Sun Ra - Column for 5/10

The looming plague

Well, it's the second week of May, and no cicadas yet.

No adult cicadas, that is. I've encountered dozens of the little buggers in their immature form, because I've been gardening. Any given shovelful of dirt contains one or two of the little thumb-sized wet-looking tan-colored bugs. Last year, when I didn't know what they were, I just called them 'grubs' - this year, now that they are larger and more articulated, and the media has been yammering "HERE COME THE CICADAS" for several months, I know better.

Moving to a different part of the country is full of this sort of thing. Fireflies I recognized right off the bat, but my wife and I spent months last summer wondering what the heck the huge pudgy rodents hanging out in the grassy verges next to the freeway were. They looked a lot like beavers, only a bit flatter and a bit fatter and they had little stubby tails instead of large flat ass-paddles. Eventually, we found out that they were groundhogs. Who knew?

Well, we do, now. And we also know what cicadas look like, at least what they look like before they darken and climb up trees in the millions and prevent us from sleeping for a few months. Yes, all that is forecast for the end of the week, so it's a vaguely anticipatory time here in the DC suburbs. It's reminiscent of the hurricane we had last summer, only much slower. We're already getting sightings coming in from the southern fringes, for cicadas ripen like field crops, starting where its warm and moving north as the days go by.

And we've got a bumper crop around here, living as we do effectively in a forest. Cicadas, for those of you who don't have them, are a tree-based life form. The larvae hang out on roots, counting the years by the variations in the tree's limbic system. Then, on the seventeenth year, they reach maturity, dig out, find a mate, lay eggs in small-diameter new tree branches, and die.

At least, that's the theory. There are so many cicadas, a large number of them don't get to go all the way. If they somehow survived being cut into bits by my rototiller - which many seem to have done - they might also be eaten by birds, dogs, unattended babies, and so forth; or they might fly into my wife's hair, which is a death sentence, or they might alight on a road or sidewalk when traffic is imminent, or they might be hit by a passing train. The fatality rates are, I imagine, quite high.

But that's all part of the plan. The cunning, Soviet-style seventeen year plan, whereby the cicadas have somehow decided to emerge in such numbers as to overwhelm the German army predators and hazards arrayed against them, and to do so at such a wacky interval that nothing can be prepared for them. There aren't any seventeen-year thrushes who have evolved to eat cicadas.

I can only surmise they came up with the exact number by committee. One might think that seven years would be sufficient. Or nine. Or even four. Seventeen seems excessive, and it also seems like a compromise between the fifteen-year lobby and the twenty-year lobby. But that's what they went with, and now they're here again.

I am thankful they are so inoffensive. They don't bite, they don't sting, they don't eat your plants. (Unless your plants are trees, and we have already covered our three new little Japanese maples with protective netting.) No, the only disagreeable thing they do is to drive you insane.

Hopefully, I shall sleep well tonight. Because this time next week, the days and nights will be filled with the sound of a thousand thousand cicadas, cicadas who have gone without sex for seventeen years. Yes, it's as though every tree is festooned with a few hundred seventeen year-old boys, and they all have stereo systems.

And our local Home Depot has sold out of earplugs.

- Sun Ra

Columns by Sun Ra