Brood X, At Peak

The loudest, craziest days of Brood X are behind us now in Northern Virginia.  Peak cicada activity occurred here during the first two weeks of June.  When we left for Rochester over Memorial Day Weekend,  we hadn’t spotted a single cicada in my mother’s back yard. When we returned, even that area was a teeming hotbed of Brood X action. 

The big insects were everywhere. Perched, with plenty of company, on trees, flowers, foliage fences and outdoor furniture. Slogging through the grass in droves. Struggling on their backs, trying to right themselves on every paved surface. And flying, flying, flying. Careening clumsily into people and pets. It was the rare dog walk that didn’t require stopping to detach multiple cicadas from clothing or skin. They dotted car tires. They caused mechanical problems in the airplane that was to fly the White House press corps overseas for President Biden’s first European trip. And oh, the noise, noise, noise. It was especially loud in the heat of bright sunny days. It cascaded in great waves, building to a crescendo, then diminishing. Rising and falling, again and again. The most apt comparison is probably the rapidly pulsing sound made by UFOs in old sci-fi movies. Except instead of one small spindly flying saucer, there were millions. In the midst of the corporate choirs, nearby individual cicadas could also be distinguished.

We oversaw and enjoyed a wide variety of cicada encounters.  My daughter and I watched a cicada face off with a skink atop a pillar in our back yard.  As the striped lizard lay poised and motionless, the insect plodded over with typical Brood X unhurried determination.  Once a hair’s breadth of being nose-to-nose, the two eyed one another with what appeared to be careful consideration. Friend?  Foe?  Prey? Potential sex partner? Perhaps none of these options, the cicada calculated, then made a painstakingly slow three-point turn and proceeded in the opposite direction.  The skink remained perfectly immobile. 

I found one cicada with eyes of golden yellow instead of the usual bright red.  In 2004, a rare blue-eyed fellow dropped by our front porch, but we saw none this year.  A blue eyed cicada is statistically a one-in-a-million occurrence.   However, considering that up to 1.5 million members of Brood X may emerge per acre, encountering a blue-eyed one is more common than it sounds.   

One tree in my mother’s yard, a maple with leaves of greenish purple, hosted a veritable Brood X traffic jam.  During the first week of June, the insects were making their way up the trunk and into the bigger branches.  The next week, they were higher up in the smaller limbs that could be more easily sliced open by the females as they deposited their eggs. 

Our attempt at cicada-proofing the crepe myrtles.

These cicada-made slits at the ends of narrow branches cause them to weaken and break. Mature trees typically suffer no permanent damage, but younger,  smaller trees are more vulnerable.  We were concerned for the health of two crepe myrtles we planted a few years ago by my mother’s back deck.  Before we left for New York, my husband constructed a wooden framework around each tree that could be covered with screening, if needed.  Maybe it wouldn’t be necessary, we reasoned.  But when we returned to see the pronounced cicada activity on the adjacent maple, we proceeded with the screening.  As we see brown patches developing on surrounding trees,  and clumps of maple leaves littering our front yard, we’re glad we did. 

Brood X is still with us, but now in numbers that are drastically decreased.   The roar of the crowd has vanished, but the buzzing of a tardy few can still be heard.  These are the days of the stragglers, the late-bloomers, the procrastinators.  I have a special appreciation for the last of these awkward winged visitors.  After all, they won’t be back again for a long time. 

Father’s Day 2021

My father and I at my grandparents’ home in Lebanon, KY, ca. 1965.

Hats off to all the men who make the little people in their lives feel welcome, loved and safe, the way I felt in my dear daddy’s arms.  Cheers to the good guys who have the strength and courage to be kind, nurturing, supportive, and occasionally vulnerable.  May the blessings you provide be returned to you with interest.  Happy Father’s Day, fathers and fatherly men! 

On The Road Again, and Back into the World

We did something highly unusual recently. Something we hadn’t done for close to two years. We packed the car and drove across several state lines to visit relatives for the long Memorial Day weekend. Thanks to the Covid vaccines, we could do so without fearing dire consequences. We had taken another major step the week before, when we attended our daughter’s graduation from the University of Virginia. We were there, in person, on-site! And when D returned home a few days later, we didn’t require her to go into a period of quarantine in our home office. We’re gradually easing back into something akin to pre-Covid “normal.”

My husband’s intentions to visit his parents more regularly had been foiled by the pandemic. He and my daughter had also been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to get some ice time with our young hockey-playing nephews. So H’s hometown of Rochester, New York was our first out-of-state family destination. At Bill Gray’s Iceplex in Brighton, H and D matched skills with the boys for an hour of non-stop action. My sister-in-law and I, in our figure skates, passed the occasional errant puck around and served as videographers.

The Eerie canal village of Spencerport, where H’s sister and her family live, was as charming as I remembered it from our last visit over the Memorial weekend in 2019. The lift bridge, which raises to allow the passage of larger boats, had been freshly painted. Bright flowering baskets hung from shop windows. Our nephews have become enthusiastic fishermen during the pandemic. They breathlessly described to us the many fish that inhabit the canal. On a cold Saturday morning, undeterred by the icy wind blowing over the water, they proceeded to catch a wide range of examples. “A pumpkinseed? Really? That’s a fish?,” I asked the boys, thinking I’d heard wrong. Yes, indeed. A small and colorful speckled sunfish. Kids are such fountains of knowledge.

As much as my husband enjoys speeding across the ice in pursuit of a hockey puck, I like a brisk stroll through picturesque neighborhoods. I had been looking forward to walking again along Spencerport’s tree-shaded streets lined with beautifully tended old homes and historic churches. I kept falling behind my daughter and sister-in-law as I paused to take photos. So many captivating architectural details, so little time.

Spencerport’s First Congregational Church
Spencerport’s United Methodist Church

The lamp posts on the main streets of the village were again decorated with flags and Hometown Heroes banners. Photos of our military men and women currently serving in various branches of the armed forces gazed down on us. Although the images were different, the group was just as youthful-looking as those of a previous year. Some were smiling. Others had adopted more serious expressions. All, I expect, must have been feeling a sharp mixture of anxiety and optimism during those photo sessions.

Their faces look down on the quiet, peaceful streets of home. Yet the real young men and women are far away, in places where turmoil reigns and peace is elusive. Every time I think of pretty little Spencerport, with its inviting sense of homeyness, I think of these hometown heroes. I pray that they return whole and healthy to their families.

I pray also that we civilians do our part to earn that name. May we not forsake our civic duty. May we pursue truth and learn from it, especially when it is painful. Especially when it reveals shortcomings that need to be addressed. May we actively work toward justice and peace for all people. May our country, our democracy, remain worthy of our pride and of the service and sacrifice of our military men and women.

Fairfield Cemetery, Spencerport

Memorial Day 2021

Fairfield Cemetery, Spencerport, NY, May 29, 2021

O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,

Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life!

America! America!

May God thy gold refine, till all success be nobleness,

and every gain divine.

America! America!

God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self control,

thy liberty in law!

–America the Beautiful

words by Katharine Lee Bates, 1904

music by Samuel A. Ward, 1888

Wishing you and your family a peaceful, beautiful Memorial Day. May you have the freedom to gather with those you love. And may we honor and remember all those who gave their service and their lives for our ability to do so.

Looking at Brood X, Seeing Ourselves

Temperatures are climbing into the 90s here in the DC suburbs , and the cicadas are getting the message:  it’s time. The pace of their emergence is accelerating.  Each morning brings a bigger crowd of Brood Xers in various stages of their short above-ground lives. Yesterday, for the first time, we noticed that their characteristic buzzing could be heard in our neighborhood.  At first, it might be mistaken for the roar of highway traffic a few miles away, or heavy machinery droning in the distance.  Today it’s much louder.  Our daughter could hear the sound over the phone as I stood on the porch talking with her.  We were discussing the logistics of our attending her graduation ceremony tomorrow in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia.  The last appearance of Brood X coincided with her Kindergarten orientation.  Taking stock of one’s life in seventeen-year spans is a daunting exercise, one I may attempt in a future post. 

As our yard fills up with more cicadas, I notice that they seem smaller and more delicate than I remember.  Was it just because in our daughter’s little five-year old hands, the insects looked larger in 2004?  I don’t think so, because I saw them in my full-grown hands, then and now.  Is it that our our memories naturally tend toward exaggeration and hyperbole?  I don’t know.  I only know that I was expecting bulkier, more substantial creatures.  Those I’m seeing now seem almost dainty. 

Today in 2021, I’m struck by their vulnerability.   Maybe I feel this way simply because I’m older.  Or because the covid pandemic has kept reminding me, and all of us, for over a year, of life’s fragility.  I certainly don’t remember encountering so many struggling cicadas.  Repeatedly, I come across those having difficulty emerging from their shells.  They appear to be stuck, not quite in and not quite out.  Did the long spell of cooler-than-usual weather adversely affect their ability to molt?  Others have successfully exited their exoskeletons, but they’re physically challenged in various ways.  A wing is twisted, folded, malformed or too small.  I found one that appeared to be miniature in all aspects except for its head and eyes.  What a cutie it was, with a short body and tiny wings that looked to be edged with frills and coated in golden dust.  And all around, I see cicadas that appear to be perfectly formed, yet having considerable difficulty adjusting to the new life phase.  With every glance at our front porch, I see one or more flipped on its back, legs moving frantically in the air.  I see some that have lost half their body to a predator, yet continue, doggedly, to crawl.  Our lawn teems with nymphs and the newly molted attempting to maneuver through a hostile terrain of grass blades. I avoid walking through the yard, even though I want to check out the cicada action around our silver maples.  My husband debates how best to time his mowing of the lawn.  When will the  massacre it entails be less pronounced?    

A cicada with abbreviated body and wings.

I’m hoping that once the Brood X onslaught is in full force, there will be so many cicadas around that those facing hardship will be less evident.  With temperatures expected in the high 80s over the next week or so, we should soon be entering peak emergence.  Until then, though, I’ll continue to commiserate with all the struggling cicadas I see.  I will attempt to rescue some, just as I occasionally move a worm from the middle of the street.  It’s not that I place such an extraordinarily high value on the lives of these insects.  It’s not that I deem them more important than people.  Quite the opposite.  It’s that, in their struggles and frailties, I see those of humankind. In their vulnerability, as well as in their persistence, I see the human condition.  

This afternoon, on a very slow, hot walk with Kiko, I came across a cicada in the road. It looked healthy. I picked it up, and it buzzed vigorously in my hand. I took the perky little guy to a nearby tree, where he left my finger easily and began walking up the trunk with confidence. I saw, or imagined, a peppy spring in his step. This one would seize his hard-won day in the sun. I returned home feeling optimistic, for Brood X as well as for my human brothers and sisters.

Cicadas, Slowly but Surely

The cool weather here seems to have slowed our Brood X emergence. Since my initial cicada spottings on Monday, I’ve encountered only a few of the newly hatched insects. Yesterday evening, as I took one last walk in the yard before closing up for the night, I heard a rustling nearby on the silver maple. Two brown exoskeletons were attached to the bark. Just above them, a young, pale yellowish cicada was ever so slowly testing its legs. It bore the hallmark of the recently emerged, the two oblong black spots behind the eyes that suggest sunglasses or a carnival mask. The sound I heard, though, was coming from one of the skins. A closer inspection revealed that another insect was in the process of gradually freeing itself from its exoskeleton. It appeared to be a slow and laborious endeavor. No progress was apparent while I watched.

As the other cicada inched its way up the tree, the scratching sound continued, and the brown shell convulsed.

This morning, both shells were empty, and a newly winged, pale insect was beside them. The temperature is rising. This youngster should be in good company soon.

And They Emerge! Brood X Sightings Begin

They’ve been underfoot outdoors, all around us here in Northern Virginia, for seventeen years, leisurely sipping the sap from grass and tree roots. Most of that time, they’re in cozy tunnels eight to twelve inches below ground. About a month ago, they moved up closer to the surface, where they wait until the ground temperature feels right. I saw my first representatives of Brood X yesterday morning on my neighbor’s front steps. I spotted several more on our iron fence this afternoon. Today, there will likely be more. I know from past experience that our immediate area will soon be rich, almost beyond imagination, in cicadas.

In the next several weeks, it will become close to impossible to avoid the orange-veined brothers and sisters of Brood X. They’ll be everywhere, looking out onto this bright new world with their bulging red eyes. They’ll be moving slowly, if at all. Their large wings don’t seem to be quite big enough for their lumbering bodies, and their flight is awkward and haphazard. They apparently don’t spend enough time in a winged state to master the art of flying. I’m reminded of a new driver making a first clumsy attempt to drive a car with standard transmission.

Look down in non-grassy areas and you may see the perfectly round, dime-sized holes the cicadas leave when they emerge from their subterranean long-term leases.

You may see some cicada “chimneys,” as well.  These are the domed cylindrical mud towers the insects build atop their holes as protection during wet weather. 

Near dusk, you may see milky white, ghostly cicadas crawling across the ground.  These are the newly emergent nymphs, with as-yet undeveloped wings.

The nymphs find a perch on which to anchor themselves as they gradually shed their exoskeletons. These copper-colored shells will soon be omnipresent on tree trunks and branches. And then they’ll start to pile up around the bases of trees.

For a while, still, we can enjoy our friends from Brood X a few at a time, when they are at their endearing best. Appreciate this early stage. It won’t last long.

Applause for Spring’s ensemble Cast

As May begins, spring’s high quality production design continues unabated here in Northern Virginia. The season’s talented ensemble cast rarely misses a cue, despite unpredictable working conditions such as drastic shifts in temperature, a sudden hailstorm, and recent wild, gusty winds. The players function together beautifully, keeping the audience amused and all senses invigorated.

The Appalachian redbud by our back porch brought out a striking profusion of bright fuchsia jewel-like buds, just as we’ve come to expect.

Looking a bit like tiny pink chili peppers, the flowers glow with near iridescence in the afternoon sun.

The redbud takes an inventive approach to her adornment, sprouting small bouquets of varying sizes directly from her trunk. 

The little sassafras tree in our front yard was damaged last year by a heavy branch that fell from one of the silver maples. Nevertheless, she produced the annual show of frilly pale yellow flowers. Their lemony scent is subtle yet pervasive.

The camellia tucked into a corner at my mother’s house played her part with exuberance.  Her limbs were gracefully bowed down by an abundance of ruffled, boldly colored blossoms.  

The taller, grander daffodils in our front-yard patch took their time in blooming, letting the miniature Tête-a-têtes set the stage and enjoy their time in the limelight. When the big girls arrived, they were elegantly dressed in their Cinderella ball gowns.

The azaleas, among the season’s dependable stars, are just past peak bloom.  A coral pink variety is luminous in the early morning light. 

As heart-shaped leaves replace the blooms on the redbud, the spent flowers fall onto the creeping phlox below. 

Creeping phlox is known and admired for its carpet-like effect.  Together, the many little flowers, popping out from wiry foliage, can create a lovely cascade over a low wall in a rock garden.  But each bloom in itself is a miniature marvel.  Each flower has five delicate, double-lobed petals and a center resembling a tiny star or snowflake, with a ring of double markings surrounding bright yellow stamens.

And then there are the lilacs, the signature flower and fragrance of mid-spring.  I love lilacs. The petite, perfect, four-petaled blooms remind me of icing flowers my daughter and I used to squeeze out of a pastry bag to decorate cupcakes. I love the way they cluster together to form larger entities.  Each lilac bush is composed of communities of small flowers working together.  I’ve written before about my sentimental appreciation of lilacs.  They carry me back to childhood and my grandparents’ beloved old Kentucky home.  They remind me of living outside Princeton when my husband and I were newly married.  They’re a token of a dear friend, long gone from this world.  To me, they evoke home, happiness, and the warmth of belonging.   When I realized that lilac leaves were sprouting from the long gray stems of a previously unidentified shrub in the front yard of our house twenty years ago, it was another sign that we had moved to the right place.  That old lilac bush has had its ups and downs, and this is a down year.  With luck and a substantial pruning, it may be revitalized, as has happened before.  Two years ago, we planted another lilac in the back yard, and it has flowered beautifully.  A third near our porch is a later blooming variety.  A house surrounded by lilacs is truly home sweet home.

Spring’s final act will soon begin.  All around, the roses are budding, preparing  for their big scenes.  The peonies will follow shortly.  And this year, a special insect guest readies itself for an historic entrance.  For the past seventeen years, Brood X cicadas have been waiting underground in the wings (and for their wings), rehearsing for the literal role of a lifetime.  With each warm day, their emergence draws closer.  The season’s dependable cast of unique characters will take it all in stride.  The show must go on. 

 

For an earlier post on a favorite flower, see Lilacs, Lyric Hall, and June Bliss, May 1, 2012. 

Out with Kiko, as Morning Breaks

My dog Kiko turns fourteen this summer.  His face is now mostly white, but otherwise his appearance has barely changed since he reached adulthood.  He’s as lean and trim as always, and because of his small size relative to the Labs and Doodles prevalent in our neighborhood, he’s still occasionally mistaken for a puppy.  But recently he’s begun to show his age.  When descending the stairs, his back legs move stiffly, as though tied together with an invisible cord.  On walks, he’s considerably slower, especially on the way home.  Walking with our usual pack means little these days, because we’re quickly out of step and far behind.  Kiko has always set his own pace, paying scant attention to the fellow canines he sees regularly.  He’s a very social animal in that he wants to greet every new dog he meets (or even glimpses at a far distance) but after that initial encounter, he’s off on his own.  For many years he typically led our pack, despite frequent stops for extensive sniffing, but now, more frequently than not, he dawdles and dithers.  He rambles, he meanders, he doubles back, then stops absolutely, as though gripped by indecision. And once home, he spends the greater part of the day in a sound sleep. 

Kiko, sampling the copious smells of a vinca patch..

Kiko’s hearing seems to be less keen.  Has his sense of smell become more acute, to make up for the other loss?  Sometimes he appears overcome by the sheer volume and variety of aromas he’s attempting to untangle.  He has always preferred smells to the actual dogs or humans associated with them, but now the preference is more pronounced.  I’ve heard that as long as a dog can smell, a dog enjoys life.  According to this measure, Kiko is enjoying life immensely.  I find this thought comforting. 

Usually now, Kiko and I head out alone.  We’re a pack of two, just as we were during his puppyhood, before I had a number of friends with dogs.  We tend to walk early, soon after sun up.  We go then because the day is at its loveliest, and because it leaves me the option of joining my friends later.  If it’s socializing or exercise I want, it’s best to leave Kiko behind.  Of course, he doesn’t like this.  If he’s home, he wants me there, particularly after all the togetherness we’ve shared during the last pandemic year.  After we return from a walk, he eyes me suspiciously, like a jealous boyfriend.  I pretend to settle in at the computer, and soon he hops up into his bed.  I sneak out quietly if I go.  

I’ve come to appreciate walking alone with Kiko in the early mornings, though.  There is little to divert my attention from the pervasive beauty around us.  I’m attuned to the springtime world, which often glows in a rosy, golden light, especially when filtered through deep pink cherry blossoms and tangerine-hued maple buds.  The birds are at their most active and celebratory.  Kiko lingers, his nose at the base of a clump of daffodil foliage, takes a few hesitant steps, then pauses again, and again.  There is no point in rushing him.  I summon patience, and breathe in the sights and sounds of the sparkling new April day.   If I surrender to the moment, and release the urge to speed things up, I can sense the natural world regenerating and rejoicing.  I can be part of all this daily morning glory, because my odd, old dog brought me to it.  Together, we’re fellow creatures basking in “God’s recreation of the new day.”  The words and melody of Morning Has Broken* seem to float in the sweet-smelling air:

Morning has broken like the first morning;

Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.

Praise for the singing, praise for the morning!

Praise for them springing fresh from the Word!
 

Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from Heaven,
Like the first dewfall on the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden,
Sprung in completeness where His feet pass.

Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning;
Born of the one light Eden saw play!
Praise with elation, praise every morning,
God’s recreation of the new day!

Kiko, sniffing, and sniffing, and sniffing some more.

*While Cat Stevens made this song famous, the words were written by Eleanor Farjeon in 1931, inspired by this verse of scripture from Lamentations 3:22-23: “The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies begin afresh each morning.”  The tune is a traditional Scottish Gaelic one called “Bunessan.” 

Spring Beauty & Easter Cheer

This year, Easter in Northern Virginia coincided with perfect spring weather. That’s a rare gift, one that was even more appreciated after a year of covid anxiety, sadness and death. Easter’s hope of the resurrection was made palpable in the beauty of new life in nature that surrounds us.

Bradford pear and cherry trees were in peak bloom, fluffy with clouds of white and pale pink.

The bright red camellia at my mother’s was bursting into flower. 

The weekend’s festive, sunny warmth prompted me to bring our collection of big bunnies out for a top-down ride with Kiko.  Our skeleton friend Slim, currently slumbering in the basement, would approve.  Such a lovely day, he would say, needs to be seized and enjoyed.   

Kiko could hardly contain his happiness.  He did what he typically does when overcome with joy.  He fell asleep. 

Last Easter is a blur.  I remember little more than a bare-bones version of online church and an unseasonable meal.  We were avoiding the grocery, and we hadn’t yet got the knack of online food shopping.  Easter dinner consisted of what we had on hand, which happened to be pot roast, instant mashed potatoes and canned vegetables.  Deep in the freezer section of the fridge, under some forgotten Popsicles that had melted and refrozen a couple of times, I’d discovered a cylinder of frozen crescent roll dough.   It was a relic from the Witch’s Finger pigs-in-a-blanket my daughter made for a Halloween party during her first year in high school.  The use-by date was 2015.  Why not bake up this five-year old dough?  Let’s give it a try, I thought.  Evidently, it wasn’t a health hazard.  And while the rolls were rather flat, they were not actively bad.  Still,  I do not recommend them.

I don’t think I bothered with Easter decorations to accompany last year’s lack-luster meal.  But cheered by this spring’s lovely weather and the hope that an end to our covid odyssey may be in sight, I dove into our Easter-themed goodies and colored eggs from years past.  We have boxes and boxes of eggs, decorated in various ways. (I wrote about these in several posts from 2012. See here and here.) Unless they’re cracked, eggs boiled for a long time over low heat can last for ages.

For example, some of these reddish brown eggs, dyed by boiling with onion skins, are approaching the twenty-year mark.    

Our daughter, finishing up her final semester at the University of Virginia, couldn’t join us.  She would have appreciated my decorating efforts, and she’d have been happy that we had Easter dinner in the dining room rather than the kitchen.  In her honor, I set the table for four, using my grandmother’s old Noritake china, painted in delicate Easter egg colors.  Our daughter would also have found the meal, which included our typical Easter favorites, baked ham, scalloped potatoes, fresh asparagus and deviled eggs, far more satisfying than last year.  When we spoke with her that evening, she was finishing a tricky engineering problem set and running low on food choices.  But at least she wasn’t reduced to baking crescent rolls from 2015.  And we should be able to see her before long at an actual in-person graduation ceremony in Charlottesville.  2020 has made us grateful for pleasures we once took for granted. 

May spring’s annual renewal of life bring you hope and joy!

A blog about motherhood, marriage and life: the joys and frustrations, beauty and absurdity, blessings and pain. It's about looking back, looking ahead, and walking the dog.