Categories
Nature ruminations

Welcome, Brood X Cicadas

Next month, if all goes well, Ann Arbor will be overrun by millions of Magicicada septendecim, the seventeen-year cicada. I am giddy with anticipation.

Why am I so excited? I think the cicadas are arriving at just the right moment in my life, in terms of both time and biophilia.

The timing is fortunate. At 3, 6, and 10 years old, my kids will be old enough to appreciate the insects and still young enough to feel wonder. My oldest is already on board: she amassed a collection of cicada shells from more regular “annual” cicadas that emerged in recent years. The next time these cicadas emerge, my kids will be grown, and I may be an empty nester. My oldest will be the age I was when she was born.

I’ve experienced periodical cicadas twice so far, in both cases Brood XIII in Chicago. I was 6 in 1990 and vaguely remember the insects’ ubiquitous noise and bodies. When that brood resurfaced in 2007, I was 23, and have no memories of cicadas from that year. I lived in a 24th-floor apartment in downtown Chicago – maybe there was too much concrete to support any cicadas. I remember my friend Boyu, who was working in the western Chicago suburbs over the summer, telling stories of brushing his car off before getting in and still ending up with cicadas inside. But for the timing to work, I think that would have been stragglers emerging off-year in 2003, which I would have missed in the city.

Now the reverse is true: I’m in the right part of the state for this year’s Brood X emergence. Much of Michigan will miss the cicadas, but Ann Arbor should be as reliable a place as any to experience them.

This will be my third visit with periodical cicadas. Brood X will next emerge in 2038 (I’ll be 54), 2055 (71), and 2072 (88, if I last that long). After this summer, half of my cicada seasons will be behind me.

The cicadas are also coming at the right time for me to appreciate them. In the last year or two I’ve become more appreciative of, knowledgeable of, in love with the natural world. I’m learning about animals, trees, and as much of life on this wondrous planet as I can, cultivating my biophilia. It blew my mind to learn about oak trees evolving to have mast years, where in some years they sync up and together produce an unusually-large crop of acorns to overwhelm predators. Periodical cicadas have evolved a similar mechanism of using staggered timing to their advantage: when they emerge in such great numbers, predators can’t eat them all.

What an incredible feat of evolution, to lie in wait for seventeen years and emerge in concert! I find that outcome especially neat given that at this point, they only reproduce as often as humans do. When the parents of this year’s Brood X cicadas walked the earth, George W. Bush was still president. They wait so long for just a short couple of months above ground. It reminds me of tree time or rock time, timescales slower than our human experience. This strategy has been slowly optimized over millions of years. What to me is a rare, long-awaited, blog-worthy event is just the next repetition of their experiment.

I feel lucky to be living in the right place and right moment for this event. It’s a six-in-a-lifetime occurrence and I don’t even have to leave my neighborhood to enjoy it. This weekend, I’ll pick up a book on cicadas from the library to prepare myself, and look forward to May and June. May this brood be as thick and deafening as ever.

Categories
DIY How-to Making

Building a compost bin out of pallets

The project: My mother-in-law had long expressed interest in composting her food scraps, but didn’t care for the plastic bins available for purchase. I’d been interested in building such a bin by reusing salvaged lumber, mostly discarded wood pallets. This presented a fun challenge: construct a compost bin that satisfied her aesthetic requirements and followed my principles of reuse.

It turned out well: it’s attractive (in a rustic way) and functional, though took longer to build than I expected. Breaking down pallets was a big chunk of that time overage: they were free in monetary cost but not in the time they took to process.

After weathering its first winter

Design: I built it probably a little too big, 32″ L x 30″ W x 29″ H. Compost bins have to solve for the problem of emptying the finished compost (after a year or so) while leaving in place any recently-discarded food. In bins like this, which will be emptied via a not-yet-installed door in the bottom of the side (see below), that separation is achieved by the depth of the pile. The bottom of the pile, with older finished compost, is no longer turned, while the fresher, unfinished material rests on top. In a narrower bin, the walls support layers of material such that the top layers can be left in place while the bottom is scraped out. This bin may be too big to neatly do that. Perhaps the over-sizing just means it can go a few years between emptying.