In 2008 when I was thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, I stumbled upon a mass cicada emergence…
There is such peace in the quiet moments of night and often I didn’t want to spoil the mood with the harsh light from my head lamp. Instead, I moved away from the fire, content to be swallowed by the blackness, to stand cuddled by the nothingness that veils the forest nightly. Away from the snap and crackle of the fire I stood for a moment in the darkness, slowly becoming aware that it wasn’t quiet. But what was it I was hearing? It wasn’t wind or rain. I remained motionless, listening to the soft sounds of what sounded like tiny animals moving through the carpet of leaves. The crunching noises came from all directions, making me feel surrounded. Curious, I flicked on my headlamp, squatting to direct the beam onto the ground.
I recognized them as cicada larvae and knew they had spent the last 17 years underground feeding on the the sap in tree roots. Imagine what it would be like to live underground for 17 years!
And now under the cover of darkness, using their enlarged front legs as shovels they had dug their way out, preparing for their last and final molt that would transform them into winged adults.
I was witnessing a true miracle of nature.
In every direction that I flashed my light I saw them, saw the army of cicadas all moving towards the same goal: a safe place for their transformation. Slowly, but with persistence, the fat pasty creatures shuffled along the ground, crunching through the leaves and moving around obstacles. When they arrived at a bush, shrub, tree trunk, stick or even my leg their journey turned upward as they gripped the rough surface with their clawed feet. Up and up and up they crawled, making tiny noises as their feet moved higher. When satisfied, they stopped and became perfectly still.
I watched as one rested motionless on a fat tree trunk in front of me. After a short time I noticed a line along the top of the creature’s back where it split and the exoskeleton cracked open.
And then! A tiny beast within the hard shell broke free and began to slide out, silently emerging like something in a science fiction movie.
Seconds ticked by and I watched, mesmerized by the amazing moment happening inches away. Out and out and out came the new creature until it seemed certain it would pop clear out of the old skin and fall to its death on the forest floor. With its back and deformed-looking wings aimed at the ground and its beady eyes facing the heavens above, its inch-long body was almost exactly perpendicular to the ground and it seemed at an impossible angle to save itself., But then, when I had no faith at all, it bent its odd pale body, reached forward with its strange legs and gripped the discarded skin of its former life.
I felt like cheering when it successfully completed the maneuver, freeing itself completely from its nymphal skin, moving to position its pale body against the tree. And again, it rested, still and silent. What a bizarre looking creature! With beady red eyes, two tiny hair-like structures on its head I knew were antennae, a rectangular spot of black on its back behind each eye and pale body, thick, grub-like body and transparent wings lined with orange veins, it looked like a fictional creation from someone’s nightmare hanging there in the light of my flashlight.
Standing in the forest that night I was stunned by the activity going on around me, cicadas at every stage of their transformation process: crawling along the ground, up tree trunks, just starting to emerge as adults, in the middle of emerging, just finished emerging and even adults that were fully changed, their bodies no longer white, but black with red eyes and clear wings lined with orange veins.
And, as is the way of the world, not all those who tunneled their way from the depths of the earth after 17 years of darkness were successful in their transformations. All around me was evidence of deformities and death. They fell when climbing a tree or exiting their old skin. Their new delicate wings touched something before they could dry. They fell on their backs in the leaves and couldn’t right themselves… It was sad to realize cicadas that had lived all that time underground met with disaster before their final stage of life. But such is nature’s way and I knew many animals would feast on the insects’ remains and that nothing would go to waste.
Shed skins fell from the treetops, dislodged by the emerging adult. It sounded like rain and everywhere I shined my light I spotlighted moments in the life cycle of a cicada. Tomorrow as I continued my long walk, all those adults that had emerged successfully would fly off in search of a mate. Males would vibrate the tiny drum-like organs on the sides of their bodies to produce a high-pitched buzz, the loudest noise of any insect in the entire insect world. Each cicada’s call would blend with the hundreds of others, creating a deafening swirl of noise in the treetops. Most hikers or visitors to the forest would surely hear the cacophony of song but few would know its source or of the amazing details of their transformations.
As sure as I know my own name I know such stories of insects in the night will inspire nightmares for some. And others who might stumble upon this ordinary event– they might run wildly through the woods, shrieking and terrified of such madness. But in doing so they will miss out on a true miracle of nature. The cicadas are harmless creatures that don’t sting or bite or transmit disease.
Eventually, even amid the excitement of the evening, the weariness of hiking all day set in and after a few minutes of relaxation by the fire, I retired to my tent, leaving the emerging cicadas in darkness again. My tent was set up on several inches of leaves and pine needles, making my bed a haven of comfort, soft as a mattress.
As I closed my eyes and prepared for the sweet relief of sleep, I listened to the songs of frogs at the pond and the call of a whip-poor-will from somewhere deep in the forest. I felt grateful to be lulled to sleep by the music of wild things.
For what more could a person ask?
To learn more about cicadas, click here.