I cannot explain the insects in the south to my northern friends. I can’t. I can’t! I try, and words fail me. Feelings, somehow, fail me. I search desperately for a turn of phrase that will convey the size, the multitude, the tenacity, the sheer prevalence of insects here, as well as spiders, and I come up short, every time. I thought I might be close, recently, to giving an idea of it; the biggest grasshopper I’ve ever seen – the length of the palm of my hand plus some – was riding the sliding glass door at the grocery. It was perched on the outside, comfortable and settled, going back and forth like it didn’t have a care in the world or a fear of getting squashed or of human beings and the consequences of their presence, and indeed, it was doing just fine. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I must have stood there for ten minutes. And when I collected myself, I took a picture, thinking, okay, maybe this will at least begin to explain it. Perched just above the long red sticker on the door that says “Push in case of emergency,” the thing had even given itself a scale; it was as long as a four-letter word (“push,” now. “push.”). A few of my northern friends were duly impressed, but one of my coworkers made fun of me. “It’s just a grasshopper!” she said. “What’s the big deal?”
The big deal is a thing I’m genuinely afraid to show anyone, honestly; I’m afraid if I tell anyone the stone cold truth, they won’t come visit. A grasshopper that looks like it was exposed to radiation is weird and a little funny; the much more commonly gigantic things I come across around here really aren’t. Cicadas, for example. Have you ever seen a cicada? They are, with all due respect, the most profoundly ugly creatures. At first it was just one, hanging on the low cement wall that fences in our steep front yard. It was as long as my index finger and utterly grotesque, like something out of a horror movie. It left me uneasy for days, but I said nothing. When three more appeared on the steps, I took it as a sign of the end times and wrote a living will. Ben told me what they were and not to worry, but I worried. I checked the neighbors’ steps; no one else had them. I concluded they were a plague and a sign of some impending personal misfortune and did some research.
Cicadas, it turns out, are, in addition to being unspeakably hideous, also wholly remarkable. Cicadas are, essentially, cool AF. I commonly think of cicadas as on some kind of cycle – seventeen years and the like – but around here, most are not. Around here, most cicadas choose when they will be born. They sense predator levels and choose the most opportune time to emerge. They can rest beneath the ground for years and years, for more than a decade even, waiting until some sense within them says, “Now, it’s safe now,” and then they emerge.
Oh, and predators. Predators. Nothing in this world is so preyed upon as the damn cicada. There is a wasp dedicated solely to their destruction, did you know that? (You did, if you are from the south; you likely did not, if you are reading this from the safety of your home comfortably north of the Mason-Dixon line.) They are called cicada killers and they are larger even than those giant beasts, thin and mean beyond the telling of it, and they hunt the cicadas toward extinction with a terrifying and dedicated zeal. They are horrible.
So, rather than endtimes – or so the internet tells me – cicadas are actually a phenomenally cool sign, symbolic of things including, but not at all limited to: change, metamorphosis, renewal, rebirth, patience, timing, and illumination. Which is to say, of course, that even if I could have before, I can’t bring myself to kill or even relocate the hideous things now. And here’s another fun fact about cicadas: once above ground, they simply drop dead, and quite quickly. Seventeen or some-odd years of stasis and they emerge above ground and kick it in four weeks, sometimes less. And when they die, they leave a perfect, empty shells just lying around, mostly on my front steps. They also shed! It’s a process beloved by science and, I feel comfortable saying, far less by homeowners. They shed their entire selves and just leave it there and walk away – hence the “rebirth.”
The result of this is I can’t kill them, I can’t move them, and I’m trying to figure out how to dispose of their remnants in a way respectful enough not to anger the many gods who so obviously exalt them.
Visit the south. Come up to the porch for some sweet tea. Mind the cicada graveyard on the steps now, darlin’. Stay awhile.