Cicadas are Mother Nature’s telemarketers

Published 8:54 am Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Column: Tales From Exit 22, by Al Batt

I like cicadas.

I’d never buy one on a whim, but I like them.

Email newsletter signup

The most common cicada we have where I live is the dog day cicada. I live on the north side of Chicago — in Hartland, Minnesota

According to folklore, frost occurs six weeks after the first song of the dog-day cicada is heard. I pay attention to the date of the first song, but I wouldn’t bet any money on its accuracy. Dog-day cicadas, as their name implies, sing during the long, hot summer days of July and continue crooning into September, the Dog Days of summer when the Sirius star is prominent in the night sky. It’s the soundtrack to my childhood.

How loud are the cicadas? They are loud enough that I can hear them over the sound of the lawnmower. They sound like a distant circular saw.

Despite that, I enjoy seeing an adult cicada freed from its old self that is left behind as an exoskeleton.

The 17-year cicadas (periodical cicadas) have been underground since 1996. Just think of spending junior high school below ground. They apparently haven’t said anything in 17 years as they have plenty to say now. They saved it up.

We don’t have periodical cicadas in Minnesota. The cicadas swarming our eastern states are of the 17-year variety. They stay underground feeding on plant roots (drinking root beer) and then emerge, molt and look for a good time. They spend their brief time above ground as adults making their distinctive buzzing sound and whoopee. They reproduce and die.

I was in an eastern state and their calls were piercing. They were so loud that the folks at home in Minnesota likely could hear them.

It made me want to report them to someone with a badge and a gun.

I saw one new adult cicada wearing sunglasses. After all, it had been underground for 17 years and it lived too close to the sun. The oversized shades made it look like a doofus from the planet of the same name on a “Star Trek” episode. Captain Kirk fell in love with one of them.

“Man, you have changed. You look all grown up,” I said. “I hear you are still with band. You guys are into some chanting thing, eh? I’ll bet it ticks you off when people call you a locust.”

“Do I look like a park ranger?” came the reply.

“Wow!” I thought. “A talking cicada!”

I asked the cicada what it remembered from the last time it was topside. The cicada rattled off a list of things. Betty Rubble’s debut as a Flintstones vitamin. Dolly the sheep, the first mammal to be cloned. Hurricane Bertha making landfall in North Carolina. Bob Dole nominated for president and Jack Kemp for vice president at the Republican National Convention in San Diego, Calif. A 3-year-old boy falling into a 20-foot-deep gorilla enclosure at the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois, and Binti Jua, a female silverback gorilla, sitting with the injured boy until his rescue. President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore nominated at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. A new toll-free 888 area code was introduced. The U.S. Senate approved a 90-cent raise to a $4.25 minimum wage. Kirby Puckett retired from the Minnesota Twins. Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, were divorced. Mad cow disease hit Britain.

The cicada’s entire life flashed before its eyes.

“What have I missed?” it asked.

“What haven’t you missed? Everything has changed except that which stayed the same. We now have apps that are supposed to make our lives easier by complicating them. There are cameras in everything. Celebrity chefs have proliferated to the point where they eat cicadas. Sorry about that. One ear of every human head now comes with a cellphone. We Google things and have life coaches who Google things for us. We don’t depend upon friends and family for all the bad advice we need. We have Dr. Phil for that. We Twitter and tweet. Don’t worry. That doesn’t mean that we’ve become birds that eat cicadas. That is, unless we’re celebrity chefs. We get tattoos. They’re a list of things to do and memory prompts that are always kept handy. We have reality TV. It’s surreal.

Our dog-day cicadas have a two- to five-year life cycle. Some appear every summer.

Things don’t change much in two to five years. Or do they?

Remember what you were worrying about a year ago?


Hartland resident Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday and Sunday.