The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Snapshots of our lives, captured by the cycles of cicadas

Brood X cicadas are scheduled to emerge next month, after living underground for the past 17 years. (Kevin Ambrose)

When the cicadas emerged in 1970, I plucked them off trees and chased my sister and her friends around the yard, waving the giant, red-eyed bugs. Then, I let them go and watched them fly away.

Later, my mom made us pick up empty cicada nymph skins all over our backyard. There were so many we filled a large plant pot.

I was in kindergarten and lived with my family in Franconia, Va. My interests were tee ball, Hot Wheels, and collecting rocks from the creek behind our house. But the cicadas made such an impression on me, even at 6 years old.

For whatever the reason, these periodic insects have left behind vivid, indelible memories. Each 17-year emergence has become its own time capsule and an opportunity to reflect on the past and future.

What is Brood X? When do cicadas come out in 2021? Answering your buggiest questions.

The second time the cicadas emerged, the year was 1987, and I lived near Fairfax, Va., with roommates. I was single and worked my first full-time job at a defense contractor named TRW, having graduated from the University of Virginia the previous year. I was part of a small group of college new-hires tasked to develop software.

During our lunch breaks, the guys escorted the young ladies to their cars to protect them from kamikaze cicadas that seemed to dive-bomb from all angles. One day, however, we let our guard down, and a young lady with us began screaming as she shook her head violently. A cicada had flown into her hair and was hopelessly entangled, buzzing and fluttering against the back of her neck.

I pulled the cicada out of her hair and instantly became the hero of the day. We joked for weeks about my daring rescue effort.

At that time, I was primarily focused on competitive running and finding a girlfriend. I ran for TRW’s corporate track team and raced in D.C. area road races. I did well with running that year but not so much with finding a girlfriend.

The third time the cicadas emerged, the year was 2004. I had a wife, two sons, and a mortgage. I was living in a house in Oakton, Va., with a wooded backyard. A year earlier, my father suffered a major heart attack and survived, and it was then I realized my parents wouldn’t be around forever.

For my two sons, ages 7 and 9, I developed a simple cicada game to give them exercise. I’d shake a tree in the yard, flushing out a cloud of cicadas, and the boys would chase them and try to catch as many as possible. They did more running than catching, which was the goal.

Of course this is the year of the cicadas, because nothing comes easy in D.C.

The fourth time the Brood X cicadas will emerge during my lifetime is next month, May 2021. I’m in the same house as 2004, but my sons have grown up, graduated from college, and moved away. I live with my wife and three dogs, and my parents passed away during the past decade.

Since 2004, I have developed an interest in photography and storm chasing, and I started to freelance for The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang. I have even covered cicadas from other broods. Seventeen years ago, I would have never dreamed I’d photograph insects and weather for The Post.

Many people measure life by birthdays and anniversaries. But a single year is a relatively short period, and often small changes occur from one year to the next. But over 17 years, the annual changes add up to a significant life change.

Seventeen years is also a short enough period that it occurs multiple times in many people’s lives. And when millions of large, noisy bugs emerge to mark that time, it’s suddenly a memorable, crazy, and bizarre milestone in one’s life.

Brood X cicadas are about to put on one of the wildest shows in nature. And D.C. is the main stage.

For the 2021 cicada emergence, I have two simple goals: To shoot photos and videos of the bugs, perhaps for another article, and to keep my dogs from feasting on cicadas to the point of getting sick. One or two cicadas should be fine for them, but my dogs are like little pigs and would be happy to chow down on hordes of these juicy insects.

After 17 years underground, three species of the Brood X cicadas will emerge this spring on the East Coast. Here's everything you need to know. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

After this year, the next time Brood X cicadas will emerge is 2038. I’ll be 74 years old. It’s hard to imagine myself at 74, but in 2004, it was hard to imagine being 57 years old with grown kids. By the way, I have noticed that each 17-year period seems to pass by more quickly than the previous one. I fear 2038 will be here sooner than we expect.

This article is inspired by The Rhythms of the Cicadas by Jeanne McManus, which appeared in The Washington Post 17 years ago, on April 4, 2004.