The gift of the Magicicada

This is the year, this is the month; indeed, these are the days of the emergence of the 17-year Magicicada.

This genus of cicada is found only in eastern North America. Although there are 7 species, just 3 inhabit New England.

Once every 17 years, the nymphs emerge from the ground to shed their exoskeletons and emerge as winged adults, ready to mate. Males court females in choruses of song. There are three distinct types of calls, the most famous being the pharaoh call of the septendecim. One musician has actually harnessed them in concert.

Periodical cicada populations have been in decline, perhaps a reflection of climate change or land development.

The oldest known cicada specimens, dating back to 1843, are housed at the Peabody Museum in New Haven, Connecticut.

Thoreau makes mention of the 17-year “locust” (a misnomer) at the conclusion of Walden. He writes: “If we have had the seven-years’ itch, we have not seen the seventeen-year locust yet in Concord…Who knows what sort of seventeen-year locust will next come out of the ground?”

He goes on to relate the story of “a strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree wood, which had stood in a farmer’s kitchen for sixty years, first in Connecticut, and afterward in Massachusetts,—from an egg deposited in the living tree many years earlier still, as appeared by counting the annual layers beyond it; which was heard gnawing out for several weeks, hatched perchance by the heat of an urn. Who des not feel his faith in a resurrection and immortality strengthened by hearing of this? Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society, deposited at first in the alburnum of the green and living tree, which has been gradually converted into the semblance of its well-seasoned tomb,—heard perchance gnawing out now for years by the astonished family of man, as they sat round the festive board,—may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society’s most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!”

Thoreau knew something of the magic in the Magicicada.

One hundred and sixty-eight years later, would we could tune our ears to hear what this bug might be telling us.

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