As we end a year of COVID-19 gloom, acquire vaccines and adjourn, squinting and stretching, into springtime, we – at least those in several Mid-Atlantic, Midwestern and Southern states – will have company: the billions of periodic cicadas known as Brood X.
They are all 17 years old and have not seen the sun since 2004, the year they were conceived, laid and hatched. Then they said goodbye for a while. They tunneled into the dirt and sucked the sap of tree roots while counting, slowly, the years. This is the one they were waiting for. Once the dirt gets warm enough, they will climb out to summon mates and repeat the cycle.
What the emotionally submerged human dreams of, the cicada literally does, digging upward into the warmth of late spring, sprouting wings and spending the rest of its life buzzing, bouncing, bopping and blithely bugging out. What a way to go: climbing into trees and falling out of them, drunk on love and sunshine, making a racket using just your drum-tight abdomen, bumping nether parts with someone you’ve just met and clinging to them for dear, dear life, using every second of the time you have left, which is about six weeks.
Cicadas seize the joy that other insects forgo. Not for them the digging of tunnels, building of hives and mounds, cutting of leaves and rolling of dung. No commuting from nest to rotting corpse and back. No stinging, no biting, no sucking blood. No warfare. No anything, really, except making the most of the brilliant days between the darkness. As the 17th-century Japanese haiku master Basho wrote:
- – -
The cry of the cicada
gives us no sign
that presently it will die.
- – -
Let humans slog along in human time, piling up the milestones this year’s graduating class of cicadas missed: the first iPhone and first Black president; the two new popes; the hurricanes Katrina and Sandy; Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger landing his damaged jet on the Hudson; the IRA laying down its arms and countless others taking them up; Olympic Games in Athens, Beijing, London and Rio. When this year’s cicadas were juvenile and grublike, Mark Zuckerberg was a Harvard undergraduate. (Facebook, the swarm he unleashed, has not yet run its course.) Plague-mongers including Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were toppled while the cicadas waited; others still rage or fester. Some afflictions have flared and subsided, like Zika and Ebola and “High School Musical.” New ones, unseen, are waiting their turn. Not for Brood X to brood.
If the cicadas fear missing out, they never show it. But then, always on schedule, they bring in the noise and regenerative funk. They take a hammer to our eardrums. They creep many of us out. But after all those years of self-denying absence, cicadas have earned the right to rumpus.
Then the party ends and all that’s left are cicada husks and an echoing silence. The grubs are underground, tenacious and alive, leaving above-ground humans to mull about sorrow and impermanence and death.
Ogden Nash addressed cicadas directly in 1936:
- – -
Dear locusts, my sympathy for you is intense
Because by the time you get adjusted you will be defunct,
leaving nothing behind you but a lot of descendants
who in turn will be defunct just as they
get adjusted seventeen years hence.
- – -
Nash’s error, besides the common one of calling cicadas locusts, was assuming the brood cared about our timetable. Unknown millions of years ago, through evolution’s accidental genius, they hit on a way of life of astounding utility and beauty. They need no further adjustment.
“The Cicada is anything but pugnacious,” wrote Charles V. Riley, state entomologist of Missouri, observing in 1869 that the species has no defenses and survives only through outrageous fecundity. Their cohort is so large they outlast every creature that eats them, which is a lot of creatures. You may grasp this next month when your dog or cat is lying under a tree, belly full, unable to even look at another cicada.
Defenseless and delicious is a generous way to live. Think of cicadas as tree shrimp: Come May, you can grab a few and look up recipes. And while you chew, you can think about your time on this side of the grass. What have you done with your 17-year increments? The year these cicadas were born, a failed New York developer started a reality show called “The Apprentice” and engaged himself to Melania Knauss. A lot happened after that, and Brood X got to miss all of it – the third marriage, the porn-star cheating, the election, the four-year defiling of country and Constitution, the disgraceful exit amid a spasm of violence. In the world the cicadas reenter this month, that calamity has come and gone. All that’s left is the smell, the whiff of rot and menace. The 45th president is defunct. When the cicadas return in 2038, I hope they sing for his 92nd birthday, and their voices penetrate his prison window.
As we start groping our way out of the pandemic this spring, it might be good to look up now and then, in the trees. Ascetic discipline and long patience. The shedding of inhibitions and other useless carapaces. The hot pursuit of connection before time runs out. Nailing your entrance – singing loud. And knowing when to exit. These are all invaluable life lessons, and our insect cousins will soon be screaming them all down at us, for weeks. Will we be listening?
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