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Secret Lives of Words: A billion cicadas and a side of fries
The cicadas are coming and, yes, by the billions! The Cicadoidea
superfamily dates back 250 million years and numbers more than 3,000 species.
Those soon to magically emerge from their subterranean abodes in the eastern
U.S., as many as 1.5 million/acre, and launch into an amorous sing-along are in
the genus Magicicada, magician cicada.
Often termed periodical cicadas, one species in this
genus was in 1758 dubbed by Linnaeus septendecim, Latin for the number
17 (think SEPTet/a seven-person musical group and DECennial/an event occurring
every DECade). The category was so named for the insects habit of dwelling
underground for 17 years, nearly their entire life, feeding on fluids from tree
roots before returning to the upper world to reproduce and die.
In a miracle of nature, the mature nymphs in the
emergent year, nearing the end of their life cycle, tunnel to the surface
synchronously, usually in late April-early May, triggered by warming ground
temperatures. The nymphs then crawl upward into trees or other vegetation, shed
their exoskeletons (exuviae) within hours, and spread their newly-developed,
translucent wings. The males, crooning solo or in chorus, then launch into
their distinctive song, which with their vast numbers, can be heard from miles
from their subterranean habitat, the 1 to 2-inch long bug-eyed creatures (often
confused with locusts, which are related to grasshoppers not cicadas) have just
one thing in mind: procreation. The cicadas loud rhythmical incantation (which
inspired the name of the Athens, Georgia, indie folk band Cicada Rhythm),
produced by abdominal structures called tymbals and ranging as high as 120
decibels (louder than a gas mower), is the males courtship call. After mating,
the female lays 100s of eggs, typically in the bark of a tree. In six to 10
weeks the nymphs hatch, drop to the ground, burrow into the soil, as deep as eight
feet, and there live their lives until re-emerging 17 years later.
The most widespread septendecim habitat in
North America, known as Brood X or the Great Eastern Brood and inspiration for
Bob Dylans song Day of the Locusts, ranges from North Georgia to New York.
Their last appearance was in 2004 and the next, depending on soil temperatures,
is due in the South late this month or in early May (grab your binoculars,
earplugs, and the Cicada Safari app, available free from the Apple app store
or Google play). The insects cyclical rituals have been observed and recorded
in the U.S. for centuries, by early Native Americans, the Plymouth Colony
pilgrims in 1634, and such notables as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson
(in his Garden Book).
But interest in these tiny creatures dates back
thousands of years and around the world. Among the ancients, cicadas were
revered both for their song, and for their cycle of birth, apparent death, and
resurrection. The name the Romans gave the insect, Latin cicada
(pronounced kih-KAH-duh), was onomatopoetic, mimicking the creatures
characteristic chirp (search cicada chirping on YouTube to listen and look,
and while there be sure to view the four-minute BBC Earth video Periodical
Cicadas Overrun the Forest).
In his Iliad, the earliest surviving work of
European literature, Homer narrated the response of Troys elders to the
approach of the Greek princess Helen: They sat there, on the tower like cicadas
perched up on a forest branch, chirping soft, delicate sounds their words had
wings (trans. Ian Johnston). For the 8th cent. B.C. Greek poet
Hesiod, the cicada song was a harbinger of summer. In his History of Animals,
Aristotle (4th cent. B.C.) described the insects life cycle and saw
their rising from the earth as a symbol of immortality. In Greek myth, the dawn
goddess Eos prayed to Zeus to grant her Trojan lover Tithonus immortality, but
neglected to ask also for eternal youth; as Tithonus endlessly aged, he
shriveled, grew ever smaller, and was finally transformed by Eos into a cicada
and confined to a cage, where he perpetually babbled and bemoaned his fate.
The 1st-cent. B.C. Roman Lucretius
describes the insects setting aside their smooth cloaks in summer, a
reference to their moulting. Vergil speaks of raucous cicadas in the
woodlands, and another 1st-century poem describes a hairpin crafted
in the form of a cicada, suggesting that the insects were prized for their
beauty. For their ecstatic mating songs they were associated with eroticism and
The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (who died while
observing, for scientific purposes, the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79)
describes cicadas in detail. He mentions their Greek name, achetae
(chirpers), and rightly remarks that the males sing, while the females are
Another point Pliny adds is that the insects were
eaten by some in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. Even the Parthians
(in the area of modern northeastern Iran), who could afford the finest foods,
found them delectable. They prefer the males before coitus, Pliny observes,
and the females afterwards, as they were fond of their tasty white eggs.
It turns out that the ancient Greeks too, even
Aristotle (maybe hungry after writing about the crispy critters?), dined on
cicadas. Flash forward 2,000 years and it turns out that the 17-year Magicicada
has long been regarded as a delicacy by our own Onondaga people, an Iroquois
nation of upstate New York. Modern-day Malaysians and Pakistanis enjoy the
high-protein, low-fat treat too; the Chinese like them deep-fried.
A recent Patch column by Deb Belt, You Can Eat
17-Year Cicadas as They Emerge in Maryland, recommends serving them with a hot
mustard sauce or marinated in teriyaki. Add a side of wontons or fries and a
(hefty) cup of rice wine, and, hey, Id gladly give em a try.
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching
Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure
came to have the largest Latin enrollment of the nations colleges and
universities. His latest book is The Secret Lives of Words, a collection of 60
of these essays, expanded and illustrated with 250 color photos. Rick and his
wife Alice live part of the year in Apalachicola, under the careful watch of
their French bulldog Ipsa.