Land in the Sky: Periodically, Cicadas

Tumbledown-BarnIt is full-on spring in the year 2013. The clouds overhead are dark and threatening more rain. We are walking along an old dirt road through some spooky Hudson Valley woods, looking for signs of the celebrated bugs known as periodical cicadas. I prefer their scientific name—magicicada—because I have a magical worldview. Others mistakenly call them “locusts”; those people are positivists. Anyhoo, any day now these bugs will be crawling out from underground. They’ve been down there for seventeen years, feeding off the roots of trees and glimpses of Eurydice. I was thirty-eight years old when they ducked out of sight in 1996. Even though I’m now of a certain age, it’s a pretty good wager that I’m going to outlive this particular generation of magicicadas. On the other hand, when it comes to my prevailing over their offspring, all bets are off.

As we continue on our way through the spooky woods, we come upon a big old tumbledown of a barn. It appears to have been built in the Quonset-cinderblock style popular back during the Second World War. That would be around the time the great-great-grandparents of the current crop of magicicadas were out doing their courtship and mating up in the trees. The barn is showing its age. The only thing holding it up now is graffiti. Vandals recently tried to burn the place down and failed. They did not realize just how fire-resistant graffiti is. Encouraged by the colorful, incombustible doodles on the walls, we stroll past some very stern warning signs posted by the State of New York to keep out. Those won’t stop us. We’re here to check things out. After all, these woods are public lands and we are mortal beings. If not in this lifetime, then when? In any case, this is supposed to be a nature preserve, if only nature would cooperate. Onward. We head into the barn and give things a pretty good look—there must be ten thousand of them or more—then move on.

After walking a while, we emerge from the spooky woods into a far-reaching field of tall green grass. This time of year that means ticks. Lots and lots of ticks. We throw caution to the wind, but there is no wind so it just falls to the ground. We traipse across the chancy field toward some even spookier-looking woods on the other side. Who cares about a little Lyme disease when there might be seventeen-year cicadas waiting over there! Besides, I really miss these magicicadas. We have a lot to catch up on. I knew their parents and grandparents. I suppose technically I also knew their great-grandparents, but in the spring of 1962 I had other things on my mind—for instance, a rocking-horse by the name of “Pat-Pat”—so I did not get to know the Kennedy generation of magicicadas. Besides, I don’t think my parents would have let me out to play with them. I was only four years old.

Time passes. They sky has grown darker. It begins to rain. We are deep into the spookiest woods of all. No magicicadas have emerged around here yet, but we do happen upon a forgotten graveyard. The plots—dozens and dozens of them—are spread out among the forest trees. The graves are deeply sunken and filled with leaves and detritus. At the head of each is a brass plaque with the names and dates of the buried one. Only a few of the plaques are visible. Most lie beneath several generations of forest duff. The few that remain visible indicate long lives—the people buried here lived well into their seventies and eighties. It also appears that no fresh interments have occurred since the mid-1950s. That’s when a nearby old folks home closed its doors and was converted to a college dormitory. About the same time the burial ground started becoming forgotten. Now heavy rain is falling. Water is pooling in the sunken graves. It is time to go.

We retrace our route, pick up our caution where we left it in the grass, brush off the ticks, and head elsewhere. With any luck, it will be in the direction of magicicadas.