THE BLOG
04/22/2013 06:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2013

How to Survive a Plague: Insect Edition!

TOM JUDSON

Mother Nature can be terrifying: take the year so far. For many of us in the northeast this past winter was like some Samuel Z. Arkoff schlock horror movie: The Winter That Wouldn't Die! Spring chores needed to be gotten underway and woolen sweaters were pining for mothballed hibernation but in contemptuous dismissal of the vernal equinox, snow and subfreezing temperatures, like unseen terrors in a thriller, were always lurking, ready to attack.

In times past nature has been even scarier, though. I'm thinking specifically of 1996, 17 years ago. I remember it vividly because my partner, Bruce, died that year. Then, as now, the cold refused to break. On April 20, two days after his death, I was walking through Central Park to the East Side for a sad rendezvous with Frank E. Campbell and noticed that, at last, the sun was out. However, by that point an eternal winter had descended over the landscape of my soul and the delicate buds emerging in Poets Alley served not as hopeful glimmers of rebirth, but merely as agents of mocking derision.

Bruce's death and a spring held hostage were only two of the cataclysms of 1996, for 17 years ago something diabolical transpired. Something, in its own way, even more gruesome.

Bruce and I had been sharing a weekend place with some friends (all of us in our mid-30s) two hours north of Manhattan and just a few miles from where I live now. Since I had very little gumption to do anything that summer, I was spending as much time as I could at the house. One seemingly innocent day in June I was staggering zombie-like around the property. We had a very steep lawn that sloped down towards the Hudson River. Spectacular, really. In one corner of the yard a huge, looming shade tree stood silent sentinel. I sat down against its base, hugged my knees to my chest and looked blankly out towards the water when I happened to notice a grasshopper climbing up the trunk. Wow, you're a big fella, I mused. And so is your brother over there. And over there, and there... and there.

I leaned in for a closer examination and discovered that these critters were coming out of the ground. Allow me to reiterate: tens of thousands of huge, scary grasshoppers were coming out of the ground. Hadn't I seen this movie? I think it starred Rod Taylor.

Turns out they were cicadas, not grasshoppers, and they were everywhere. On houses, on cars, trees, bushes. On lawn chairs, in birdbaths, in flower beds. Even on scarlet-colored hummingbird feeders that matched the cicadas' demonic ruby-red eyes. And they were loud. So loud that one day I was cutting the grass and the hum of their mephistophelean gnashing overpowered the roar of the mower. I accidentally bumped the machine into a shrub and a seething, hissing cloud of cicadas alighted from their perch and flew at me. I turned and fled, screaming in terror.

A few weeks later I was talking to someone who offered sympathy on Bruce's death. I thanked my friend but assured her that losing my husband was a walk in the park compared to these hideous, evil bugs. It was like that nightmarish locust sequence in the movie Days of Heaven but minus the young Richard Gere.

Why, you may be asking yourself, is he bringing this up now? Well, dear reader, I'll tell you: those cicadas that ruined our summer 17 years ago? They were... 17-Year Cicadas! Which means that the horror show is about to begin again.

This time around though, as I brace for the onslaught, I tell myself that perhaps in the interim the cicadas will have found the rocky ground and thick, cool forestation of my property incommodious and that I'll be spared. After all, the place we were renting 17 years ago had an open, sunny lawn. So, maybe I'm safe. Maybe those demonic brooders aren't even now lurking just below the surface of the Earth, stretching their hexad limbs and blinking awake their millions of smoldering atomic eyes after their 17-year nap, waiting for some necromantic directive from Lucifer himself to start burrowing up, up, up, their jaws snapping blithely through soil and vegetation as they advance in endless, orderly, droning ranks from their subterranean sepulchers after being interred for nearly two decades to emerge among the unsuspecting populace, terror-bent on destroying the world, hungry, angry, determined and... alive!

Even more horrifying is the realization that the third time they come around, I'll be 70.

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