It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s … a cicada?

When Anna Wei walked outside the door of her townhouse in Cockeysville, Maryland, all she could see, coating every inch of the sidewalk, were bodies.

Bodies of cicadas, that is.

Anna was four years old, living just outside of Baltimore with her parents, sister Cindy and brother Daniel. They moved a year later, to Charlotte, North Carolina.

But when she looks back on her childhood in Maryland, her main memories center on the summer of 2004; and the dead bugs that covered the concrete until she couldn’t even see the pavement. She remembers being petrified.

She convinced herself it couldn’t have been real— a fever dream, or some nightmare her child self had concocted and planted in her subconscious — that is, until 2021, when she saw a tweet about the return of the Brood X of cicadas set for this summer.

The return of Brood X happens every 17 years. The life expectancy of someone living in the United States is 78, meaning one might live through four or five Brood X events.

The low hum or shrill shriek of a cicada may seem to be just another sound of summer, like waves crashing against the shore or the opening chords to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” But among all the generations of cicadas, Brood X is the biggest — and the loudest.

The life of a cicada is short, but fruitful. The brood first emerges between April and May. Then, they sing. The shrieks, the hums and buzzes are all variations of the cicada’s mating call. Then, with the eggs safely buried in the branches of trees, about three weeks after they first emerge, they die.

The total number of cicadas that will awaken in one cycle is in the trillions. In a hotspot like Maryland, cicadas gather in hordes of 1.5 million per acre on average. Ground zero for Brood X is officially Washington, D.C., but the bugs blanket far into the South and Midwest. Most are found in wooded areas and older homes.

Woods were all Bridget Sheehey knew growing up in Green Hills, Ohio.

“There couldn’t be a place on Earth with more cicadas than we had growing up,” she said.

Bridget was 7 in 1970, the first summer she encountered cicadas en masse. On one large tree in her front yard, known as the “locust tree” among her and seven siblings, at any given time, there would be as many as 30 golden-brown shells stuck to the branches.

“We were never, ever afraid,” she said. “They could be swarming, but we were more fascinated in trying to catch them without breaking them.”

To catch a cicada, she would stretch her hand into the swarm and brush against a wing until she could close her fingers and hold one.

“They’d make this incredibly loud noise until you finally let them go,” she said.

The next time Bridget witnessed the cicadas, she was married one year, living in an old, rented house in Ohio — it was 1987. When her husband Phil tried to cut the grass that summer, the engine’s noise instantly attracted a swarm, as they mistook its whirr for a mating call. And when the cicadas swarmed, Phil would run.

“He’s a city boy,” Bridget said.

To mow the lawn, Phil would wrap a T-shirt around his head, with eye holes cut out so he could see without risk of being surrounded by the bugs. Bridget just watched the cicadas in fascination, still reaching her hand out, trying to catch one.

When 17 years passed, again, Bridget was living in Baltimore, Maryland, with Phil and their four children. One of the family’s favorite playgrounds was Seminary Park. One day that summer, Bridget brought three of her children, including four-year-old, Maeve, to the park.

A few of the cicadas were scattered on the ground. This was her chance, Bridget though, to impart her childhood love of cicadas onto her kids. She picked up one by its wings to show that they aren’t scary. But of course, it buzzed.

“Maeve freaked out, and from that moment on, I had blown it,” she said.

Maeve remembers things differently.

She said the summer of 2004 was the summer of the bug collector. She would throw the lime-green strap over her shoulder, screw off the top and put the bodies of dead cicadas inside. As she tried to collect them, she remembers her brother Conor picking up their bodies and hitting them with a wiffle ball bat.

But something Bridget and Maeve both remember is the cicada-shell charm that stayed in the family’s red mini-van for months.

The oldest, Riley, was just about to start driver’s education classes. She was practice driving with Bridget when she noticed a dead cicada perched on the corner of the dashboard. Only the driver or passenger could see it if they leaned forward.

Riley was the one who initially insisted on keeping the cicada shell. “It’ll be like our pet,” Riley said.

As the seasons changed, the cicada became one of the last remnants of the summer of 2004. Bridget had no intention of ever moving it. That is, until the day Phil tried to surprise Bridget.

“I cleaned your van today — guess what was stuck in there still?” Phil said.

“You didn’t take it,” Bridget pleaded, “You didn’t take the cicada.”

“Bridge, that is sick.”

The summer of 2004 was eventful for Lee Pedersen, now 83, who knew the cicada’s song from his Catoosa, Oklahoma, childhood.

Lee was a professor in the chemistry department at UNC. Before he started his 8 a.m. class on quantum mechanics, he would always pour himself a cup of hot water and stir in ovaltine. Each day, the same drink.

He would walk the few steps to the classroom, where on this particular day, his class of eight people were already preparing for the discussion. Normally he would sip on the drink as the class continued on — it gave him something to look forward to.

But this day, when he raised the cup to his lips to take his first sip, he wasn’t met with the chocolate milk taste he had been accustomed to. No, he felt something rough.

It was the shell of a dead cicada floating in his coffee cup.

“As I finished the lecture, I didn’t have any more sips,” he said.

The cicada likely came in through the open window of his office. Lee said he thought a fellow professor may have put it there as a prank.

“But nobody ever owned up to it,” Lee said.

In 2004, his office overlooked a swath of trees. They would eventually be torn down for the construction of Caudill Labs, a building now well-established as the cicadas are set to return.

Looking back on her cicada-filled summers, each one stands out for a different reason in Bridget’s mind.

“I swear you just blink,” she said.

Now, just a few weeks before her fourth time witnessing the emergence of Brood X of the cicadas, Bridget is on vacation.

Sitting poolside in Naples, Florida, she recently called some of her siblings as news of the return of Brood X spread. Each shared different memories of their childhood, all centered around the summer of the cicadas.

“How weird is it to think that we were just these little kids running around in the woods, and then the very next time, we were engaged? And then we have these toddlers ourselves, and all the sudden, boom, we’re old, dare I say,” her sister said to Bridget as they reminisced.

Maybe reminiscing over cicadas is making meaning out of cicada-corpse hills. But in 17 years, they’ll be back; meeting a world already so different than before.

“What I don’t want to think about is how old I’ll be the next time around,” Bridget said with a laugh. “That’s really creepy.”

Edited by Suzannah Perry

UNC students make most of remote semester, move to Delaware

By P.J. Morales

Garrett Geidel was fed up.

What started out as a spring break trip back home to Camden, Delaware in March 2020 had become one of the longest years of his life. Not only had the UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore lost the remainder of his first-year college experience to the COVID-19 pandemic, he also hadn’t seen his friends in months. And with the virus still raging in August, the prospect of an in-person second-year experience didn’t seem realistic either.

Still, Garrett tried. He and his friend John Meah, also a sophomore, got a suite in Morrison Residence Hall and moved in before the semester began, determined to squeeze every last drop of fun out of the reduced-capacity, socially distanced campus. But a couple weeks and a couple virus clusters later, even those hopes faded.

But Garrett was determined not to go back home. The thought never even crossed his mind.

What did cross his mind was Sussex County in southern Delaware, where he had lived and worked the previous summer in an ice cream shop. After a conversation with his parents, the dream plan started to come together.

“My parents were like, ‘we would much rather you guys go live there,'”Garrett said. “‘You can still be separate from your families, but we won’t have you pay rent.’”

It would be a hard sell to Garrett’s friends. They could spend the semester in a house with four of their closest friends, rent-free, minutes from the beach and with no parental supervision whatsoever, or they could stay home.

Okay, so maybe there wasn’t much haggling.

“I pretty much right away wanted to do it,” Garrett’s friend, Thomas Harley, said.

From dream to reality

When all was said and done, Garrett, John, Thomas and two more sophomores — Guillermo Molero and RJ Jain — made the trek to the rural mid-Atlantic for the semester. Thomas, Guillermo and RJ, all from South Florida, had stayed home when the semester began, fearful of a campus shutdown. All were desperate to be with their friends, though, so the yeses came quickly.

But Garrett’s parents weren’t without their concerns. When Garrett said it’d probably be five people sleeping in a house that only comfortably fits three, they expressed doubt, but eventually gave in. There were also the normal parent worries: “stay focused on school” and “this isn’t a vacation.” But the hardest one of all? No alcohol — every college student’s worst nightmare.

Once all the doubts were ironed out and a dry household was ensured, everyone booked their flights, and by mid-September, there they were: five kids from across the country, all UNC students, living in a shack in Delaware.

And what a small shack it was, especially for five college guys.

‘Just a matter of living habits’

RJ was the lucky one with his own bedroom, though it was originally designed to be an infant’s nursery. Guillermo and Thomas shared a bedroom, while Garrett and John shared the master bedroom. Garrett pushed his king-sized bed to the side, giving John just enough room to have a small corner setup, which he claimed was fine.

“I don’t take up very much space,” John insisted.

The space John was much more concerned about was not in the bedrooms, but in the kitchen, which was too small. With limited space and differing tastes, the guys quickly learned how to utilize every inch of cupboard and cabinet. Between pizza rolls, frozen meals and pints of ice cream, even the freezer became a warzone.

Thomas, admittedly, was also not as organized in the kitchen as he should’ve been, much to the chagrin of his housemates. After some time, though, he was able to adjust to everyone’s individual ways of living.

“Those are the types of things you work out as you live together for longer and longer,” Thomas said. “Sometimes it’s harder to work through stuff when you’re friends, because you don’t want to make it a personal thing. It’s just a matter of living habits.”

There certainly was a lot of potential for conflict. Each person had different class schedules, eating schedules, daily routines and preferences. But they quickly learned the best way to resolve conflicts was to be upfront and honest about them. Because of that, no friendships were lost.

“We understood that it was going to be different, especially not having lived with these people before,” Guillermo said. “We made an active effort to be understanding and communicate more, which is why I thought there weren’t any major issues.”

A new normal

Instead of a semester filled with debauchery or conflict, things in Sussex County were almost normal. In a way, they had to be.

Each person had a demanding course load, so they couldn’t always spend time together. At the exact same time, they were always around each other, so they had to find ways to let off steam alone.

Thomas found a gym nearby that was offering masked workouts and went there almost every day. Garrett took near-daily walks around the neighborhood. Guillermo became a film junkie, and John began a self-taught crash course in baking.

Of course, the adventures they had together were the truly memorable ones.

“One Friday, I had this exam that I had 24 hours to take, and I kind of waited till the last minute,” Garrett said. “I knocked it out, and it was probably midnight, and the guys had just finished watching a movie. All I said was, ‘I’m going to the beach, anybody coming with me?’ We probably wandered back into the house at 3:30 a.m.”

Going home

Just as the house had come together, it slowly began to empty. RJ went back home in October, Guillermo in early November and John just before finals began. Today, the house in Sussex County, previously filled with the noise and body odor of five college guys, sits vacant once more.

It wasn’t an easy semester. Even from their idyllic cottage, the mental tolls of remote learning and isolation hit the guys hard. Garrett had a “pretty academically rigorous semester.” John, between applying for internships and dealing with classes, “hated every day.”

But being there made it easier. For five stressed, cramped college students attempting to make the most out of a lost semester, being around friends made all the difference.

There’s nowhere else they would have rather been.

“I was definitely happier than I would have been at home,” John said. “It wasn’t the same as a typical college experience, but there was a semblance of one.”

Edited by Addison Skigen

UNC student connects shelter animals with forever homes

By Sterling Sidebottom

Somewhere along U.S. Route 74, between Charlotte and Wilmington, North Carolina, Ali Domrongchai realized she had to pee. As an animal lover and owner of four rescue dogs, she figured an animal shelter would be the perfect place to pull over.

Dashing inside a building resembling an abandoned warehouse, she noticed trash littered across the floor and unwashed dogs of all ages crowded into cages, the rank smell filling her nose. Only one person was working. She had entered the Richmond County Animal Shelter.

A new passion 

Beyond the dirt and grime, however, Ali noticed a brown hound mix. Adopting him was so easy a decision it was as if she had run into a gas station for candy as opposed to a shelter. Ali took the puppy with her, naming him Evie.

That same day, Ali became a volunteer at the shelter and, just like Evie, found herself a forever home.

Ali grew up surrounded by foster animals. Currently, her house is filled with four dogs, three cats, two chickens, one snake and five rats. Three of the dogs wound up there because her family was simply known for taking in animals. The fourth is Evie.

Ali’s big heart and sympathy for those most in need of love is evident even in her favorite animal: not a dog, as one might expect, but a manatee — because a kindergarten classmate once called them ugly.

The first few times Ali went to the shelter, her emotions overwhelmed her.

“I’d cry every time I’d leave,” she said. “But sadness is useless. Now, I’m just angry. And anger is more productive.”

Getting involved

In high school, Ali started a club called Green Team, a gathering for planting flowers and visiting animal shelters, though to Ali, it was really just an excuse to visit her new favorite place and make her friends adopt the animals.

Twice a semester, toting collars, leashes, cleaning supplies and about $2,000 in donations,

Ali would lead 100 students through the front doors of the shelter. Dressed in ratty t-shirts and gym shorts, they would scrub cages, clean the food cupboards and sweep the entire facility.

That’s when Ali would work her magic.

Having gathered a captive audience — ranging from bleeding hearts to kids who just wanted out of school for the afternoon — Ali would show off the animals, bringing her friends around to meet the ones who needed help the most. By the end of the day, there would be 20 kids taking home their own version of Evie.

Ali also began posting pictures of the animals on her Instagram.

“It gave me the biggest adrenaline rush,” she said. “It felt so good. I didn’t realize I could use Instagram to get animals out of the shelter.”

The first dog she helped connect with an owner was a look-alike of Evie when Ali was only 15. Since then, she has helped more than 500 animals find their forever homes, and every animal she’s ever posted has gotten adopted.

Going the extra mile

Now a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, Ali makes sure she never has classes on Fridays so she can drive the hour and a half from Chapel Hill to Rockingham each week. That may seem like a lot of effort, but the drive is only a small fraction of the work Ali puts in. Just as she drives the extra 92 miles for the animals at Richmond County Animal Shelter, Ali also goes out of her way for her classmates.

If a college student wants to adopt one of the animals Ali posts on her Instagram, she offers to cover the adoption fee for them. She’ll also pick the animal up from its foster family and bring it back to Chapel Hill with her.

Each Friday, when Ali walks into the shelter, her first question is, “Who’s been here long?”

Immediately, a picture is taken, the animal’s story and name are added and all three are shared with her more than 2,000 followers on Instagram and Twitter.

That’s how Clara Luisa Matthews, a UNC-CH student, found Poe.

Clara was scrolling through Twitter when she saw Poe for the first time. Originally named Inky, Poe’s bright orange eyes were pleading for a home through the phone screen.

Before that day, Clara had no plans for a pet to become part of the picture. That attitude immediately disappeared as she became convinced this cat needed to be in her life. She sent a text to her roommate, Payton Tysinger.

“I was like, ‘look how cute this cat is,’ completely knowing what I was doing,” Clara said.

It took a few minutes for him to be convinced, but Payton had been pleading for a pet. Who was he to say no to his prayers finally being answered? Unfortunately, it would be two weeks before Ali could go back to Charlotte to pick up the cat from her mom’s house — a wait that was too long for Clara and Payton.

Blaring music from their car speakers and tearing across the highway, the two headed to Indian Trail, North Carolina, the very next day. Now, Clara can’t imagine a day when she didn’t come home to Poe and has since become a big fan of Ali’s, reposting dogs and cats she finds particularly adorable or in dire need of a family.

Deeper purpose

For Cindy Chambers, another volunteer at the shelter, it isn’t unusual for someone to walk in and list Ali as their reason for visiting.

“She’s gotten so many out,” Cindy said. “Even now that she’s in college, I have people come in and tell me they’re friends with Ali.”

Avery Ziegler, a family friend of Ali’s, knew exactly whom to contact when her family considered adopting a second dog. Within a few days, their new addition, Shelby, was snuggled on the couch between Avery and her chocolate lab, Bolden.

It’s been a year and a half since the Zieglers welcomed Shelby into their family, and they’re all happier for it.

Those are the connections Ali loves to make. She makes them out of the sole purpose of finding homes. Her postgraduate plans don’t include veterinary school — or animals at all. Her work at Rockingham County Animal Shelter isn’t even on her resume.

“It will always be just for me,” she said. “It’s really special. I feel lucky that I’ve made this place for myself to do this.”

Edited by Addison Skigen