Brood X on Theodore Roosevelt Island

The chorus of 17-year periodical cicadas rose like a siren song from the island shore as I crossed the footbridge over the Little River channel of the Potomac to the western shore of Theodore Roosevelt Island. Who knew that they were so musical? How can I not remember from 17 years ago? As I walked through the pawpaw grove and under the sycamores and silver maples on a northward path, the sound coming from the tallest trees was otherworldly, like a chorus of angels crossed with space aliens. It seemed that nearly every leaf bottom and tree trunk bore the dry brown exoskeletons of the ethereal singers who had crawled out of them just days before. And the upper surfaces of the leaves held many of the charismatic adults who were on their way skyward: black-bodied and red-eyed with gossamer wings. After 17 years as nymphs underground.

Listen to Brood X drowning out traffic sounds on the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge:

How could you spend 17 years within the rooted earth and then grow wings, rise to the treetops, and sing? The holes the cicadas dug to climb out from the earth pockmarked the hard dirt of the well-used island trails. Poking a pinky or index finger into the holes — depending on their size — I found them perfectly smooth and round, and clearly reaching well below the tip of my totally submerged finger. If you’re in Brood X country this spring, try this! It’s oddly comforting! A glimpse into a mystery of our miraculously ordered planet.

Silhouette of a great blue heron on Theodore Roosevelt Island
A great blue heron near the island shore

It was a delicious spring-to-summer crossover day on the island, the river almost as smooth as glass, the tide just shy of high and ebbing. A great blue heron stalked small fish near the rocky shore and drifts of cotton lay under the cottonwoods, trees that start their stalwart and rooted lives flying through the air. Every spring someone asks me, “Why does it look like it’s snowing on the Beltway?” When the seeds from the very few cottonwoods in the Washington area are let loose from their dangling capsules, they seem to be everywhere in the air around the city.

As I watched the heron with one eye, and (sad confession) checked my iPhone with the other, I read a message from Lisa Alexander, Executive Director of the Audubon Naturalist Society, letting me know that ANS was planning to publish my first poem on their social media platforms. This news made my heart sing. After authoring seven nonfiction nature books, I am finally doing what I’ve always wanted to do when I grow up: Write poetry. I’m very grateful to Lisa and to the ANS staff members who formatted and shared my poem.

Ode to the 17-Year Cicadas

A Brood X cicada sits on a panted leg on Theodore Roosevelt Island
A charismatic Brood X member alights on my knee.

As you backflip out of your dry brown exoskeletons, trembling and creamy white
In the first stage of your metamorphosis
We are emerging too
Flinging off our masked year
Somewhat naked to the world and also trembling

You know exactly what to do
Living underground for 17 years,
Digging a hole as tidy as a machine-dug well
And then crawling up from the earth’s rooted depths and onto a tree trunk
For your above-ground transformation

You don’t all make it
Some of you emerge only part way, struggle and die
Still partly cloaked in your outworn skin
Some of you fail at wing inflation
And with crumpled wings that look like a fairy costume
Stuffed too long in a trunk
You won’t ever fly

But for those of you who make it to the treetops
Your story may be too miraculous for our human ears
As we struggle with the rudiments of our own emergence

Today your metamorphosis is nearly complete, while ours is uncertain
Today you who were trembling and wingless hours ago
Are black-bodied and scarlet-eyed with gossamer wings
Soon you will fly and serenade us with your deafening chorus
May you muffle the noise of our own flying machines
That again are testing their wings

Melanie Choukas-Bradley is a naturalist, forest bathing guide, and author of several nature books, most recently Resilience—Connecting with Nature in a Time of Crisis and Finding Solace at Theodore Roosevelt Island.

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