The Common Good
August 2004

Squish. (Ugh.)

by Ed Spivey Jr. | August 2004

It'

It's that special season again. The time when nature spreads its vociferous colors everywhere, igniting the world with the delicate striations of crimson and yellow, the haughty hues of vermilion, and the flaming tincture of auburn. It's a veritable explosion of color.

Or maybe it's just bug guts.

Whatever you call it, it's all over your windshield, because the cicadas are back and they're just as stupid as they were the last time. They're loud, they're ugly, and they like your head. And it doesn't help to shout "Look, I'm not a cicada!" or "but I barely know you!" When you're a cicada, the heart wants what the heart wants. Or is it the thorax?

These bugs shouldn't even be here, since they seem to defy Darwin's law of natural selection. They have no means of defense, no ability to hide, and they don't know danger when it's diving at them with wide open beaks. The phone lines in my neighborhood are sagging under the weight of birds who should have said "when" before they ate another one of those pudgy little casseroles with wings.

But you've got to feel sorry for the lowly cicadas. They gestate for 17 years, then emerge from the ground in search of nothing more than a little companionship, which they've got to find quickly, since they only live a couple weeks. Hardly enough time to enjoy the fullness of life: the brash risk-taking of youth, the challenges of adulthood, or the sweet reminiscences of old age. ("I remember last Tuesday. Now, those were the days.")

Nope. They dig their way to the surface and, like a college boy at Daytona Beach, desperately start searching for a mate. Same desperation, but without the beer. (My parents live near Daytona and are happy to report they rarely have to scrape college boys off their windshield, except occasionally in the spring.)

But can we really criticize the passionately hopeless behavior of cicadas? After all, they're going on reflex, not experience. For cicadas, there is no communal body of knowledge to share, no oral history, no parental advice on how to live their short lives. For years the male lies alone in the ground thinking "I hope she likes me," not even knowing what she looks like. And they usually guess wrong. (One cicada thought a local woman's ear might be a good first date, which it wasn't, but the experience caused the woman to drive over a fire hydrant, disrupting water service to an entire neighborhood.)

Because cicadas lack the social structures of higher life forms, they miss out on the primary source of basic sex education: the sixth grade cafeteria.

TOMMY: …and that's how it works.

BOBBY: No way.

TOMMY: Look, I heard it from a kid in seventh grade. So it's gotta be true.

Without this kind of vital information sharing, cicadas are on their own, and from what I can hear, they only have one pick-up line (a high-pitched droning sound, which is SO lame). I figure if a cicada would say something different, like maybe "How's it goin'?" or even "Yo, Adrian," he would have way more luck than his peers.

BUT WITH OR WITHOUT romance, they all end up as lifeless lumps, most of them, it seems, in my back yard. When I walk outside it sounds like somebody chewing through a bowl of crunchy cereal, an observation I particularly enjoy making during breakfast with the family, some of whom are at that moment chewing on crunchy cereal. It's just one of the stimulus/response experiments I've been doing - for the sake of science - since the giant bugs have emerged.

I began conducting these experiments 17 years ago, when I first tested the reaction time of young children by placing a cicada on their shoulder, just outside their peripheral vision. While producing little in the way of usable empirical data, the resultant screams did cause me to hold my hand up to my face to keep from laughing out loud.

Repeating the same experiments today, with my control group having grown into educated, mature adults, I was interested to observe a similar reaction. As I watched, clipboard in hand to record the response to stimuli, daughters A and B ignored their preconditioning and screamed again. However, this time they also told their mother and I got in trouble. My consolation is in knowing that, like Galileo before me, we scientists are often least understood by those closest to us.

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.

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