Tag Archives: nature


Cicada was a word I’d only met in books for a long time. I wasn’t really sure what a cicada was, and I certainly wasn’t sure how to say it. SIK-ah-da? KIK-ah-da? It was a small animal, maybe. A bird? Some sort of a part of nature, anyway, that they had in warmer climes than Ireland.

(This reminds me of the katydid that was mentioned in the very beginning of What Katy Did. I’ve only recently learned that a katydid is a … quick look at wikipedia to remind myself … oh yeah, a cricket that looks like a leaf. I thought it was a frog or toad for a long time.)

Anyway, I thought I’d tell you about cicadas so you’d be better informed than I was. And because we have ’em. Lots of them but not as many as we’ll have in 2021 when brood X comes out and they’re ankle deep here … but I’m getting ahead of myself.

So you pronounce it [sik-ADE-ah] with the emphasis on the middle syllable there. And it’s a large winged insect related to the cricket. At the end of summer they sit in the trees and make this amazingly cacophonous electronic-sounding buzzing noise that rises to a peak and then tails off again. It’s the quintessential sound of summer nights in hot places – if you’re Irish it’s the sound of summer holidays somewhere really nice (i.e. warm).

So you can read about the life cycle of the cicada at places that will give you more accurate information and lots of other gross/cool photos (also this page is cute because the cursor turns into a cicada when you mouse over a link), but I’m here to be your reporter on the ground, if you like, with actual footage from actually where I live. A couple of evenings ago some local friends were remarking on Facebook that the cicadas were coming out. The next day I went on a field trip with the second grade and realised too late that I should have brushed up on my cicada facts because we were all full of questions. Today there are even more of them, with discarded shells around the base of many big trees, so I decided it was time to write the big cicada post.

After a certain number of years underground – anything from 2 to 17 depending on the brood – the cicada comes out when the weather gets warm. It finds the nearest tree (probably the one it dropped out of as a baby), climbs up it, and sheds its exoskeleton. Near any given tree in the right area you’ll find a bunch of empties under the leaves or fallen on the ground below – I just went outside my house and hey presto, found this one for a photo.

Shed cicada exoskeleton attached to a tree trunk

You can see where it burst out, just like the creature in Alien. Only more slowly. More of that below. These are apparently Brood X stragglers, they’re not the whole big deluge we’re expecting in 2021. Washington Post is also on the story today. I’m so current.

When they come out they’re all white and grub-like, but after a while in the sun they colour up nicely.

Here’s one in the very act of emerging. Come on, buddy, you can do it. (It happens verrry slowly. I didn’t have to be quick to catch this. I went home, got my camera, and came out again.)

Here’s one proudly posing by his discarded exoskeleton. “That old thing? I don’t need it any more.” I’m not sure he realises the “tree” he’s on is actually a telegraph pole.

Here’s a finished product we found on a bush on our field trip. Look at his freaky red eyes. He’s about 3cm long.

Now look at the next picture and be a little freaked out, because there are suddenly more cicadas than you realised. I count six or seven here. There were more than that on the bush, and plenty more on the rest of the bushes too.

Then they go off into the trees to be eaten by birds and/or find the cicada of their dreams to make baby cicadas with, to grow up underground, possibly for another 17 years.

They don’t bite or sting, so they’re totally harmless to people – though I was just told to watch out for the giant brown hornets called “cicada killers” that go after them. Roger that.

The wonders of nature, eh?

Just another day

Today is my birthday. Forty-three is okay, I’m here to tell you. It’s not significant – it’s neither a new decade nor a new demographic bracket. It’s practically the same as 42, but with fewer Douglas Adams quotes. I feel about 37, which is a nice age to feel, and I look… oh, I have no idea what age I look. Let’s not worry about that. It’s irrelevant, because I’m on the inside, not the outside.

Anyway, right now I don’t have any deep thoughts about another passage around the earth. I feel like I should just enjoy what I’ve got because this is the youngest I’m going to be, and anyway, age is meaningless, it’s what you do, and who you do it with, that matters.

That said, right now I’m on my laptop writing a blog post while each of my children stare at another device and I slowly try to convince them that we should go for a picnic in the park. The weather’s beautiful after a very hot, humid, day yesterday and big thunderstorms last night.


Wildflowers in yellow, blue, and some red

Enthusiasm for the picnic has dwindled to an all-time low (that is, the one child who was vaguely up for it is no longer) but now one of them is making things with sticks (and magnets and batteries, causing me to mutter things like “Don’t electrocute yourself” and “Don’t short out the house”) so that’s a step forward. I suppose.

I always feel compelled if not to have my best possible day on my birthday – because that’s beyond my control – to at least be my best possible self. Even if I’m doing the laundry and making my own cake, there’s a spring in my step and I’m all whatserface Amy Adams in Enchanted, flitting around domestically and imagining woodland animals (less of the vermin, thank you) helping me with my work.


That was then. Now my kids are fighting, I have nothing nice for lunch, I can’t get a babysitter for the weekend, Wednesday’s the worst day for a birthday (well, Tuesday isn’t great either), and apparently if I ever want fresh air and exercise for myself this summer I’ll have to to outside and walk up and down our street because nobody’s leaving the house ever. Even to please me on my birthday. Maybe I have to bribe them with ice cream but to be honest I’m not sure if even that’ll work.

I have a cake to make, because if not me, who; and this evening is Dash’s baseball playoff which willen haven been the final if they win, or the penultimate game of the championship if they lose, because it’s the best of three and they won the first.

Mabel sitting on a rock looking at the water


In conclusion, it being my birthday doesn’t stop it from being a perfectly ordinary day. It never really does.

Children on a wooded trail

We went for the walk. It was lovely. I bribed them with ice cream.

Mabel with her ice cream

That was lovely too.

Dash enjoying a cone


I go for a walk or a run, and I think, “This is great, recharges me, gets me into nature; I must do this every day.” After about a week and a half I go again and think the same thing. Will I never learn?

Today I saw a flock of geese land on Greenbelt Lake. I don’t know if they were coming in from Canada for the season or if they were just back from their morning consititutional, but I’m inclined to think it was a more momentous landing. First just a few, five or seven maybe, came in without too much ado, splashing down nicely and then just sitting still and looking calmly around as if they’d been there for hours. No panting or drama or exploring the new surroundings. Very un-human.

They were the front-runners. Then more small groups, one after another, swooping more dramatically low over the water as if they might change their minds up to the last second, when it was do-or-die moment and they had to either commit to the water or swoop up high over the trees for another loop.

Finally a big group, fifteen or twenty or maybe thirty at once all came down together, and the honking afterwards was much more pronounced. These were the also-rans, the hangers-on, the rabble. I imagined their arguments and complaints went something like this:

“Mom, mom, are we there yet? Is this where we’re going to stop for winter? I’m tiiiiired.”
“Do we have to stop here? There’s a really nice lake further on. Can’t we go all the way to the harbour? I want to keep going.”
“No, this is where we’re staying. Your aunties are all here already.”
“He bumped me. You bumped me. I was coming in for a perfect landing and you messed it up.”
“I did not.”
“I was here first. Nyah nyah.”
“Where are the snacks? Has anyone got the snacks? I want a worm.”

And so on. It was worth going out for.


One of the things I wanted to do on this trip was pretty easily attainable. I wanted to go for a walk up the hill. The hill that’s close to my parents’ house, the one we always went up for a walk, either to the quarry (turn left at the fork in the path) or the obelisk (turn right). One morning the sun was shining (intermittently) and the playground meetup I had planned was postponed and the stars aligned and this is what we did instead.

There’s a broad wall to walk along most of the way, making the steps a lot more fun.

Walking along the wall through the woods

You can stop at the shop counter and sell a few twigs or a nice selection of autumnal leaves to the passersby.

Children at a stone "table"

And then, just before the obelisk but when you’ve come out to the breathtaking top of the hill, there are the wishing steps.

Pyramid steps

Walk around each level in turn, and when you get to the top you can have a wish.

Walking each step

Certain things earn wishes, you know. Birthday candles, of course; falling stars – but other things too, like the first strawberry of the season (also applies to rhubarb) and hopping three times around the base of a round tower. My mother has the definitive list, I believe.

Girl walking the steps

They wished solemnly, to themselves. Mabel couldn’t contain a secret, though, and had to tell me when she got down to the bottom again, that she’d wished for a new teddy. Because she’s clearly lacking in teddies.

Girl standing on the top

Dash wanted to cash it in as many times as possible. I had to decree that only three wishes could be had on any visit to the steps, because more wishers were arriving. Another family came along and we heard their mother tell them the same thing – walk around and when you get to the top you get a wish.

Boy on the top step

It’s not written on a plaque or an informational leaflet anywhere. It’s local folklore, it’s how you tell the natives from the tourists.

Looking out to sea

It’s important to know about the wishes. You never know when you might need one.

Killiney Bay

Some days are better than others

Some days I am on top of the laundry, and some days the laundry is on top of me.

Some days a blog post comes to me fully formed in the shower. Some days I have to hiccup it out like a cat barfing.

Some days I go for a run or do a whole exercise video and then saute kale for lunch. Some days I stop after five minutes and have a muffin instead.

Some days my children climb trees and run outside and I show them how to make leaf rubbings, and feed them meals that have components from each of the food groups. Some days they sit in front of the TV for too long and get a waffle and five frozen peas for dinner.*

Some days I am fired up with efficiency, and the kitchen is clean and the dentist appointments are scheduled and the new season’s clothes are sorted and I am superwoman.

Some days I’m not.

I think the key is not to give up after one – or many in a row – of the off days. Just keep swimming.

Autumn leaves on a page

*Obviously, I’m talking about Mabel here. For Dash, eating from all the food groups means a peanut-butter sandwich and a juice box.

Damn nature, either way

We all know by now that I am not really very Good With Nature. I like it in small bursts away from which I can easily get. I like my concrete and my pavements and my tall buildings, actually. I feel safer on the asphalt. Nature is unpredictable. One misstep and you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere with a gammy ankle.

On Sunday we went Into Nature, not far from home. We saw deer and found geocaches and got fresh air and the weather was delightful and by the time we were done it was too late to go home and make dinner so we had to go out for burgers and chips. (Fries.) (We still say chips. It’s our one victory over our children’s American vocabularies.)

Opening a geocache box in the woods

Well, feck nature, I said the next morning, as I plucked a whole bunch of pin-head-sized ticks off my son’s body, and one slightly bigger one off my own a few hours later. Fecking deer. Sod off, Bambi.

Deer in woods

Dash is always a magnet for wildlife, and he had been wearing shorts too. That evening I was still combing him – almost literally – for ticks when I noticed he seemed to have met a particularly angry swarm of mosquitoes as well. On his lower back.

That’s odd, I thought.

Then he disrobed for his bath and I found more little welts coming up all over his hips, as if he’d rolled around naked in a hornet’s nest. Very odd. Exactly the opposite of where mosqitoes normally get him, on his arms and legs – though he had a few on his neck and ears too.

By Tuesday morning I was having Other Thoughts about the bites. Like that maybe they were not bites, but a rash. A rash I couldn’t blame Nature for, apart from the regular nature that we have to put up with because it is Us because we are not yet cyborgs. (Oh, how I yearn for those cyborg days.)

I really thought he had chicken pox, and sent him to the doctor, who sent him back with a label saying “Probably Not,” since he’s had all his shots and the rash didn’t look quite right for that. Apparently kids can just get a rash as a reaction to a cold virus, and he had brought a cough home from school last week that we have all come down with after him.

This morning I woke up with a few scattered itchies myself. Since I’ve had chicken pox too (yes, the real thing; they don’t vaccinate for it in Ireland), I suppose this means that it’s very unlikely to be it. Which is good, because I sent him back to school this morning. From a distance, you can’t even tell he looks like a disgruntled mosquito took out his rage all over Dash’s backside.

So I suppose Nature’s off the hook for this one. For the moment. But I’ve got my eye on you, Nature. (Picture me doing that two-fingers-to-eyes movement that indicates menacing watching. I’m like Tony Soprano over here.)

Children and father walking in the woods


American robins are ginormous.

Or, for the other half of my audience, Irish robins are teensy.

The problem with moving away from where you grew up is that you become a total ignoramus – not just when strangers try to ask you directions, but also when your children innocently ask you what sort of bird that is. And you have no idea. Not only that, but you’re not sure what sort of tree this is or – what the heck is that creature at the bottom of the garden? (Hint: It’s a groundhog. They’re big.)

I’m actually not too bad at nature, so long as I don’t have to spend extended periods of time in it. I mean, my mother knows the names of trees and flowers and birds, and every now and then I look at something growing and a word pops into my head. Sometimes it’s “purple” or “spiky” but other times it’s more useful, like when I noticed a flower in our yard recently that made the word “hellebore” trip lightly across my mind. Followed closely by “belladonna,” “Socrates,” and “poisonous.” And “Oh, that’s nice, the kids are making pretend dinner in the frying pan I gave Dash because he watched Tangled again recently and wants to have his very own frying pan to fight bad guys with.”

I digress.

But wherefore the red-berried Cotoneaster of my youth? The fluffy Leylandii and shiny Griselinia hedges, the pink-belled Fuchsia of the Irish garden? (See, I know all the fancy names. But I had to look up the spellings.) The shy robin red-breast, blue tit (no jokes, please), and ubiquitous blackbird? The birch and beech, sycamore and horse-chestnut? I recognize all those. This country – this part of this country – has other stuff.

So the most common bird around here seems to be a sturdy mid-sized brown bird with an orangey front. I knew it wasn’t a cardinal – the bright red, very exotic-looking and smaller bird that makes me wonder just what sort of colour-blind predator ensured its evolution – but it was only this year that my friend-who-knows-about-birds told me what I saw was an American robin.

American Robin (image from Wikipedia)

Apart from the reddish breast, it’s nothing like an Irish (or British) robin, which is a tiny, delicate bird. I presume the poor pilgrims were so homesick that they decided this was the closest thing this land could manage when they named it. Or that everything in America was bigger.

European Robin (image from Wikipedia)

The other day the children were playing at the front of the house. I saw Mabel climbing in the smallish rhodedendron bush and decided nothing bad would happen if I went indoors. Two minutes later she ran in after me –

“Mummy, look what I found!”

 – and handed me a beautiful, tiny, greeny-blue, warm, egg. Intact. Before I had time to formulate an answer, Dash was behind her showing me a second egg. Apparently none of our parent-child discussions had yet covered what to do if you find a nest in a tree you happen to be climbing.

I took the two eggs very gently and told the children as unfreakingoutly as I could that they had to go back in the nest straight away, so that the mother bird wouldn’t miss them. To be honest, I thought that she’d smell us on them and abandon the nest forever, but we had to try. Dash said there were other eggs in the nest too, so I thought at least there might be hope for them.

The poor stupid bird had built her nest at just about seven-year-old head-height, right in front of a big gap in our half-dead, surprises-me-with-blooms-every-year, crappy rhodedendron bush. I’m amazed Mabel managed to climb in there at all without immediately stepping on it. But we put the eggs back and hoped for the best. Mabel got very angry with me for saying that the baby birds might not hatch, so I knew she was feeling bad about it and I tried my best not to sound as if I was blaming her. She honestly didn’t know the right thing to do.

So we talked about leaving nests alone and never touching eggs in future, and some helpful friends on Facebook told me that probably the mother bird would not actually fly away and leave her eggs to their unsatupon fate, and lo the next day I looked out the window and saw her happily back there, sitting on her stupidly low and exposed nest. She’s still there, intermittently, and I have great hopes that in a few days? weeks? how long do eggs take? we might even see baby birds from the comfort of our own front room, where we have a great view and won’t disturb anyone.

I don’t know if you can make it out, but that’s Mrs Robin in there

And I’ve given Mabel the task of making sure the neighbourhood cats stay away, any time she sees them outside. She’s taking it very seriously.


The children are … where are the children?… upstairs, maybe getting dressed, maybe something else… it’s Sunday morning, Paul Simon is crooning about a train in the distance, and I feel I should be waxing lyrical. Maybe it’s the fault of the music, maybe it’s the day, I don’t know. The husband is out running, checking out part of the route for his marathon in a couple of weeks’ time.

I can’t write to music, though; at least not music with words, and I don’t really see the point of the other sort. I mean, it’s nice, but if I’m just going to try to shut it out so I can concentrate, then I may as well not turn it on. I’ve never been one of those people who studies with music in the background. Maybe it’s because my house was always quiet, so I didn’t need to drown out other people to get my homework done. Another of those unnoticed advantages of onlychildhood.

If you gaze out the window for about ten minutes, concentrating hard, you might just catch a snowflake surruptitiously sneaking out of the sky. It’s too warm for snow, but for some reason that’s what the atmosphere wants to give us, so beyond the bare branches is the colour of nothing and now and then something escapes in the form of a six-sided crystal. I don’t know why.

It was doing this yesterday too, when we pulled ourselves out of our Saturday-morning decline/recline and stopped putting on the kettle for another cup of tea and remembered that we have a national park five minutes down the road so there’s no need to drive for half an hour and pay a king’s ransom to get into a zoo or something. We went geocaching instead.

The kids know about geocaching. They know that sometimes we find little plastic boxes in the woods and sometimes they have toys in them. You’re supposed to take a little thing and leave a little thing. We hadn’t brought any little things to leave. So we took a pterodactyl from the first box, with B promising to run by and put in something else in return the next day. Then we exchanged the pterodactyl for an orange not-T-Rex in the next one, and finally went home with a green lambeosaurus from the last one. Mabel is particularly pleased because she has a tiny blue lambeosaurus already, who must have been missing her mommy.

Finding the first one went like this:

B: Look, I think this is it.
Mabel: Toys, toys!
B: Not toys. A cache.
Mabel: It’s not cash, it’s toys.

We had to admit that it was. Anyway, we were outdoors and the children were walking on their own feet and nobody complained and we found nature-y things like rotten logs and deer droppings and a hollow tree trunk and a lot of sticks and it was really quite nice and we should do it again.