We await awakenings here at 'cicada central'

Looking across the frozen tundra of the farm this week, I find it hard to believe in the enormous reservoir of life waiting just below the cold, white, wind-sculpted surface.

I don't mean the soon-to-run maple sap or the first cheerful appearance of Harbinger of Spring flowers on the forest floor. Neither seems so terribly out of reach by February and both can be depended upon annually.

What I have in mind is poised for a bigger, bolder, far more raucous and rare awakening - that of the 17-year cicadas, due to break ground this spring after burrowing down as larvae and lying dormant since 1987. Way back when my almost-adult son was an infant himself.

Over the past few years the so-called "brood X" cicadas, concentrated in south- central Indiana, have been working their way steadily upward from their 10- to 12-inch-deep feeding chambers to within a few inches of the surface.

We think we've witnessed one sign of their progress this past autumn in the ubiquitous and hyperactive tunneling of the moles, who must have been delighted by the upwelling banquet. The cicadas far outnumber the moles, though, and are scheduled to burst upon the scene en masse on or about May 25th.

"You can almost set your watch by it" according to one local biologist. It is predicted to be the largest insect emergence on Earth.

Our farm, near Bloomington, Ind., sits at the very epicenter of the pending action. But that isn't the only reason we're tuned into "cicadian" rhythms around here. Tim, having matured with the soon-to-awaken generation, turns 18 and officially enters adulthood a few weeks before they do.

I can only hope he is quieter about his new freedoms than the insects, who, after breaking from their brittle skins will spread their wings and begin to fill the air with pervasive, ear-splitting song. It is the male who makes all the noise, using resonating membranes (tymbals) and magnifying the sound from a hollow abdomen.

What we'll be hearing, come May, is a teeming population of young male insects all calling for mates at once - with built-in amplification.

My partner, Charlie, was born the year of another emergence (I won't mention how many cicada generations back), and so was his daughter, Gwen, who hopes to travel back home to Indiana from the West Coast to hear the new generation. Sharing the Midwestern cicada cycle with her farmer father, she can hardly sit this out in Oregon.

The cicadas we're awaiting could emerge at rates of up to 1.5 million per acre. Multiply that by our 80 acres, and you have a farm with more than a few tons of insects. The pity is we have but one flock of chickens to grow fat off the largess.

But it isn't May yet. For now, winter stretches on and brood X remains buried. The hens step gingerly through the snow these bitterly cold mornings, lifting their wings like ruffled skirts as they mince from coop to straw-bedded barn to peck at the odd grains scattered under the horses' feed boxes. They feather out their breasts, tossing red and golden brown hues back at the low morning sun, looking beautiful but piqued at the frozen footing.

If only they could foresee their coming change in circumstance!

This particular morning, the prospect of all those cicadas seems distant, indeed. Seventeen years distant at one end, a few long months at the other. There isn't a sound but the squeak of Jim's big hooves as he ambles out from the barn, the stiff protest of tree limbs in the light wind, the frozen chatter of ice-encrusted twigs. Sounds that seem to amplify the cold from winter's own hollow abdomen.

Somewhere in our attic memorabilia is a tape of the 1987 cicada emergence. We plan to find and listen to it one day by the woodstove, as a way of letting spring into the room for a few heady minutes. Who knows? Maybe the last generation has something to tell us about their progeny.

It's not everyone's idea of entertainment, but here at cicada central, we have our own rhythms.

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