When I was a kid, and would go to Cleveland’s old Municipal Stadium,–a hulking cavern of old steel, wooden slat seats and lake effect snow–I would marvel at the capacity crowd of nearly 80,000 humans. Imagine 80,000 of something. To put that in perspective, a human’s average life expectancy in days is about 30,000.
That stadium could hold six times the population of my small Ohio town. Years later, attending a presidential inaugural, I got my head wrapped around what a million of something looks like–a million people filling the National Mall from Grant’s plinth in front of the Capitol to Washington’s marble obelisk.
Now imagine a billion things. Or a trillion things. The number is impossible for the mind’s eye to grasp, or at least it was until this week. Every so often, a sleeping brood of cicacas–a bug akin to the locust–emerge from their 17 year dormancy, climb to the surface of the earth, and take flight. In the mid-Atlantic region, the cicada Brood II (they are numbered by cicada experts to keep tabs on their habits) returned, like a comet (except less stratospheric, more abundant and frequently irritating) on schedule.
Living in more mountainous then coastal areas, we didn’t see much of the great cicada swarms that seem to find their way across the mid-Atlantic and Midwest, destroying countless picnics and cookouts and making life a little miserable for about two to five weeks. But when I moved to Southern Indiana in the 2000’s, I had my first encounter with the Biblical force of nature known as a cicada brood.
The cicada, for the undoctrinated, is a peculiar bug. There are over 2400 known varieties around they world. They spent most of their lives dormant, underground, for over a decade at a time. After a lengthy nap of Rip Van Winkle proportions, they wait for the ground to warm to 64 degrees, after the winter thaw, and emerge. The bugs will reemerge as a ground dwelling brown nymph–a sort of giant armored beetle–before shedding their shell and emerging as a vibrantly colored adult, ready to eat, mate and die over a two to six week week period. Once airborne, they will sing dawn to dusk in the trees at levels nearing 100 decibels. They will clumsily fly past you, with their wings beating baritone. And they will die en masse, leaving a genocide’s worth of corpses piled in the roads, sidewalks and gutters.
In 2004, Brood X emerged in the Midwest after a 17-year hiatus. Brood X is particularly huge and ugly. Red eyes, black bodies, orange wings. Individually, the bugs are spooky but harmless, easy to knock off a doorway or window screen. Collectively they are awesome. The swarms are so dense that a yellowish brown haze always sits in the air. Great oaks and elms heave with a collective crescendo of “singing” from the males. There is no respite from the song–the noise makes it indoors. And the grasses and trees, the parks and the wild are teaming with the bugs, ruining the tranquility of an outdoor stroll.
Two Brood X cycles before, in 1970, the bugs upstaged Bob Dylan on the occasion of his receiving an honorary degree from Princeton in springtime. With the cicadas making their presence known, he penned this song:
Cicadas have drawn the ire of many a human. They have been seen as a sign of God’s wrath–a pestilence. And yet, the Cicadas are harmless. They do not destroy the crops like locusts. Birds benefit from engorging on them. I have even seen the plain and goodly sparrow snag a clumsy cicada from the sky and peck it to pieces.
Perhaps the haters see something in themselves in the cicada. They hate the years of dormancy followed by ceaseless prattling before they die. The same could be said of a cubicle dwelling Dilbert, who emerges from his office tomb in retirement only to natter his children incessantly before croaking I suppose. For me, I have come to see the cicadas as an avatar not of woe, but of youth. They are rock and roll. They’d be tragic front-men. Consider: They sleep all the time. They are flamboyantly colored. They wake up to eat and fornicate for two weeks straight, singing at a piercing 100 decibels all day and all night, then die.
By the end of the two to five weeks, people become slap happy from the cicadas’ Bacchanalia. While bugs have always been reliable protein for human consumption in Asia, Americans take to the chocolate covered cicada–the females prized for their toothsome mouthfeel. The United Nations is in on the act too, releasing a report on bugs as the new food. I have seen people make found art and handicrafts from their fragile wings–even earrings. Children find novel ways to exact revenge. I recall a troop of latch-key kids from a local elementary school mercilessly beating the leaves of a tree–and the cicadas attached–to submission.
Rather than live in fear of the cicada, I will try to enjoy their return, like an annoying college buddy crashing on your couch for a month. I wonder, that if the cicada boom was a mere three days, that humans would not mind their company and visits.