By late May, there will be red-eyed love in the air



It was our first summer in Massachusetts after moving to a wooded community from one of the dry, prairie states, and we were completely unprepared for how green the place was and how so much stuff just grew there without human intervention. We didn’t know what any of it was, of course. I couldn’t tell a maple tree from an oak, and we had absolutely no idea what any of the things growing so abundantly in the yard and surrounding woods might be. That’s how we ended up training the poison ivy — which we thought was just a beautiful-looking vine — to grow up the side of our house. One trip to the emergency room set us straight on that particular menace.

We hadn’t expected some of the problems we had with wildlife, either. We were absolutely plagued by raccoons — which we didn’t have where we grew up — and they became so brazen that I actually caught one sitting in the driver’s seat of my Jeep one morning, looking for all the world like he was ready for a road rally. Bats moved into the attic. Squirrels took over the garage. There were big, black snakes as thick as inflated bicycle inner tubes and about 6 feet long that hissed if you approached them. Woodchucks and moles took over our little plot of grass. Skunks started treating the storage shed like a residence motel.

What really got our attention, however, were the bugs. The one pleasant surprise was fireflies, which we’d never seen before and looked like fairies buzzing around after sunset. But they couldn’t make up for the insects intent on doing us harm. Black swarms of mosquitoes in the air, stinging sand fleas in the ground. We figured there were about 6,000 huge and dangerous-looking spiders per 10 feet of available space. There were deer ticks, humongous centipedes, and vicious greenhead flies that would suck a pint of blood while you dashed from the front door to the car. Try having an outdoor barbecue in greenhead season, and you’d be completely exsanguinated before the coals turned gray and ready for cooking.

And then one morning, my wife came in carrying the jar in which she’d trapped the most frightening insect we’d ever seen. It was truly hideous, over an inch long with bulging red eyes, a bulbous armored body, and huge, transparent wings. In addition to the specimen in the jar, she had one in her hair and two clinging to the back of her blouse. “There are about a billion of them outside,” she said. “Whole clouds of the things. They’re covering the sides of the house, the screens. It looks like they’re trying to get inside!”

“Do you think they bite?” I asked.

“I’m not taking any chances,” she said. “I’m staying indoors until they’re gone if it takes all summer.”

And it seemed like it did. It turned out that we were enjoying a hatch of some isolated and relatively small brood of 17-year cicadas, which were harmless but incredibly annoying with the racket they made and their sheer, unimaginable numbers. We swept drifts of them off the deck, and out of our cars. We plucked them from our beds at night. They crunched under our bare feet when we went out to pick up the morning paper. They got in your drinking glass if you left your iced tea sitting around unattended, and once, one of the critters actually flew into my mouth. It did not taste like chicken.

But now, it looks like we’ll be reliving that nightmare, as will nearly everyone else along the Eastern Seaboard, starting around the end of May, when the notorious Brood II cicadas finish spending their 17-year sojourn underground and poke their ugly heads up, looking for love.

According to an article in The New York Times, the billions of cicada nymphs come boiling out of the ground like in a horror movie and soon start to swarm. According to some estimates, there could be 1.5 million cicadas per acre, each and every one of them sex crazed and rubbing their bony wings together to attract a mate. According to some folks who know these things, the din of a big swarm of hormonally addled cicadas can reach 100 decibels, which is louder than a subway train at 200 feet, but not quite as loud as sandblasting or a rock concert. It’s about the same as a snowmobile or chain saw. I just can’t wait, can you?

The good news is that we’ll only have to put up with them for six weeks, when they will die; their babies will burrow back into the ground, and we can shovel up their carcasses and forget about them until 2030, when they’ll be back again.

Even better news? There are no cicadas at the beach.

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From time to time over the last 20 years, I’ve received chatty, handwritten letters (always a pleasure) from an 86- year-old reader named Rosalie Littlefield, a former teacher who, along with her sister, runs the “Grammar Patrol,” which tracks, and points out, the semi-regular grammatical flubs made by me and other regional journalists (run-on sentence?). She’s always gentle in her criticism, and she’s usually right. But last week, her Notice from the Grammar Patrol took issue with my use of the phrase “the value of their home,” when I should have said “the value of his or her home.” Always the teacher, she’d circled my blunder with red pen.

In my own defense, I’ll say that I know she’s technically correct, but I’ve always found that “his or her” phrasing ponderous, so I choose to break the rule because it makes me happy. Hope you’ll forgive me, Rosalie, because I’m pretty sure I’ll do it again. You can reach Gregory Bean at [email protected].