Watoga Trail Report

Magicicada nymph recently emerged from the exoskeleton. K. Springer photos
Adult Magicicada after wings have dried.

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

Back after 17 years – live and on stage – it’s the incomparable sounds of the Magicicadas
Part One

Camp, cabin, summer house, weekend cottage, love shack or retreat – whatever you call it, we seem to be universally fond of our getaways.

When I was a teenager, my favorite uncle had a small two-room cabin nestled away in the hills of Hocking County in southeastern Ohio.

In truth, it was nothing more than a shack clabbered together with odds and ends of boards and an exterior covered with large shiny aluminum plates discarded by a printing company. The Lancaster Eagle Gazette, a local newspaper, served as insulation between the walls.

Years later, I spotted the cabin from a jet flying into Port Columbus because it shimmered in the sun like a giant disco ball set atop a ridge.

Though sparsely furnished, with a couple of small beds, a potbellied stove, and what served as a kitchen, it also had an old Motorola console radio. Uncle Bud and I were there one June weekend in the mid-1960s. We had arrived late in the evening and had immediately hit the sack.

We arose early the next morning, intending to do some smallmouth fishing on a nearby stream. Being fascinated with the radio, I tried finding a radio station in some exotic part of the world as Uncle Bud set about making a breakfast of fried eggs, smoked jowl bacon and biscuits – his usual.

Finding a station required rotating a tuning knob. In between stations, there was only static, sometimes called “white noise.” I finally gave up on hearing Chinese or French folks speaking and turned the radio off. My attention was now directed at sorting through my tackle box, looking for just the right spinner for smallmouths.

A short while later, my Uncle Bud shouted back from the kitchen, asking if I had left the radio on in a static position. I replied that I had turned the radio off several minutes before, but I now heard what we both thought was radio static.

We stepped out of the cabin and immediately realized that the “static” was coming from the woods all around us. This was my introduction to a fascinating insect with a life cycle that only nature can devise.

Although my uncle erroneously called the noisy insects “locusts,” it is not an uncommon mistake.  Several immigrant groups coming to the U.S. in the 19th century referred to the cicada variously as a grasshopper or locust; which they are neither. The cicada looks nothing like a locust or grasshopper, nor do they jump or devour every plant in sight.

Locusts and grasshoppers are the same in appearance, with the only real distinction being that the locust, unlike the solitary grasshopper, can be either single or gregarious. Locusts are capable of swarming in astounding numbers when they overpopulate or during periods of drought.

The topic of locusts came up again in the afternoon when I went to fetch water at a nearby communal spring. Shortly after arriving at the spring, an elderly neighbor showed up with a water jug.

Betty, a devoted Sunday school teacher, also referred to cicadas as locusts and immediately launched into a bible lesson about the plagues discussed in the Old Testament. I considered making a fast getaway as I felt a full-fledged sermon coming my way, but running uphill with a three-gallon jug of water exceeded my then scrawny physique’s capabilities.

With a sigh, I resigned myself to a full-blown homily on locusts that started with Betty enthusiastically quoting Exodus in a voice that drowned out the locusts surrounding us; “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over Egypt so that locusts will swarm over the land devouring everything growing in the fields, everything left by the hail.’ So Moses stretched out his staff over Egypt and the Lord made an east wind blow across the land all that day and all that night. By morning the winds had brought the locusts.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but Betty was crediting all of those innocent cicadas for a plague upon Egypt when the real culprits were the grasshopper look-alikes, the real locusts of the family Acrididae.  

It was a case of mistaken identity, which I did not solve until a senior biology class a few years later. It was too late to enlighten Betty or my Uncle Bud as they were both dead and buried, ironically, now surrounded underground by thousands of the much-maligned cicada nymphs awaiting their next emergence.

Moving forward in time to the present, 2020, we are once again being visited in our region here in West Virginia by the 17-year cicada known as Brood Nine. For a week now the woods around my house have broadcast a sun up to sun down chorus of these red-eyed insects searching for a mate.

I have left the windows open throughout this recent concert of cicadas and have started to look forward to their daybreak commencement. Although I must confess that I often have to step out on the porch and cup my ears to make sure I am not responding to my tinnitus. Not an uncommon condition among us septuagenarians.

The location of these emergences are sporadic. If I were to walk down to the Greenbrier River, I would be greeted by silence, except, of course, for the sound of canoe hulls scraping over rocks. Here on my hill, I can expect another week or two of this mating call that dates back over 200 million years.

Next week’s Watoga Trail Report will take a deep dive into the science of Magicicada.  And I promise you that, unless you are an entomologist, you will know more about the periodical cicada than you ever thought you would, or maybe even more than you may wish to know.

In addition to all of the sciency (not a real word) stuff, we will take a look at the culinary uses of the cicada. I have cooked and eaten a dozen cicadas this week and will share my opinion of them as dining fare.

If you are a fan of the fruit of the vine, I will provide suggestions on selecting the right bottle of wine to go with fried insects. I bet that is a sentence that you have never before read in your entire life.

Oh, is there no limit to the lengths the writers at The Pocahontas Times will go to give their readers the total experience? 

See you next week, friends, or maybe before – out on a trail.

Ken Springer
ken49bon@gmail.com

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