Marching to the Beat of the 17-Year Cicada Clock

At the end of May, just before my 35th birthday, I traveled to my native Princeton, N.J., with my wife, Tiffan, and daughter, Odella, to see the infamous Brood X periodical cicadas emerge on cue for their once-every-17-years invasion, the purpose of which is, bluntly put, a massive orgy to ensure the continuation of the species that will surface, yet again, 17 years hence. It’s a bit of zoological abracadabra—appropriate for their genus, Magicicada.

My first encounter with these creatures—absent from my own mnemonic filing cabinet, mind you—occurred just before my first birthday in 1987 when my parents (35 and 36, themselves) took me to the university’s campus to see these bugs flit about in a deranged choreographic mess and to hear them, a million per square meter, pour forth their 100-decibel-high mating song. In a bit of temporal coincidence, my daughter, Odella, who just turned one herself, experienced what I did at her age during our recent Central Jersey sojourn and, in turn, felt the slimy thoracic touch of a red-eyed bug.

Separating my own birth from my daughter’s—equidistant from the two events in the spacetime continuum—is, then, a single Brood X generation, the one that appeared just before I turned 18 in 2004, the threshold year of my own copulative debut that also witnessed my transition from high school graduate to college student and, legally at least, from adolescent to adult. Put another way, the three latest Brood X generation map perfectly to milestones in my life cycle: birth, coition, procreation. The unintentional synchronicity of my birth and my daughter’s relative to the emergence of our cavorting insect friends got me thinking about alternative ways to measure time: moving beyond minutes and hours, years and decades—and gravitating, rather, toward cyclical natural phenomena in a curious, mystical metric system.

In other words, in this particular instance, the unit is cicada time. I am three Brood Xs old, for example. By the time I’m four Brood Xs old (nearing 52 in years), Odella will be heading off to college. A fifth Brood X generation would get me to 69—six to 86, seven to 103. Each cycle is an extended time window that hopscotches the confines of a compartmentalized decade, nearly doubling it and forcing us, with the planning and prescience of the cicadas, to be deeply futuristic in our outlook. It’s a revved-up glance ahead, a soaring cast flung out ahead beyond five-year plans and more modest and near-term chronical considerations. Some think immature cicadas, called nymphs, measure the 17-year time underground through the sap in a tree’s xylem. Others suggest they possess an internal molecular clock. It’s possible they emerge en masse on a prime number–year to help avoid predation and guarantee survival. Members from this year’s generation, underground in wingless form since 2004 when its members dropped to the ground and burrowed up to a foot and a half deep, had emerged through tunnels in the soil, molting for the fifth time to shed their exoskeleton.

In some way, it felt like my daughter’s existence—before she was even a proverbial gleam in my eye—was somehow ignited, in a concatenated series of events, during the gestation of this Brood X generation. In that way, her emergence itself has been 17 years in motion—in time for her to hear the deep-pocket syncopations of their collective whir. The butterfly effects that led her own emergence—the jukes and pivots of my own life that led, eventually, to making my wife’s acquaintance—seem to be, in some phantom way, mapped to the horology of the Brood X cicadas. As in the past, the male cicadas from this Brood X generation attract female cicadas—billions across North America—with their intoxicating courtship song, and after mating, the female cicadas lay their eggs (up to 600 in total) in trees and bushes that hatch six to 10 weeks later. Those nymphs will fall to the soil and burrow up to a foot and a half deep to begin the process again.  

Of course, the faithful emergence of cicadas has, for millennia, conjured up the trappings of rebirth and immortality, a vote of confidence that despite their four- to six-week ephemeral existence, which harkens aggressively toward our own, they are reincarnated anew—melodic, if sometimes discordant, iterations of their forbearers and defiant in the face of permanent death. Greek and Roman poets, from Homer to Virgil, memorialized these creatures in verse, and they pervade Chinese literature and Provençal folklore, among other traditions.

But Bob Dylan, inspired by these particular sonorous creatures he encountered while receiving an honorary degree at Princeton in 1970 (the Brood X generation before my birth), immortalized these cicadas for me in his song “Day of the Locusts.” In Dylan’s entomological ditty, a dark chamber in Princeton that “smelled like a tomb” suddenly brightens in concert with the cacophonous cicadas, a testament to their reviving capabilities:

“And the locusts sang, yeah, it gives me a chill/ Oh, the locusts sang such a sweet melody/ Oh, the locusts sang that high whining trill/ Yeah, the locusts sang, and they were singin’ for me.”

Despite his misnomer in his lyrics (locusts are part of the same taxonomical family as grasshoppers), Dylan connects to “sweet melody” of their yearning whine and receives the music as if intended for him. 

During my recent visit, I was desperate to hear—and have Odella listen to—these tree-top choruses. And we were largely deprived. It rained most of the cold Memorial Day weekend when we were in town—February-March–ass weather in May. That put a damper on cicadas’ song. I half-feared the psychedelic venereal fungus that has infiltrated this year’s generation of Brood X may have also silenced them. Tiffan and I wandered with umbrellas around campus, with Odella napping in her stroller, to see the bugs on the ground.

But in Monday’s sunshine, the male cicadas’ mating song sounded like hissed static from a transistor radio and frying bacon. They have a dedicated tymbal organ, and an abdominal air sac likely serves to amplify the sound. The insectivorous choruses actually synchronize their sibilant symphonies in a deafening, but gorgeous, hum. The female cicadas respond in a clicked Morse code. This was part of the soundtrack to my world at one, and now it is part of Odella’s. Occasionally lone cicadas whorled around in flight like her little fairy toy, Bluette. She gamboled along to the music on Cannon Green behind the iconic Nassau Hall and screeched with glee. I thought back to her newborn sonic effusions as a chirruping cherub on my chest who let forth ribbits during hiccups and sounded at times like a soprano cartoon pterodactyl. As a zombie isotope of my former self in Odella’s newborn days, I learned to interpret cries as if a wailing dialect of a language I once knew from a foreign land I inhabited in a dream: “change me,” “feed me,” “hold me.”

Odella’s life began with music. During her birth in April 2020, she entered this world with music—Tiffan blasted a “push playlist,” with Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out,” Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” and the Beatles’ “Birthday” before the doctor Simba’d her up. The soundtrack to Odella’s first few weeks became the eerie whir of a silenced New York City drawn inward—just bird chirps at dawn, ambulances, the chuffs of helicopters, a little Lullaby Mozart on YouTube, our parental shushing, and the 7 P.M. ululations for front-line workers that featured some dude with a trumpet. As the world slowed in quarantine and lacked structured time, the clockless existence with a newborn in our apartment harmonized with the strange environment around us. Days of the week? There were only three: yesterday, today, tomorrow.

Now with her walking in Princeton amid the din, we stood by a cicada-covered elm tree in front of Nassau Hall. Odella reached out toward them instinctively, and despite my efforts to prevent it, her lurch brought her right hand in contact with a Brood X member, who, mostly unfazed, ambled up the tree a little more. She yelped a giddy yelp. A nymph, who would eventually burrow into the ground, then plummeted from the tree and hit my shoulder before reaching its desired soil.

I rarely wear a watch anymore, but I have two Swiss Army timepieces whose batteries had stopped this past year. They’ve sat in a drawer untouched, neglected. Throughout the weekend I kept forgetting to remove them from my bag to take them into the local Hamilton Jewelers for repair. On Monday when we encountered the cicadas in abundance, I finally had the watches in my pocket to bring in, only to discover the shop was closed. They are now in my rucksack, correct twice a day.

Fatherhood for me rests somewhere between selfless sacrifice and aggrandizing self-preservation. We forgo sleep and resources to care for someone so small—cloudy-headed nights of changing diapers and mottled, bleary mornings pressing kisses into her forehead—but we do so for the joyful rewards and to extend ourselves genetically through the child’s embodiment of our traits. Cicadas have a much higher-stakes conundrum when it comes to their sort of reproductive seppuku: they die shortly after mating, offering themselves up in order to ensure the continuation of the next generation.

It’s curious to consider cicada time—a way of vaulting back and forth across chronological milestones. The distance or lapse between, then, is a kind of conduit to the next chronotope. Put another way, the passage of time, then, is not simply the ticking by of time but an actual passageway, one that’s a transportive threshold to a different dimension, or the same one that just happens to feel so vastly foreign to this one. We’re traveling on rungs—high-stepping between Brood X generations, zoomed out and toggling between the life stages, avoiding the nitty-gritty granularity of the in-between years to maintain a broader perspective. The orchestras of cicadas in consonance with Odella’s hisses and buzzes, then, are infrequent cosmic church bells, entoning the next generational shift in a call to worship while keeping track of nature’s rhythm—patient, holy metromes to our lives.

On the way back to the city, Tiffan yelped in a primal scream—a cicada was on her knee. She brushed it off, and we forgot about it, until the next morning when I was up early with Odella putting away some miscellaneous items from the trip when I saw the stowaway on our kitchen counter. I did a double take as it raised a leg and moved. I brushed it onto a paper plate with a napkin and let it free on the ledge outside our living room window. The show Billions was filming on our street that day, and it is possible in his weeks-long life above ground he would have a chance for preservation through art in a cameo.

This is an opinion and analysis article; the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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