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Lessons From Cicadas: A New Jersey Community's Experience

A member of Brood II alights on a New Jersey shrub. (NPR)

Ten-year-old Markus Gokan has mixed feelings about the cicadas scattered around the yards and sidewalks of Summit, N.J.

"There's tons of them just squashed, just these flat, pancake cicadas that don't look very appetizing," Gokan says.

Yet he's not afraid to touch and handle un-squashed cicadas — to serve a higher purpose.

"I did pick up a few, and I threw them at some people I don't like," he explains.

They screamed, he says, so for him his mission was successful.

A symphony of cicadas has moved up the East Coast, with the constant hum in the treetops above and the crackling of carcasses underfoot.

Calla Duffield, a friend of Markus, isn't one of his victims, but she is more in the screaming camp when it comes to cicadas. The other day, she started to take her dog Rufus out into the yard — and then thought better of it.

"I was out barefoot," Calla says, "and I almost stepped on one, so I ran inside, and I made my brother take the dog out."

Calla, Markus and probably most kids from Georgia to Connecticut have been studying periodical cicadas in school. They can tell you all about Brood II, as this group is classified. Calla's mom, Hannele Rubin, shares the kids' enthusiasm.

"What other creature do you know of that goes into hibernation for 17 years and then comes out of the ground just to mate and die?" Rubin says.

Down the street, Allison Leba fires up the leaf blower a couple times a day to blow the carcasses off the patio. The emergence of the cicadas came as a bit of a relief. Before they arrived, her dog Bailey was shaking for days. Leba thought the 12-year-old terrier might be nearing his end, but on the morning they went to the vet, Bailey mysteriously calmed down.

"What it really was, we decided — the vet and I — was that it was the sound of the cicadas," she says. "She heard it before anyone else could hear it. She's fine now. She's adjusted to it, and she's happy."

Leba and others say the crimson-eyed critters and their otherworldly din are making them look at time differently.

"The cicada routine of every 17 years makes me think of my own mortality," Leba says. "So, as much as they're annoying, I think ... I'm grateful to see them, because God knows if I'll see them again in 17 years."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A symphony of cicadas has been moving up the east coast, leaving a constant hum in the treetops above and the crackling of carcasses underfoot. Fred Mogul from member station WNYC recently visited the city of Summit, New Jersey. His mission: to check on how the humans there are faring among the insects.

(SOUNDBITE OF CICADAS)

FRED MOGUL, BYLINE: Ten-year-old Markus Gokan has mixed feelings about the cicadas scattered around the yards and sidewalks of Summit.

MARKUS GOKAN: There's just tons of them just squashed, just these flat-pancake cicadas that don't look very appetizing.

MOGUL: And yet, he's not afraid to touch and handle unsquashed cicadas - to serve a higher purpose.

GOKAN: I did pick up a few and I threw them at some people that I don't like.

MOGUL: What was their reaction?

GOKAN: They screamed - a lot.

MOGUL: So, success. Mission achieved?

GOKAN: Mission achieved.

MOGUL: Markus's friend Calla Duffield wasn't a victim but she is more in the screaming camp when it comes to cicadas. The other day, she started to take her dog Rufus out into the yard - and then thought better of it.

CALLA DUFFIELD: I was out barefoot and I almost stepped on one so I ran inside. And I made my brother take the dog out.

MOGUL: Calla and Markus and probably most kids from Georgia to Connecticut have been studying periodic cicadas in school. They can tell you all about Brood II, as this group is classified. Calla's mom, Hannele Rubin, shares the kids' enthusiasm.

HANNELE RUBIN: What other creature do you know of that goes into hibernation for 17 years and then comes out of the ground just to mate and die?

(SOUNDBITE OF CICADAS)

MOGUL: Down the street, Allison Leba fires up the leaf blower a couple times a day to blow the carcasses off the patio.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEAF BLOWER)

MOGUL: The cicadas' emergence came as a bit of a relief. Before they arrived, her dog Bailey was shaking for days. Leba thought the 12-year-old terrier might be nearing his end. But on the morning they went into the vet, Bailey mysteriously calmed down.

ALLISON LEBA: And what it really was, we decided - the vet and I - was that it was the sound of the cicadas. She heard it before anyone else could hear it. So, she's fine now. She's adjusted to it, and she's happy.

MOGUL: Leba and several other people I talked to said the crimson-eyed critters and their otherworldly din are making them look at time differently.

LEBA: The cicada routine of every 17 years makes me think of my own mortality. So, as much as they're annoying, I think, well, I'm grateful to see them, 'cause God knows if I'll see them again in 17 years.

MOGUL: Certainly, it's pretty unlikely that cicadas will trouble Bailey, the 12-year-old dog, in the year 2030. I just set an electronic reminder to follow up with the Leba family and their friendly, well-tended block of Summit, New Jersey in 17 years. For NPR News in New York, I'm Fred Mogul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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