Owing to their mind-numbing numbers — up to 1.5 million per acre — periodic cicadas are louder than summer cicadas, less like a chorus and more like a fire hose blasted directly into your ear canal. At the height of the emergence, the sound appears to come from everywhere and nowhere at once, vibrating in the bones of your ears and in the fillings of your teeth. The sound can feel like a form of madness.
The relentless buzzing, the red eyes — perhaps they explain why so many of the headlines about this phenomenon default to negative metaphors. It’s an “invasion,” according to ABC News, an “infestation,” according to CBS.
It’s no such thing.
The most destructive species the earth has ever known likely emerged some 315,000 years ago, and we have not stopped roaming and eating and pillaging for one minute since. Cicadas, by contrast, benefit the ecosystems into which they emerge, a boon to hungry birds and reptiles and a huge range of mammals. Fish eat them when they fall into streams and lakes. After cicadas die, they decompose and feed the very trees that hosted their brief days in the sun.
Nashville is not in Brood X’s range, but I have lived through two emergences of Brood XIX, a periodic cicada on the 13-year schedule, and I’m jealous of all of you whose skies will soon be blurred by wings and whose trees will be filled with song. At a time when wildlife is being threatened by human activity from every side, your baby birds and possums and lizards and snakes and turtles will grow strong, fed on the cicadas’ bounty. Your hawks and owls and foxes will live this year because their prey has become bountiful, too. And you will be surrounded by reminders that the darkest tunnels always bend, in time, toward the light. That resurrection is always, always at hand.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing Opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the forthcoming “Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South.”
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