We've known they were coming, but the first signs of the 17-year periodic cicadas emerging from their long incubation dining on tree roots had us a captive audience just the same. On May 11, a high whine from deep in the woods announced the beginning arrival of Brood X, which biologists have predicted to be the largest insect emergence on Earth - and it is centered right here in south-central Indiana.
It was a thin sound, like an instrumental tuning, a far cry from the full orchestral blast that billions of insects would build to in the days and weeks ahead. But it raised goose bumps along my arms nonetheless.
Exactly 17 years after burrowing into the soil as larvae, the cicadas had begun to resurface spot on schedule, fully grown, shedding their brittle skins and flexing damp, diaphanous wings.
After they fly, sate the birds, mate, and lay their eggs, they will quickly die off as the newly hatched larvae tunnel back down to the tree roots, their own 17-year clocks set and ticking. In the meantime, for a few weeks once a generation, there is little to see or hear besides cicadas.
Some find it a bit unsettling. The noise of all those red-eyed mate- seeking males can drown out birdsong, conversation, even traffic. It can scramble one's thoughts. Yet I find it deeply comforting to know that one of nature's most extraordinary biological clocks has gone right on ticking these past 17 years, seemingly oblivious to all that has transpired topside. I'm not about to complain about the embodiment of such innocence, however loud it is.
We've begun to see exit tunnels everywhere, and nymphal skins - dried and cracked along the back - on fence posts, ironweed leaves, blades of orchard grass. The cicadas themselves, poised for the performance of their brief lives in the open air, suddenly carpet the little pasture by the creek.
Our dogs snuffle the scene with curiosity as we get down on hands and knees to eye the riddled ground in hopes of seeing an insect in the act of emerging - or one sloughing off its skin to sun.
Digging fence post holes during the first wave of the emergence (which comes in phases), I unearthed one curled up cicada slightly before its time. It assiduously began to burrow back down with a sleep preserving passion.
I've observed such behavior in my teenage son after the alarm has disturbed his own biological clock on a school day. Oh, what he wouldn't have given for a good cicadian slumber on one of our cold winter mornings.
Maybe I'll change my tune in a week or two, when the insects' droning reaches fever pitch and a quiet thought can't be had. But for now I appreciate the cicadas as a promise fulfilled, a force of nature, a future assurance. It does not seem undignified to get on one's hands and knees to that.