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Cicada Magic

2024 marks one of the biggest cicada emergences of the last 200 years. How we describe it matters.

GO AHEAD. CALL THEM an invasion. Use that word of war, that word blasted white with the dust of buildings falling, that word that dangles like the arm limp and blood-run you saw on your feed. Yes, use that doom-scrolling, war-torn noun for cicadas. But know you’re using it for an insect who does not sting and does not bite, who in fact has no mouth at all to bite, getting by with only a slender siphon from which to sip enough liquid for these very last days of their very long lives. 

Or call their emergence an infestation—a word fevered with plague, a word that stresses the pest in pestilence, that sells headlines like CICADA-GEDDON and CICADAPOCALYPSE. Funny, maybe, but not really when the punchline is an insect who spreads no disease, eats no crops, chews no holes in your blossoms or your leaves, that does not eat, no, not at all, because again, believe me when I tell you, cicadas have no mouths. 

They are not harbingers, are not fleas on bubonic rats, are not Old Testament locusts here to razor down fields, edging civilization toward collapse. And, you bet, that’s what my grandmother and many of her generation called cicadas—locusts—citing as proof the pharaoh sound of their song, but it’s a name plain wrong, born of the ignorance of the time. 

What I mean to say is words matter. Here’s a word we all know, a word of magic: abracadabra. Hard to spell but fun to say, that ta-da word, nearly impossible to write without an exclamation point. Can you hear it? Can you say it out loud? Can you play the script hackneyed into your mind? A man, most likely, the kind who on stage pretends to saw women in half. Abracadabra! he says, pulling a rabbit from a top hat. 

What I want you to know is the word abracadabra is older, much older, than he is, older than the Victorian days when he was lit on stage without electricity, quite literally by limelight—light made with a heated cylinder of quicklime. Abracadabra: a Hebrew-Aramaic word, meaning something like “what is spoken is what becomes.” Meaning, “what comes from our mouth is what we bring into being.” Magic. Say it and it becomes, even if it’s not true, even if it’s a trick.

Ashlee Marie / Unsplash
 

I was once like most, charging through the yard umbrella first, squealing when the little Hindenburgs bombarded my face and caught in my hair, gagging on the mud-rise, crunch-underfoot stench of them dying en mass. What I mean is: I was, perhaps once like you, laughing at the familiar jokes about eating them in tacos or dipped in chocolate, completely grossed out, completely unaware they were writhing on the ground like that because they were frantic to find a vertical surface up which to climb. Or that the trees and shrubs there so many years ago were now gone, that their writhing was indicator of how they were stranded in a world we had cut down.

That was a long time now—nearly two emergences ago. Back then I was a twenty-something haunted by the dank recesses of my childhood, and the insect I found disgusting was, like me, rising up from one place to the next, between stages, neither here nor there, no longer a being of the darkness but not yet a being of light. It’s a wonder that I calmed enough to pick one up, that I held one in my quivering palm. I watched a singular insect convulse from within, saw how, using whatever strength they had left to escape the protective shell once needed to survive, the insect flexed to split that carapace down the center spine. 

So began my fascination, my downright obsession, with cicadas. Within the span of three hours that afternoon, I witnessed a body new to the air, a body fetal soft, a body that was, at first, a wet and buttery shade of ivory. I watched as the exoskeleton slowly began to mottle and freckle, darkness spreading until the insect was hard—shining and black as a flake of coal. All the while, the wings pumped open, morphing from two limp and crumpled tatters into articulated clear and brittle panes veined orange, wings that appeared born of cathedral windows and the crisp plastic I knew from cigarette packs.

Read more from Nickole about memory and survival here

And forgive me, I know better: a cicada is no metaphor. Nor is any other animal. But sometimes, if we listen, a sentience far older than ours has something to say. That day I learned escape is just the beginning of emergence, that one must harden before flying, that before it’s all over, there just might be time to sing. Call them resurrection insects then, maybe, if you’re feeling as I did that day, raw and overdramatic. Either way, they showed me how to tunnel up, to take a new form from the body to which I was born, to find a life without taking the one I had.

Now, of course, this spring of 2024, we’ve all heard the news—They’re coming, they’re coming, they’re already here, in numbers mind-boggling, prodigious, numbers not seen since 1803, that several broods are emerging synchronously in a way they won’t again for 221 years. So what better time to tell you this: Don’t be frightened. Don’t be repelled. Don’t listen to words meant to rile you up, to make you miss their many gifts. 

Open your windows to a whirring call that, though otherworldly, is very much of our world. Open your heart to a call that though alien-sounding comes from the place that was our home long before we called it so. Because cicadas don’t harken end times. No. If anything, they circle us back to our beginning—they were the butterflies of the Mesozoic, their call once heard by dinosaurs. They are relics of the ancient world that long ago emerged in a field of horses—the first horses, who existed a full five million years before humans evolved. 

Try instead this collective noun: an antediluvian of cicadas—meaning belonging to the time before the biblical flood, and maybe, just maybe, if the icebergs melting don’t make an ocean of what so many call home, they may belong to time still to come. 

Better yet, call them a benevolence, peaceful as they are, doing little harm, aerating the soil with their many tunnels as they dig their way up and out, then fertilizing that soil when their bodies surrender to that same ground. An emergence marks a mast year, legion upon legion of bounty to fill many mouths and make happy the many animals who feast—squirrels and lizards, bears and raccoons, skunks and possums, even your silly dog. 

“That day I learned escape is just the beginning of emergence, that one must harden before flying, that before it’s all over, there just might be time to sing.”

So maybe call them a satiation, because when periodicals emerge, when you see them rise in such gobsmacking numbers, know that’s their only defense—to rise together, all at once. With no stinger and no bite, with no agility and no speed, without even camouflage, the only thing they can do to survive is overwhelm their predators’ appetites, to make a feast of themselves, to fill to burst those who consume them, leaving just enough survivors to carry forth their future.

Or wait: perhaps we can call them chronographers—try that on for size—a chronography of cicadas—mathematicians they are, having figured their figures to prime, the numbers 13 and 17 divisible only by themselves, each brood outliving the life spans of those who eat them so generations of predators cannot evolve to eat more. They are the clock keepers who have kept the same cycles for millions of years. Their rising is a measure of Earth’s deep time, a calculation made deep underground by feeding on the season’s vacillation of fluids through tree roots, counting and counting the coming and going of seasons well below the frost line, counting the swell and contraction of xylem as if it were the ticking of time itself, each year as it comes and goes a signal to grow, grow, grow. 

So try this—a survival of cicadas—because the fields many were born into are now parking lots and apartment complexes and airports and malls, so though millions rise, millions are trapped under concrete. Others were lost when the trees they needed were cleared, so with no roots from which to feed, they withered before they ever got to emerge. Or now that the seasons come and go as they do, some lose count; confused, they emerge years before they should, and when not enough of them arrive at the same time, every single one is eaten, without any left to procreate. More than one brood is now dwindling, and some no longer exist. Already Brood XXI and Brood XI are extinct. And now Brood VII is nearly gone. Yes, a survival of cicadas, a miracle of those who still rise.

Come. Celebrate the season of their return this year, just on time. Call them the world’s largest block party, a jubilee, life’s own flash mob. Or use the actual collective noun in the dictionary: a superfluidity of cicadas. How beautiful is that? Can you see them? Not writhing helplessly in our cut grass but finding the trees they need to climb. Watch them flow and flow, up toward the crown to tymbal ring and wing click, to sing in their manner until they find another. Superfluid, like the river of life, as it was made to be.

Say it—say abracadabra. And just like magic, there it is. Can you see that magician again, the one on stage? He’s pulling a rabbit out of a top hat, and when he holds her by the ears for the crowd, he doesn’t support her body as he should and damages her spine. He’s pulling her out of a fancy hat, shiny as a newly pressed record though vinyl hasn’t been invented yet. But yes, the hat is as shiny as that spinning invention of sound, shiny because it’s made of beaver, hunted once to near oblivion. 

I say these things not to make you feel bad about a moment of pizzazz in which you took delight, to make you quit your applause and leave the theater. No. I say these things because words can be like tricks, can make you believe an illusion. Because words are made of power, a power that need be wielded with care.

So go ahead. Tease if you want to—call them lobster popcorn, dip their bodies in batter and fry them. Call them ghouls and joke about Nightmare on Insect Street. Have a good laugh, then—poof!—given enough time, enough disregard, enough pesticides, enough clear-cut development, enough carbon exhausted and exhaled into the air, and sure enough, just like that, the smoke will clear, and they’ll be disappeared. 

But say a benevolence, a perseverance, a wonder, and perhaps, maybe, maybe, in those many years from now, in the year 2245, when the next simultaneous emergence is due, when you and I are dead and gone, those who carry small remembrances of us in the helix of their cells will again hear from the canopy cicada song. Could it be those many children of our children’s children might beg us to find the right words, might rage for us to do and say the right thing now, before it’s too late? Yes, I believe that. I know that to be true. Because, like the cicadas, to survive we need many millions of us to rise up, simultaneously, all of us, all at once.

 

Wren Meinberg / Unsplash
 

 


*Nickole learned about the origins of the word abracadabra from one of her favorite books, Rooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt.

 

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Nickole Brown is the author of Sister, first published in 2007 with a new edition reissued in 2018, both of which feature cicadas on the cover. Her second book, Fanny Says (BOA Editions), won the Weatherford Award for Appalachian Poetry in 2015. Currently, she teaches every summer at the Sewanee School of Letters MFA program and lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where she volunteers at several different animal sanctuaries. Since 2016, she’s been writing about these animals. To Those Who Were Our First Gods, a chapbook of these first poems, won the 2018 Rattle Prize, and her essay in poems, The Donkey Elegies, was published in 2020 by Sibling Rivalry Press. She’s the president of the Hellbender Gathering of Poets, an annual environmental literary festival set to launch in Black Mountain, North Carolina, in October of 2025.