St. Louis is experiencing the re-emergence of the periodic, 13-year cicada this spring. I noticed them this morning as I took my walk. I side-stepped them as I walked along dark, damp sidewalks in my neighborhood. The little, molting critters with the palest yellow, almost white, wings are cracking out of their brown cocoons almost in unison. Their dry, spent shells and newly hatched bodies cling to trees and car tires.
They are hatching fast, too. One cicada, who hatched on my car tire, was just poking a pale head out of its shell when I set out on my walk. When I returned 40 minutes later, ahead of approaching rain, it was already out and trying to dry its wings in the humid air. Once their wings and bodies dry, their colors change to dark green, black and brown with a webbed cloak of orange for wings. This is perfect camouflage for them as they sit and sing among leafy Missouri trees for the next few weeks.
In my home state of Texas, these insects are larger, and they appear every summer. We used to call them locusts, although a real locust is a relative of the grasshopper. As a child, this error used to confuse me. I grew up in a mostly secular home. We did not attend church or mosque, but I would read stories from the Bible and in my later teens, from the Quran. I would try to relate the singing cicada in our own trees to the swarming locusts mentioned in these holy books. They just did not swarm and plague in the same way in Texas, but now I know why. Cicadas are not locusts. And maybe insects aren’t always a plague but evidence of the miraculous cycle of life. However, farmers and termite-ridden homeowners might disagree with my idealism about bugs. In truth, I see their point. Insects often thrive on things we humans value: crops, wooden homes, and leafy shade trees.
Whatever their name or environmental impact, in Texas, I was aware of cicadas because of the hypnotic, buzzing, mating songs of male cicadas that would rise and fall in periodic waves all day long. While playing in the backyard wading pool, mowing lawns or just sitting on the front step watching the elm trees, the cicada song was ever present. I suppose this is the reason some Texans know them as Dog-day Cicadas. They do not appear every 13 or 17 years; instead, while groups of them may have a 13- or 17-year cycle, they are always there singing their mating song, happily buzzing their lives away in the Texas heat. There are websites devoted to the East Texas Cicada, or Dog-day Cicada. Texas A&M devotes a page about the Dog-day Cicada on its Field Guide website.
Kids in my old neighborhood used to catch these large, flying cicadas, tie strings around them and fly them like kites. This practice usually did not end well for the bug, which more often than not would crash into a sidewalk or wall in its attempt to get away. As a little girl, I tried to put a stop to this practice by appealing to my friends' sympathy for the bugs; however, cicadas were not a favorite of mine. If I startled one as I ran past a tree, it would fly into me. Sometimes one would get tangled in my hair, causing me to shriek and bat it away.
I think of all of this as I walk along my damp, Missouri sidewalk: cicadas and locusts, life-songs made from wings, the periodic waves of birth and rebirth so ancient that they are noted in our holy books. The 13-year cicada has emerged to sing in our part of Missouri for the next few weeks. Their cracking cocoons and little, crackling dry shells are pieces of the divine; scattershot across sidewalks, trees, cars and walls.