and give it a toss. A dry rattle as it flutters off into the night. Maybe those strange red eyes can see in the dark.

For seventeen years — an eternity for most insects — they’ve been living completely in the dark, the cicadas of Brood XIV. Silent, wingless, and pale as ghosts they have burrowed from root to root, sucking on the milk of trees. Then in late April they began to experience subtle changes in their bodies, growing new muscles, and feeling a sudden strong urge to burrow upwards. Rather than push the dirt behind them like a mole or pass it through their bodies like a worm, their powerful forelegs pushed and compacted the newly thawed earth into half-inch cylinders as they climbed.

They dug to within an inch or less of the surface, making visible mounds in the mud and leaf duff in wetter areas. Skunks and other predators dug some of them up, and for weeks we were puzzled by what turned out to be dried sections of their bore-holes scattered all over our trails. My mother took to collecting these strange artifacts in a shoebox in her study; we couldn’t remember ever seeing anything like it. If we weren’t such rationalists, we might’ve thought the Little People were taking a crash course in pottery.

periodical cicada tubes

The nymphs sat in their burrows and waited for the onset of warm nights, a wait that might have lasted only a couple weeks some years, but this year — THE year, as far as they were concerned — it was closer to six. Four days ago I saw my first red-eyed cicada on a dead raspberry cane and realized that the emergence had begun.

Yesterday — the morning after I carried a cicada in under my shirt — I waded slowly through the thick air of our first heat wave since last April, up to the crest of the ridge above my house and southwest along the trail. It sounded as if our closest neighbor in the valley were operating some kind of machinery, I thought, but couldn’t quite figure out what — an eerie metallic buzz. Then I realized: it’s them. They’re here! I picked my way down to where the slope turned steep, but still the sound was below me, coming from an open area that had been logged about a decade before. The sunny, southeast exposure must have led the cicadas there to emerge earlier than those elsewhere on the mountain.

It occurred to me that there might be some activity on the powerline right-of way. I always associate powerlines with cicadas, in part because their calls have such an electronic quality. But in fact because the powerline opening is several degrees warmer than the surrounding woods, the night before last had indeed been a scene of mass ecdysis there, the nymphs emerging from their burrows, crawling a foot or two up into the vegetation, and climbing right out of the center of their wingless thoraces. By dawn, all would’ve darkened from white to bluish gray with red-veined wings. When I arrived on the scene at mid-morning, nearly every lowbush blueberry and scrub oak shrub was dotted with adult cicadas, and some of them were beginning to take short, clumsy flights, like remote-controlled toy airplanes piloted by inexperienced hands.

I found one two-foot-tall scrub oak as heavily ornamented as a Christmas tree. When I squatted with my camera for a closer look, I noticed the translucent brown larval shells, or exuviae, clinging to the undersides of the leaves. I couldn’t help thinking that whatever whacked-out evangelical preacher first dreamed up that Rapture business must’ve witnessed a 17-year cicada emergence.

cicada exuviae

By this afternoon, I was beginning to hear them from the treetops right outside my door. I walked back up to the powerline to see if I could find any singing at close enough range to film, but they’d all moved on — up into the treetops, I suppose. I also noticed, however, an alarming number of half-inch-diameter holes stippling the ground almost everywhere in the woods — there must be few species of native trees they don’t patronize. The ecological consequences of their aeration of the forest soil must be immense.

Things are going to get pretty loud here in the coming days, I think. As the aforelinked webpage puts it, “Soon after emerging, males begin their constant ‘singing’ while females remain silent. The sound made by adult males is sometimes haunting and eerie.”

After around ten days of cacophony and orgiastic mayhem, the females will begin laying their eggs and the next cycle of this longest-lived of North American insects will begin. Rather than sow their seeds in the earth, as one might expect, they instead plant them in the treetops, long ovipositors slicing like harrow blades into the twigs of trees and shrubs from nearly 80 different species. Each female lays some two dozen eggs per slit, and repeats the process until all her 400-600 eggs are gone. Where two weeks before, the adult cicadas emerged from slits in the backs of their former selves, now they insert their future offspring into slits cut into what will become their nurse-trees.

The true opposite of ecdysis, I suppose, is death, and a month from now the ground should be littered with cicada carcasses. By the time the white, ant-sized cicadas hatch in late August and drop to the ground, most traces of their parents should be gone.

Needless to say, birds, squirrels, and virtually every other macrofaunal inhabitant of the forest will have a heyday, feasting on this almost literal fat of the land. Early European settlers in eastern North America marvelled at the teeming wildlife, almost all of which have by now been sadly diminished, if not persecuted to extinction, with the exception of a few superabundant pest species such as tent caterpillars and white-tailed deer. The mass emergence of the 17-year cicadas is one of the last great spectacles of its kind.

Ending expanded 6/8/08; cross-posted to the Plummer’s Hollow blog. For more on periodical cicadas — much, much more — see the Cicada Mania blog. For an MP3 of the singing, go here. And since I was just talking about nature documentaries yesterday, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fine film “Return of the 17 Year Cicadas” on YouTube.

Stalking the wild lady’s-slipper orchid

It’s hot, it’s humid, I’m cranky, and I don’t feel like writing, so here instead is another thrilling documentary from the Undiscovery Channel. (No, I still don’t own a real video camera, and I’m still using Windows Movie Maker.)

By coincidence, today Bug Girl linked to a CBC exposé, Cruel Camera, and an accompanying chronological guide, Fakery in Wildlife Documentaries. I knew about some of the examples, but others were new to me — for example, that Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom “use[d] staged confrontations between various species of animals. Perkins was known to also put animals in situations where he will be filmed dramatically capturing them.” Even Sir David Attenborough comes under scrutiny for a scene in Blue Planet involving spawning lobsters that was supposedly filmed off the coast in Nova Scotia, but was in fact shot in a British aquarium, as well as for a couple of other, similar deceptions in other films.

I’ve blogged about the trouble with eco-porn more than once, but Bug Girl sums up the situation quite well, I think:

I have students showing up at the university that love the environment… but don’t want to go outside.
It’s hot! There are bugs and mud! And why aren’t any cool big animals doing interesting things? Everything just lies around. […]

Being outside is about Calm. Contemplation. Quiet.
Stillness and silence are not what television is about.

Except, of course, on the Undiscovery Channel.

Poem for Display in an Abandoned Factory

This entry is part 8 of 14 in the series Public Poems


Why is there no battlefield memorial
here, where generations of workers
ground down their lives?
Why no place for the veterans to return,
pride mingling with grief,
clutching made-in-China flags
& mumbling about sacrifice?
Why doesn’t the county historical society
raise money to preserve this site just as it was,
before the pink slips came—
a mass unmanning—
& the great steel taskmasters were unbolted
from the shop floor & sold for scrap?
Why doesn’t anyone except us trespassers,
sneaking in like the weeds & sparrows,
want to remember which parts
were assembled here
& where they fit?

Ode to a Chalk Line Reel

The day after Bo Diddley died, I watched a carpenter stretch a line the length of a board & give it a pluck: a diddley bow with no resonator, dry chalk instead of a bottleneck slider’s glissando note. I’d been expecting blue, but this line was red. The saw followed shortly with its howling eraser.

I had an argument with the carpenter about new tools versus old. Why does something that works ever have to be replaced? Why red? Why plastic for the housing? Why the constant upgrading to new drills & saws? The carpenter showed me his hands: they were cruelly crippled. I can only use what fits my grip, he said.

That sudden, electric blue from my father’s chalk line was one of my favorite things. Inside the chrome-plated reel I pictured a Galilee of chalk where the string went to renew its glowing shadow, like a blueprint line translated from the plane of the ideal: fuzzy, but straight as a fault.

Links for the culturally deprived: Bo Diddley; diddley bow.

Morning porch noodling

Video link

What is wrong with me that I so rarely listen to recorded music anymore? It’s not that I prefer to make my own music; weeks can go by without me picking up the harmonica. But I don’t feel especially deprived, either, because I hear birdsong all day long, interspersed with train whistles and other sounds. And I do love that.

Even more pleasurable, to me, is the feeling of what I can only call musical sobriety. Back in the days of my musical addiction, 15 and 20 years ago, if a record wasn’t playing in the background, I didn’t feel right. And it seemed as if I had to play tunes I liked in order to drown out the annoying tunes that would somehow get lodged in my head on infinite repeat — so-called ear worms.

That turned out not to be the case. Now that I rarely make a point of listening to recorded music, I rarely get ear worms, either. When I do pick up the harmonica, I generally play the same couple dozen tunes, but that’s O.K. I’m quite comfortable with the idea that I’ll never be a real musician. Even at the height of my music addiction, I could never stomach the endless repetitions that true practice entails.

By the same token, I don’t suppose many musicians can fathom how we writers can stand to go over and over the same few words until we get them right. Writing poems and practicing songs seem as if they should be closely related practices — they have, after all, a common origin, and are still closely allied in most oral traditions. But for me, as a free verse poet, melody is a serious distraction. Now that I’ve finally gotten the incessant tunes out of my head, I’m able to hear the sounds and rhythms of language much more easily. Poems come to me now like they never did before.

I’m not trying to suggest, however, that what works for me might be good for anyone else. British poet-blogger Dick Jones says that playing in bands for a few decades improved his writing enormously. It sounds as if his initial motivation differed a bit from mine; I never had much ambition to “set the world alight with my deathless prose and incandescent verse” the way Dick says he did when he was young. Playing bass in public sounds like just the medicine he needed.

Audiences identify with the vocalist or adulate the lead guitarist; they don’t notice the bass guitarist. He plunks alone, shadowy & monosyllabic behind the fireworks. So I stood on the left of the drummer, laid back on the rhythm and just enjoyed the simple process of getting to grips with a musical instrument.

And, over time, this attention to the medium over the message had its kickback into writing. For the first time I started to write poems principally for the sake of the statement made and the craft of putting it together.

Dick and I may have been following parallel courses, though. Because it seems to me that we’ve each stumbled on a discipline that has taught us a little better how to listen.

Ode to Tin Snips

This entry is part 19 of 31 in the series Odes to Tools


Scissors with an overbite,
blades like quotation marks
devouring the text —
some lost codex from
the Aluminum Age —
& leaving in its place
a jagged rent: massively
buck-toothed myself,
I know how elusive
a clean break can be.
Despite what orthodontists
would have us think,
a naturally straight bite
is a rare thing.
Most of us learn early
how to compensate,
squaring the circle,
holding our heads over
whatever plate, baring
our lips in the inevitable
tin grin.