Cicadas Do Their Worst

The 13-year cicadas’ legacy: legions of mangled small trees, hearing loss, public humiliation, and quashed hubris

A cicada empties her @$$ into my Japanese maple branches

I do not like the red-eyed beast. I do not like it in the least.
I do not like it when I dine. I do not like it in my wine.
I do not like it on my plants. I do not like it in my pants.
No, I do not like that screeching beast. I much prefer it once deceased.

If you live in Nashville, by now you’ve witnessed a few iterations of the Cicada Jitterbug: a perfectly normal-looking person taking a stroll in the park or sipping wine on a patio emits a staccato “Nggggguuuuuuuh!” or “Eeeeeeeeeee!” followed by a sudden arm-flapping spasm of panicked disgust.  The incensed cicada, just dislodged from an ear or evicted from a blouse, answers with an injured Screeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

My friend Dave watched a longtime buddy of his perform an advanced version of this dance, and neither man will ever be the same. “A 46 year old man!” Dave exclaimed. “I couldn’t look him in the eye after that.”

A few mesmerized souls have talked about how much they love the magical, enriching experience of the Brood XIX takeover of our region. I’m glad for them and for their detached, scientific enjoyment. But I wonder: aren’t these likely the same people who would welcome hostile, man-eating aliens to our planet and present them with the keys to the city? Just remember, folks: when the occupation is over, the collaborators always get theirs.

I’ll grant, the #$%@^#&*$s do hold a certain fascination. But I feel no more entranced delight watching cicadas slice up my young Japanese maples than I might while observing a wasp burying a stinger into my arm. Nor am I enjoying the process of returning home to log taped interviews, only to realize they’re unusable because of the screaming ruckus that penetrates most walls.

To use a hackneyed phrase, I’m over it.

Surveying the damage this morning, I’m not feeling so hot, to be frank. The nets Mom and I installed, although imperfect, seem to have mitigated the damage. But when you have around 50 ornamental trees in your yard, you just can’t net everything. And so it happens that a number of medium-sized Japanese maples are riddled with egg-filled, quarter-inch slits marching the length of their smaller branches. And a few of those branches are already starting to break off.

The thing is, it’ll probably be OK. Those trees will most likely drop a lot of the smaller, outermost branches this summer, look horrible for a year or two, but survive. A few of the most vulnerable may die. This is not actually an emergency. So why am I still fretting?

I suspect I’m being punished. Early this spring a friend asked me how she could stake her Japanese maple to make it grow straighter, with a more symmetrical habit. She was genuinely worried about it.

I said something that seemed helpful at the time, something like, “I think you might be overworrying about this.” The tree looked perfect to me, not symmetrical exactly, but well balanced and lovely. I think I may have said something even more patronizing, like, “You can’t control nature,” and told some Zen koan about monks and gardens and the nature of perfection/perfection of nature that seemed pertinent in the moment. What an @$$hole!

Well, the cicadas have come home to roost. I pretty much got what I deserved. Hubris quashed. If nothing else, the red-eyed demons have reminded me that one person’s natural spectacle is another person’s havoc. There are most likely a lot of people in Missouri and Louisiana right now who don’t find downpours or cumulonimbus clouds quite so pretty as they once did. And investigating my mangled trees, I’m having the hardest time loving the amazing phenomenon that is the Brood XIX cicada.

Next time a friend expresses concern about the growth habit of her Japanese maple, I’ll try and be a little more sensitive. Granted: you can’t control nature. But you can sure as hell worry about it. For that morsel of wisdom, I have those crazy-eyed, screeching monsters to thank.

5 thoughts on “Cicadas Do Their Worst

  1. Oh, but Kim: is being mesmerized about being detached? Speaking for myself and my new-found cicada love, I am mesmerized and oh-so-attached. I find them wonderful and bumbling and I find myself wanting to take them out of harm’s way so their all-too-short lives aren’t shortened even more. Yes: I have fallen under their spell. There is something special about this rare once-in-13-year song. So sit back and enjoy the hum. Being mesmerized by a cicada does not mean one is more inclined to handing over the keys to the kingdom to larger invaders. On the other hand, as you point out, the keys aren’t ours to begin with …. 😉

  2. I think it’s perfectly normal for you to fret about your ‘babies.’ I’ve given up on trying to keep the cicadas off the plants and swept off the porch…. But I am STILL trying to get that Japanese maple to grow straight and symmetrical. To each her own neurosis…

    • Thanks, Taylor! And I hope you didn’t mind my telling that story. I felt silly later about waving off your desire for symmetry. I, for example, strongly desire order in my office. It is rarely achieved.

  3. I strolled over here because a (common) friend left a comment on my article about cicadas — see — suggesting I should read what you have to say. So you make me wonder: just how well will my own fascination for the creatures and their possible connection to primes stand up to the assault that you are facing?

    I wish you luck coping with the invasion!

    • Dilip, thanks for posting this! I loved your post about cicadas and prime numbers. I’m sure your fascination would withstand the reality of life amidst a cicada invasion. You seem a sober, rational sort. I, on the other hand, could only bear so much tree-slicing and insects flying into my hair. We all went just slightly mad here.

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