Cicada traces: ending May and beginning June, 2020

“Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world.”1

The last Thursday evening of May 2020, I dozed off during the evening news and awoke near the end to water draining off the edge of the roof and over the lip of the gutter. A heavy rain had come through while I slept. Rachel had closed the windows in the house while I snored through the storm. As I awoke, the sky was a wash of clarity and clouds. We watched Pastor Todd Johnson close the News Hour2, talking about being a young pastor in a small community, about how hard it is for a black person to get justice when everyone in town knows everyone else. He talked about how the community responded when a black citizen was killed by the police in January 2019. He spoke eloquiently about maintaining and fostering hope. He tapped a well of experience older than any one person. He could have spoken for hours. George Floyd had died only three days earlier, and the country was in righteous turmoil. But Pastor Johnson only had a few minutes to speak.

The news finished, and Rachel and I biked to Maple Grove as the sun was dropping down into the canopy. The tree leaves were glazed with rain. Just over the bridge was a honeysuckle in as magnificent a state of flower as I have ever seen in my life. The petals and stamens were leggy and delicate, spiders magnified and transformed to ivory, frozen in their promenade along the branches. When I see them like this—and this was as nice as I’d ever seen them—or when I simply crack open the branches and get a whiff of their thick, liquorish odor, I understand why people plant them or leave them in their yards to reproduce and afflict the woodlands. Invasive hybrid honeysuckles are awful, choking out native shrubs and outshading the understory. I rarely put my faith in the long and narrow road of adaptation, trusting today’s invasive species to come into balance with the native flora if we’ll only wait long enough. I happily tear out a honeysuckle to make way for a bloodroot or a bugbane. But to anyone who stands up for honeysuckle out of sheer love of its flowers: I understand.

Rachel and I were talking about the timing of orange mycena mushrooms. Then, along the edge of a rotting log, punctuating the enormous, repetitive wood nettle leaves, as though on cue, sprouted ellipses of orange mycena. We tried to photograph them and found that the canopy had closed too far for hand-held photography at the forest floor so late in the day. The shutter took a 30th or 15th of a second to snap open and shut, leaving the photo murky. Beyond them, the rising vegetation was misted over with the tuxedo-blue flowers of great waterleaf. Virginia waterleaf flowers bobbled bell-like in clusters along the trails. I noticed no false rue anemone flowers. The wild ginger leaves were as big around as saucers. We walked out amidst calls of eastern wood-pewees and past a stand of Gray’s sedge, perigynium beak tips frosted with stigmas.

The next morning, Brooklyn and I were in the woods by 7:15. It was the last Friday morning in May. The rain of the previous night had emboldened the mosquitos, and they were irritating for the first time that I’d noticed for the year. Brooklyn batted them away from her nose while I crouched to get photos. Great crested flycatchers and red-eyed vireos were singing. Leaf miners had etched trails into the leaves of zigzag goldenrod. It was a good walk for graminoids. Gray sedge culms were long, straight, and leaning out into the trails, perigynia thickening like footballs. Straight-styled wood sedge achenes were ripe enough to pop between my teeth, but perigynia weren’t ready to drop yet. Wood’s sedge had dropped all its perigynia. Carex sparganioides was coming into fruit, growing heavy and bending under its own weight. Woodland bluegrass inflorescences had branched and spread and were newly festooned with dangling stamens, fully flowering.

Fruits were growing on almost all of the spring wildflowers: Virginia bluebells had yellowed and were holding onto each other for stability, corollas tumbled to the ground, nutlets blackening and falling; petals had begun to fall from the great waterleaf, nutlets forming in the bases of the persistent calices; white baneberry flowers were gone to pieces and berries were swelling, perhaps twice the diameter of the stalks subtending them; geranium columns were thickening as they filled with seeds. Blue cohosh fruits were at the beginning of their months-long trail to maturity. False rue anemone achenes were sharp-tipped and larger even than a few days earlier, almost ready to drop. Toothwort siliques were darkening along the sutures.

That evening, Rachel and I walked through the neighborhood and, at the corner of our block, passed a fence that glistened with exoskeletons. It took us a moment to realize they were cicada nymphs. There were perhaps 20 of them, and the hardened soil at the base of the fence was perforated with holes where they had crawled from the ground, where they have been drawing sap from the tree roots on the right-of-way since, I gather, 2007, if I am correctly understanding that we are seeing a sub-brood of 17-year cicada brood 13 emerging 4 years early. The brittle shells clinging to the fence were the color of butterscotch, all facing upward, glistening like so many abandoned cars, engines turned off and walked away from en masse, and for no apparent reason other than that it was time to move on.

Over the next 24 hours, the cicadas kept emerging. The next morning Brooklyn and I sat beside a crabapple tree and watched a cicada extract itself with excruciating deliberation from its shell. We started watching when its head was already out, but from seeing others on the tree, I knew that the shell had split open first over its back, which it arched and forced out through the fissure. It emerged light and soft, pulling its head into the air, and extracted its front legs slowly as though from tight-fitting sleeves. It arched backwards, pulling then the middle and back legs out. As it leaned out further, strands of exoskeleton extracted from the tracheole walls trailed out from its spiracles, momentarily depriving the molting cicada, assuming it is like a molting mayfly, of breath. For 25 minutes it went on, arching further back and further back until it looked as though it would fall out. One did, in fact, drop from higher on the trunk down past our cicada and into the grass, where another nymph was lumbering toward the tree to begin this awful process itself. But ours was successful. At the last moment, with only the tip of its abdomen still lodged in place, it arched forward and grabbed onto its own ruptured carcass and shimmied its tail out into the air. It was free, and already its wing buds were swelling in the air. On the other side of the tree, another was starting the process as an ant fed on its vulnerable back. Scattered in the lawn around us were a few newly emerged cicadas that hadn’t quite made it, one wing maimed or flipped upside down for no obvious reason. How long it takes them to harden up after they emerge, I don’t know. It’s a miracle any make it into the next generation.

In the woods that morning, honewort was flowering along the road. Mosquitoes were drawing blood. Solomon’s seal flowers were almost open. False mermaid had turned brown and was fading into rifts between the fallen leaves, nutlets still swelling. Brooklyn and I followed the edge of the marsh at the base of the hill that climbs up toward the south half of the woods. Foul manna grass inflorescences were emerging from their sheaths. There were unexpected jewelweed cotyledons in an ephemeral creek bed leading down to the marsh and baby earthworms writhing beneath the leaves. Wild ginger seeds were developing inside the berries, hardening off and growing but still creamy. Wood nettle and poison ivy were waist high. Jack-in-the-pulpit seedlings were ankle-high. We came across a single plant of green dragon, a distant cousin of Jack-in-the-pulpit that I’d heard was in these woods but hadn’t seen before. These two species are two of only three North American species of a genus approximately 140 species strong, Arisaema, that arose and diversified in East Asia. Our local species’ ancestors crossed through Beringia into North America around 20 or 30 million years ago, but separately.3 They both carry themselves like royalty, émigrés from an alpine temperate forest far away. They are gender-changers,4 able to flip back and forth from seed to pollen-production from one year to the year as resources permit. They are packed with poisonous calcium oxalate crystals.5 They form the most exotic inflorescences, a fleshy spadix packed with flowers enclosed in a hoodlike spathe. They are otherworldly denizens of our rich forests, outsiders that haven’t shaken their evolutionary heritage. They are at home here.

By Tuesday afternoon, temperatures rose to over 90F, and the cicadas that had started emerging over the weekend were singing and buzzing between the tree branches. They fired up their abdominal buzzes like chainsaws and floated dark and intent between the branches of our pear tree. If they’d been singing previously, I hadn’t yet heard them, but what is the importance of a few extra days to a 17-year cicada, even one that’s emerged four years early? They know a patience most people can’t imagine. While crickets hummed in the gravel of the railroad bed through Downers Grove, trees throughout the village sizzled with the songs of cicadas warming up for the summer.

At the parking lot to Maple Grove, half a dozen people were exercising, lined up along the railing. There were leaf rollers on the jewelweeds. The wood nettle leaves had already been chewed. Young shoots were erupting from the split-open hoods of wild garlic. The great waterleaf leaves were wilting, bent over like I used to see wild geraniums do in the early summer in Madison. There, in Gallistel Woods, I would watch the entire geranium tip over and, sometimes, a larva crawl out where the stem bent and broke off, a clog working its way through the ductwork. I tore open the great waterleaf petioles and found discolorations where the withering began, but no obvious larvae. Fields of blackberries were in full white-faced flower along the trail. White cutgrass was coming out along the trail. The woods were yellow with sprawling Mertensia. Orchard grass anthers were dangling.

By a few days later, the trees purred with cicadas, and as I write this on the 12th of June, they still do. Each morning, Brooklyn and I walk through town beneath a cloud of murmurs and humming, as the cicadas gear up for the noisy day. I don’t think they have any idea what kind of world they emerged into this time around. Dead man’s fingers have come out through fissures in the fallen maples. Wild garlic bulbils continue to coil, and the ebony jewelwings have come out in the bottomlands along the creek, snapping their wings deliberately on their bouncing trip from one shrub to the next. They perch on the enchanter’s nightshade plants that have grown almost to my knee. They disappear down toward the water and carry with them memories of all the bottomlands where I have ever seen them, from the Wisconsin River floodplain to a small river in Bordeaux (where it must have been a different species, but it looked exactly the same as it led on my bike ride into work there, as here, through the woods). The lower leaves of the jewelweed have yellowed and are beginning to erode, as the cotyledons did. The Virginia bluebells have gone from yellow to brown. The siliques on the toothwort have started to snap open and drop their seeds. Wild leek scapes have emerged, just two weeks after the last leaves turned to slime. White avens is starting to flower. Black snakeroot fruits are swelling and beginning to dominate the inflorescences, as they will utterly in just a few weeks. Wild ginger seeds are hardening inside the berries.

One evening last week, I came across a gentleman in a floodplain in my neighborhood, clipping a leaf or two from each of the waist-high wood nettles. He wore gloves to protect his hands. “Are you collecting them to eat?” I asked, and he lit up at the question. He told me about how good the nettles were for you. He would boil them for five or ten minutes, he told me, then freeze them. “They are good for the iron,” he told me, “good for the blood.” You could eat them with eggs. You could cook them with beans. You could eat them with everything. He told me we had only a few weeks, that once the flowers came out, the nettles would become bitter. He sent me home with some to cook, and then he told Brooklyn what a good dog she was.

This past weekend, I boiled them up and served them with fish. It turns out that you can eat them with anything, but I’m afraid they don’t have much flavor. I suspect they are very good for you, though. I hope so.

  1. Spoken by Sethe, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.)
  2. From his interview on the PBS News Hour: “I always have in the back of my mind that I’m another link in the chain of progress, and I have this legacy that I get to look at every day to encourage me that, yes, it can be done.” — Pastor Todd Johnson, Second Baptist Church, Warren OH. url: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/a-young-black-pastors-brief-but-spectacular-take-on-preaching-with-hope [accessed 6 June 2020].
  3. Renner SS, Zhang L-B, Murata J. 2004. A chloroplast phylogeny of Arisaema (Araceae) illustrates Tertiary floristic links between Asia, North America, and East Africa. American Journal of Botany 91: 881–888. url: https://bsapubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.3732/ajb.91.6.881
  4. Bierzychudek P. 1984. Determinants of gender in Jack-in-the-pulpit: the influence of plant size and reproductive history. Oecologia 65: 14–18. url: https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00384456
  5. Jadhav DR, Gugloth R. 2019. Poisoning due to Arisaema triphyllum Ingestion. Indian Journal of Critical Care Medicine 23: 242–243.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *