Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Good-bye Little Buddies: See you in Seventeen!

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Will in 2004 (left) and in 2021, contemplating a cicada at close range.

Seventeen years; a lifetime for cicadas and time enough in my life for major changes. Back in 2004 when Brood X last emerged, my children were entering the infamous teenage years. I took silly photos of my son with a cicada perched on his nose. He and his middle-school friends made a mock horror film about the invasion, called “Day of the Cicada,” casting the little creatures as ravenous flesh eaters leaving behind only their victims clothing. It’s still fun to watch.

During the 2004 emergence thousands of cicada exoskeletons lay clustered around a tree trunk.

That previous plague of cicadas was a diversion from the devastating events then unfolding around me. I was reeling from the death of my brother, claimed by a drug overdose—an early victim of the opioid crisis. And my long career at National Geographic, which had accelerated as the cicadas emerged in 1987, was now unraveling. I spent 1987 on the west coast photographing a story about San Diego while the bugs were emerging in the east. The 17 years that followed, up to 2004, were the most secure of my time at National Geographic. I had a contract with the Magazine. I proposed and photographed stories about the environment, women’s issues, and global health, traveling all over the planet. But in 2004 all that changed. Changes in Geographic’s management and political maneuvering forced me to balance my family’s security with my suddenly imploding career.

Cicada emerging from its exoskeleton. Once the wings unfold and harden it’ll fly off in search of a mate.

Amid my personal crisis’s, the cicada arrival was oddly comforting. They didn’t bite. Other than their annoying numbers there nothing to fear from them. And unlike the political intrigue I was witnessing, the cicadas had productive effects. After 17 years of underground growth, drinking juices from tree and plant roots, the inch-long nymphs excavated tunnels to the surface. Their amazing internal regulators marked time, letting them know when 17 years had passed.  As the soil warmed to an acceptable 64 degrees, cicadas emerged by the billions. In the process they aerated soil, the first of many gifts these little creatures give our planet.

Adult cicadas massed together, waiting until the day warms enough for flight.

On emerging, they climbed straight up trees, fences, anything vertical and then molts one last time. Leaving its brown shell behind a small white creature with bright red eyes appeared. Soft and tasty, many made feasts for birds and other animals—their second gift.  But within hours, the surviving cicadas turned bluish-black, ready for flight and mating.

Cicadas mating on a leaf. The female will then deposit eggs inside a tree branch. Once hatched the nymphs will drop to the ground and burrow beneath the soil.

The males called out to the females creating a cacophony of sound that I enjoyed as if hearing nature in progress. After mating tail to tail, the female laid up to 30 eggs at a time on a soft tree branch, depositing as many as 600 on a single tree. Soon after, the cicadas died. Their bodies fertilized the soil, providing a third gift. Almost two months later, eggs hatched into tiny nymphs which dropped to the ground where they burrowed below to feed, molt, and start the cycle all over again, emerging in another 17 years.

This harmless life cycle miraculously gives back to the earth, hopefully making us realize that all things in nature have a purpose. Yet we humans so often seem intent on disrupting such cycles, and then wonder at the negative consequences.

In 2038 Brood X will re-emerge, and a new generation will continue the cycle.

As the 2004 cicada cycle ended, I realized that my National Geographic career cycle, also ending, didn’t matter. Our family needed to survive, and our children needed to feel secure. I decided to reinvent myself and go in new directions. I found work with other publications and non-profits. I produced two books, got grants and earned my master’s degree on a Knight Fellowship. Our children graduated high school and then college. Seventeen years later our family thrives. My beautiful daughter works in an interesting design field, is getting her master’s degree and gave us an adorable grandbaby. My preteen son with the cicada on his nose is now a Navy doctor and recently married. My husband and I continue working. The cycle of life goes on. We just needed to figure out how we fit into it. I hope and pray that we as a family will be alive and healthy to meet Brood X in another 17 years.  And when they re-emerge, maybe a few of us will have again reinvented ourselves.



Written by kasmauski

June 25, 2021 at 6:23 pm

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