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The Real Mystery of the Cicadas

Bill Meredith

If there is anyone between New Jersey and Kentucky who does not know by now that this is the Year of the Cicada, I would like to meet him, or her, and find out how such isolation happened. For months now, it has been impossible to pick up a newspaper without finding an article about cicadas; even Time magazine succumbed to the pressure. Television has been just as bad; on every local station, the "happy face" newspersons whose assigned task is to fill time with inane chatter when there is no real news to report have been blathering about cicadas and reassuring us that they do not constitute a threat to our national security. In both print and electronic media, reporters who would not know an insect from a squid wax eloquent about the "mystery" or "miracle" of the 17-year cycle.

This baffles me. This is the seventh cycle I have seen, and I can not recall anything like this level of interest. To me, that is the real mystery. In the last cycle, 1987, there were articles in the papers about disgusted urbanites sweeping up piles of cicada carcasses from their sidewalks, but nothing compared to the present level of anticipation. Of course I am delighted to see the public get interested in anything related to ecology, but why such fascination now? Everyone over 17 years old has seen this before, and there are many more important phenomena in the living world, yet it is impossible to get the public interested in them. Something odd is going on, but it is not in the insect world; it is in the public psyche.

By this time, those readers who are paying attention should be saying, "Wait a minute!" In order to have seen seven 17-year cycles, I would have to be at least 119 years old. The fact is that I have seen only three cycles (1970, ’87, and 2004) since coming to Emmitsburg. The cicadas we have here belong to "Brood 10," which ranges from New Jersey to Kentucky. But the ones in Fairmont, W. Va., where I grew up, are a different population; they are five years out of synch, and I saw them in 1948, ’65, ’82 and ’99.

When I was a child, we called them "locusts," and their emergence from the soil was called Locust Year. In those days, many people of my grandmother’s generation still believed that tree frogs (spring peepers) and turtles were "generated" from the ground in the spring, and cicadas were explained in the same way. I suppose the name, "locust," was assigned to them when some entomologically illiterate reporter compared their appearance with the Biblical plagues of locusts in Egypt. Nowadays, all schoolchildren, and even many parents, know that the true locusts are grasshoppers.

Whatever the source of the name, I have a clear memory of an afternoon in 1948 when I missed the bus at school and had to walk the five miles or so home. In town, the background noise was the usual clatter of traffic, but as I approached the edge of town the buzz of "locusts" became detectable, like slowly turning up a radio, and soon it drowned out all other sounds. That first experience did leave an impression, and I can certainly understand people who have a scientific interest in the cycle, but the current flood of media attention hardly seems justified.

Many years ago, students of animal behavior discovered that when animals are confronted with conflicting or threatening stimuli, they often perform "displacement activities" that have no apparent relation to the threat before them. For example, a goose whose nest is approached by a potential predator will torn between the impulses to fly away and save itself or to risk its life defending the nest. It will make very specific threats like hissing and raising its wings, but between these responses it will act distracted and pluck up pieces of grass. In thinking about the flurry of interest in cicadas by a public that ordinarily is emphatically apathetic about nature, it occurred to me that maybe this mysterious interest is a displacement activity.

We are surrounded by threats and conflicts… terrorism, a mismanaged war, economic chaos, single-issue politics, a looming environmental crisis that everyone knows is there but no one will admit…. Perhaps it gives us comfort to focus on something that is ominous only in a science-fiction sense, and that we know will go away after a month or so. Perhaps the cicadas are giving us that psychological respite, and perhaps we need it. But we can’t afford the luxury of being distracted very long.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith