Burbs have decks, rec rooms, but don't know cicadas' song

May 27, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

I KNOW LOTS of people who own vinyl-sided houses that are less than 20 years old. They are my 'burban friends. They live out beyond highway exit ramps, up new streets, and at the end of cul-de-sacs. They have sprawling, fertilizer-drunk lawns with a few trees, sometimes no trees. They have central air, large decks, two-car garages, basement rec rooms and pantries filled with stuff from Sam's Club.

They don't have what I have in a much older city house -- a sidewalk and bad lawn, a damp cellar, radiators and old pipes, cedar shingles that need painting every five to 10 years and cicadas that come out every 17.

You've heard about these cicadas, right?

Bugs with long, transparent wings and red eyes -- I swear, red eyes!

Once in a while, a cicada emits a sound like a DeWalt drill through steel.

Pick them up by the wings and they bark at you.

They don't bite or anything, but they appear agitated. And who can blame them? How would you like a giant voyeur ripping off the roof of the Days Inn and plucking you away from your honeymoon? After 17 years in the ground, the cicadas have a limited amount of time to find a mate and procreate, and humans should just stay out of the way.

So that's what I do.

I show respect to these creatures.

I don't step on them. I don't squish them. I haven't even started to vacuum up the dead ones.

My dog, on the other hand, ate a whole bunch of cicadas, then threw up.

A veterinarian warned my neighbor this might happen. He said, "Your dog will eat cicadas, but don't worry, they'll pass right through." Which reminded me of the announcement my Uncle Kenny made to the entire dining room of the Daniel Webster Inn on Cape Cod five years ago. When the waitress asked if he wanted coleslaw, Uncle Kenny said, loudly and clearly: "Nope, it'll go right through me!"

Same with cicadas and dogs.

There's about 1.3 billion cicadas in the maple tree on my front lawn. The tree appears to be pulsing and quivering, and whatever other prurient word comes to mind to describe a rockin' insect orgy in a tree.

But I don't look. Cicadas deserve privacy.

This all started when the nymphs came out of 1.3 billion holes in the ground. My yard looks like the battlefield at Agincourt after they pulled all the arrows out. (Not that I was there; I'm just imaging it, see, and it's been very hot this month and I've done a lot of beer drinking and sweating, and I'm writing this column at home, and the cicadas have been chattering for a week, and I'm just about at the BREAKING POINT!!)

I haven't seen as many nymphs since that Shakespeare production I was in in college.

Then the cicadas emerged from the nymphal stage, leaving the shuck behind.

I've got shucks, which are the olive- or beige-colored shells from which the adult cicadas emerge, all over the place. There are piles of them by the front steps and thousands of them still attached to the trunks of trees, the side of my garage, the swing set and the fence.

I'm thinking of collecting them, making mobiles and giving them to my cicada-deprived 'burban friends.

The lawn and front walk, sidewalk and driveway are covered with dead cicadas already. They stink, too.

The live male cicadas make this other-worldly sound, like a billion witch-doctor maracas, in massive waves through the trees. It goes on hour after hour.

I've got all the windows shut, and still the cicadas, the cicadas, the cicadas, they sing, they sing, they sing.

If you want to call that singing.

It's more like the sound of death rays from War of the Worlds.

Anyway, to get back to how this column started: I have friends in the suburbs who don't really believe all this. They live in cicada-free zones because their neighborhoods are relatively new. The grounds there were dug up within a few years of the last 17-year cicada emergence, so they don't have what I have in the city -- cicadas in the trees, cicadas crawling up the sides of the house.

I went outside for a few minutes the other day and a cicada landed in my relaxed-fit jeans -- and stayed there, unnoticed, for about 30 minutes. I was sitting at my computer and looked over my shoulder -- a cicada was sitting on it!

But people in the 'burbs -- in those cicada-free zones -- don't believe how it is here. You explain it to them with a sober, straight, even mildly distressed face. You try to describe how loud and weird it all is. And yet, they look at you as if you're one of those people who claim to have been abducted by aliens and had their appendix removed on a spaceship.

This is no science fiction, friends. This is real life. Gotta go. Over the sound of cicadas, I think I hear my dog gagging again.

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