You kinda gotta laugh.
If you pay any attention to the national news you have seen how Washington, D.C. has gone more berserk than normal. The cause of this particular derangement is this year’s emergence of the proud members of brood X of the 17-year cicada.
You might think that it’s the first time it has happened (it isn’t), or that it’s some kind of national calamity (which it also isn’t). This is something that has happened once every 17 years for as long as there has been anyone around to record it, and then some.
A little natural history: Cicadas are “periodical” insects (and no, this isn’t because, as here, they’re memorialized in periodicals). They emerge from the ground, climb onto tree trunks or other above-ground objects, shed their subterranean shells, and fly away, the males to make noises annoying to us but music to the females’ tympanal organs, which in cicadas pass for ears. These buzzes and squeaks advertise amorous intent. It seems to work. The cicadas mate. The females deposit their eggs in twigs. The eggs hatch and in due course the little cicadas-to-be drop to the ground, burrow into the dirt, and are seen no more until they emerge. The adults, their job done, die. They and the husks whence they came rot, with a distinctive aroma.
When do they emerge? It depends. Some varieties, such as the ones we’re discussing here, stay underground for 17 years. They might as well not exist the rest of the time. There are also 13-year cicadas. The ordinary, larger and less strikingly colored cicadas that we see and hear each year also may spend years underground but they’re not synchronized the way the periodical cicadas are so we don’t notice it. The periodical cicadas are much smaller and cuter than the every-year ones.
Occasionally the emergence comes early by a year or more often four years.
A bonus natural history fact: The number of years periodical cicadas remain underground is always a prime number. Nobody knows why, or if this is true of the annually occurring cicadas.
A little sociological history: Cicadas are given some importance in Far Eastern tradition and literature. They’re reflected in popular media, through their sound being heard in Japanese movies and television shows. They are frequently depicted, as a sign of summer, in anime. A cicada hunt (where the insects are caught and later released) appears, over and over, in the (infamous) “Endless Eight,” part of the captivating “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.” They also appear in the children’s video game, “Animal Crossing.” In China, they’re seen as symbols of immortality. Bob Dylan wrote a song about them, though he incorrectly called them “locusts.” (Locusts are a swarming version of grasshoppers and have nothing to do with cicadas.)
They’re also eaten in many places, even sometimes in the U.S., though depending on the makeup of the soil the practice can be harmful to humans. Still, turkey hunters have noticed that their prey are especially plump and tasty following periodical cicada emergence. Turkeys gobble up cicadas.
Fruit farmers have complained that the egg laying of cicadas in twigs, which can kill those twigs — it’s called “flagging” — is harmful to their orchards, but there is evidence that it acts as a kind of natural pruning and more often than not results in more robust trees.
A bonus sociological fact: Cicadas are attracted to and want to mate with power tools.
The current emergence is called brood X, one of 15 different populations identified in the U.S. It appears in the D.C. area and regions northward and west into Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and part of Pennsylvania. (And in Cincinnati.) It also emerges in Indiana and part of Tennessee. The genus of periodical cicadas is Magicicada, which I think is kind of cool and appropriate.
The response to this year’s cicada emergence back east has been less cool and appropriate than it has been just about what you’d expect. The uninformed go on and on about how scared they are in interviews with the ignorant, who put them on television. Cicadas are harmless. Their sound can be loud and annoying, though not as loud and annoying as, say, Court Street many nights or any student festival. Yet the curled-pinkie set in the media, always looking for a hook, have this year settled on the idea that their noise can be harmful. Someone at the Washington Post actually asked if the cicadas might spread COVID 19.
A friend back East is troubled about the arrival of the cicadas. He desires to be rid of them and thinks it his personal task to do so. I think that this may be inevitable when people live too close together and develop a kind of group-stupid mentality — can we call it “groupid”? — even as it is fashionable there to be upset about cicadas that will do no harm, with all traces of them gone in a few weeks.
I compare that to the reaction here five years ago when we had our own periodical emergence. Ours is brood V, and it visited us in 2016. I wrote a lot about it then because I dug the hell out of it, and made lots of pictures, even some in infrared. In my experience, others enjoyed it as well. The birds got fat and happy, the scientists came round to investigate, and it was one big bug-infested party. Cats played with the cicadas while some dogs ate too many of them and got a little sick. The chief human involvement I witnessed was well-meaning people picking played-out cicadas from the sidewalk and sticking them onto trees, thinking they were helping. But post-mating cicadas are like post-spawn salmon: there’s no help for them. They’re done.
When we had our emergence five years ago, the only real inconvenience I know of, and it wasn’t much of one, came on a nice but slightly steamy evening, the first of the annual Under the Elms concert series on Ohio University’s College Green. While the visitation by billions of little black, red-eyed insects had peaked and was now on its decline, there were still many around. The problem, though, was not noise but the spent shells and carcasses of millions upon millions of the now-departed arthropods, which were busily rotting in the grass and especially around the bases of trees. It was a memorable aroma.
People in the interior of the country, seems to me, are sturdier, happier, and generally less neurotic than those at and near the coasts. But in a few weeks there might for be a general national agreement, unity at last, when the remnants of brood X decompose in the nation’s capital.
For once, the people there will nod in agreement when it is said that Washington stinks.