“The cicadas sang louder and yet louder. The sun did not rise, it overflowed.” – Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

Cicadas are found on every continent except Antarctica. These robust insects mature underground before emerging in the late spring/early summer to molt and mate. Most species, known as “annual” cicadas, take around a year to complete their life cycle. However, some species, called “periodical” cicadas, spend 17 stalwart years in the dirt before reaching maturity. These individuals are easily distinguished from their annual counterparts by their bright red eyes. 

“Periodical”, in English, means occurring after a specific amount of time; it is also a synonym for a newspaper or magazine.

In June of 2003, Appalachia’s 17-year periodical cicadas (designated Brood IX) emerged. My hometown, Knoxville, Tennessee, was smack dab in the epicenter.

What I remember most about that summer was the noise. An earsplitting drone permeated the air, day and night, for what seemed like weeks (but was in reality probably only a few days). Far from being irritated by the constant aural onslaught, I was delighted. Even then, I was an animal-obsessed kid, and I ran around our backyard collecting as many discarded cicada exoskeletons as I could find. I loved their eyes the best, the two tiny, shiny, and perfect bubbles.

I remember holding them in my hands, these remnants of a past life, and marveling at the patience of a creature that grows quietly underground for 17 years before it learns to sing. 

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A cicada exoskeleton clinging to a Tennessee tree.

Immature cicadas, or nymphs, go through five developmental stages, called “instars”. While underground, they feed on plant roots, tapping into the starchy reserves and sucking out the juices. Science has suggested that periodical cicadas spend most of their developmental years in the second instar stage, but nobody knows for sure.

In autumn 2003, I turned eleven years old, entered fifth grade, and started running. Naturally, at that age, my legs awkward and gangly as a baby deer, I had no idea how far running would take me. I only knew that it was weirdly fun, and that I loved it. 

Slowly and surely, running moved to fill an increasingly prominent role in my life. I transformed from an enthusiastic middle school runner, to a PDG (pretty damn good) high school athlete, to a collegiate All-American, to a professional road racer. The other interests (nature, writing) in my life didn’t vanish, but they did take somewhat of a back seat to Running, at whose altar I sacrificed daily. 

I have been at ZAP for four years now, a full Olympic cycle. That time has been utterly transformative. I’ve run hundreds (perhaps thousands) of miles tucked into this strange little corner of the Blue Ridge mountains. I’ve hiked here, pulled live crayfish from the cold creek here, lost a cell phone to salamander hunting here. I’ve laughed and wept and forged lifelong friendships here. I’ve fallen in love here.

But a place like ZAP is transitory by necessity; none of us is meant to nest in this holler forever. 

When soil temperatures consistently reach 64 degrees F to a depth of 8 inches, cicadas begin to emerge from their subterranean lairs. Still ambulatory, the late-stage nymphs climb the nearest tree trunk and shed their skin a final time, splitting open to reveal a pair of sturdy, flexible wings. The adult insect is called an imago. 

In Latin, “imago” refers to the idealized mental image of a person or thing.

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Shiny new journalist photo.

It has been 17 years since I started running. Right now, across North Carolina and Tennessee, the periodical cicadas of Brood IX are appearing once again. 

At the end of August, I will move away from the southeast for the first time in my life to the beating heart of New York City. If a habitat more different from ZAP exists, I can’t imagine what it would be.

In principal, this move is a return to my first loves in life: biology and storytelling. I’ve been accepted into NYU’s graduate program for science journalism, an environment where my zoology and creative writing undergraduate degrees finally make perfect sense. Even in these quaren-times, with proper safety procedures (social distancing, mandatory face masks, small classes, online correspondence when necessary) in-person classes are slated to start this fall. 

It’s hard to describe how excited I am about the prospect of a future in science writing: my inner child is doing her best Steve Irwin impression, hopping up and down with glee.

Of course, there is adult reality to contend with. Moving to New York means leaving ZAP. So far I’ve managed to separate these two events in my mind, but I know there is a deep reserve of sadness laying in wait for my brain to catch up. For the time being, though, I’m just trying to make the most of my last few weeks in Blackberry Valley.

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I mean, just look at this place.

And since this is my blog, I’ll take my Oscars moment here and thank some of the incredible humans who have made my time at ZAP so meaningful: 

Thanks to our sponsors, On, Ucan, and Elliptigo, for all of the support and cool gear. 

Thanks to Amanda LoPiccolo and Jenn Pillow for keeping me in line and on my feet. 

Thanks to Chef Mike for always making sure our hearts and bellies were full (ZAP is going to miss you so much). 

Thanks to our campers for making summers memorable and just generally being awesome. 

Thanks to my teammates – I love you guys. 

Thanks to LoPic and Burg for giving the interns most of the dirty work, coming up with new core routines, and for occasionally bringing your dogs down to the compound. 

And thanks especially to Pete and Zika, for giving me this opportunity in the first place.

I should probably also mention that I have no intention of hanging up my racing flats just yet (I am, after all, a competitor at heart). Pete has generously agreed to continue coaching me into the foreseeable future, and with the Tokyo Olympics now over a year away and the promise of rescheduled marathon majors on the horizon, I find myself running with a reinvigorated sense of purpose. 

Hopefully, I’ll even be able to put in some training blocks at ZAP during academic breaks.

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🎶Start spreadin’ the news/ I’m leavin’ today…🎶

So, to wit: I am a bundle of emotions. Am I ecstatic about this opportunity? Yes, I am. Will leaving ZAP crack my heart open like a pistachio? Undoubtedly. Is the prospect of moving to a gigantic city in the middle of a pandemic terrifying? Abso-freakin-lutely. 

But it also feels freeing, like emerging from the cool, protective earth into blinding daylight. It feels like shedding skin. 

All things are periodical, cyclical, written. The cicadas are singing; time to fly.

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One thought on “Cicada Song

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