The cicadas are coming. But you know that already.
As loudly as these arriving insects announce themselves, we’ve already done that work for them. We’ve beamed out warnings with knowing headlines, ushered in primers telling people what to expect from these extremely noisy bugs, and conjured up cheeky tips and tricks for suffering these periodical pests. Enjoy them with earplugs! Or deep-fried and coated in Old Bay. And, of course, there are essays to be written about them.
Cicadas, it seems, can’t just be cicadas. They must also be symbols.
The conveniently classified Brood X (pronounced “10,” but don’t worry about that) presents endless opportunity for filling in the blank. The obvious: We’re emerging from our little underground lairs, too, this spring — tunneling out after tunneling in as the coronavirus infected the planet.
The cicadas’ submerged shelters, where they slurped fluids from the roots of plants, are like our own studio apartments, where we spooned peanut butter from the jar after giving up on homemade sourdough. The creatures will go a’courting by going a’chirping: They are, in short, looking to get laid. Plenty of people probably harbor similar hopes for their post-vaccination summers. Maybe we, too, will even sing.
Or, wait, that’s too optimistic. The cicadas represent another thing gone wrong in a miserable 13 months, the latest airborne plague to sap a little joy out of the blossoming spring.
Let’s try a different yardstick: The scale of a single year, after all, is too small. These creepy crawlers emerge only every 17 years, while so much can happen to those of us who stay above ground in that time: all of elementary, middle and high school for a kid turning into an adult; or a meet-cute, courtship, marriage and childbirth for someone who was already an adult during the last cacophony.
That’s just our personal histories. What about society? Four presidents here, a smattering of revolutions there, tsunami, invasions, genocides and the World Wide Web truly going worldwide. COVID-19 wasn’t even our only pandemic since 2004.
Maybe, then, the cicadas signify more than a bad year. Maybe they signify the passage of time. They prompt us to press pause on a ceaseless existence so that it doesn’t just pass in a blur — playing the same role, say, as an anniversary or a birthday. Or they encapsulate, in their brittle bodies, how fragile life is. A translucent wing lying on the sidewalk of a thrumming street somehow sums everything up.
This search for meaning in an insect’s life isn’t new. Plato wrote of cicadas as liminal beings: humans who, caught up in the ecstasy of music, had died without knowing it. Aristotle thought of them as immortality incarnate (though he liked to eat them, too), and cultures across the globe wrote of them as inherently of the moment. They live for so little time, but they live so hard. Cicadas have been carved out of jade and placed in the mouths of the Aztec dead; they’ve been laid in gold on the headdresses of Chinese nobility.
We may feel smaller considering these creatures. The events that have obsessed us in this new century are scarcely worth witnessing in their compound eyes. Or we may feel bigger, our own evanescence forgotten compared with a bug’s brief run. Suddenly, we’re ageless.
These cicadas can signify all manner of things, but they can’t signify nothing. If these bugs are just bugs, strutting and fretting their time upon the stage, we lose the chance to make sense out of what we witness: out of the disease that has killed so many and hurt so many more; out of the boundless opportunities that await us when the pandemic ends; or, of course, out of the unpleasant experience of billions of winged menaces shrieking at us from the trees everywhere we go. We lose the chance to make ourselves meaningful, too.
We rarely let nature exist undisturbed — physically, sure, but figuratively too. We twist it instead into shapes that we can recognize and, better yet, into shapes in which we also recognize ourselves. That isn’t good. That isn’t bad. It just is — a way for humans to find sense in the nonsensical and move through the world without being overwhelmed by it. Otherwise, all we can hear, no matter where the bugs are, is a deafening roar.