Magicicada

“If their lives are short, they are merry…they still continue on Singing till they die.”

The miracle of the internet. Growing up, I had no idea that cicadas hibernated—it’s not exactly hiberation, but it’s not unlike hibernation either—underground for 17 years. They were simply a fact of life—the omnipresent soundtrack of summer—and if there were more or less of them one year than the year after or the year previously, I didn’t notice. I remember running about collecting their little brown husks off of trees, but my interest in that probably waxed and waned over the years as well.

Look at us now—Brood X isn’t even here yet, and yet we’ve been beset by a swarm of news items about their arrival. Or is that just me, in my cicada-media bubble? Even so, I’d bet the above-average internet user now knows cicadas hibernate for 17 years (approximately the same amount of time for a celebrity couple to reunite) and that’s a marvel in itself. (Note: There are also broods that go underground for just 13 years.)

Of course, this is just the periodical cicada we’re talking about, or Magicicada. There are also annual cicadas that have lifespans of varying lengths, from one to nine years, and do not emerge as a big group but staggered over the years. It’s probably their song you and I associate with summer—which can vary from region to region, like dialects—but they do not have the same majesty or allure of the Magicicada, which only live in the eastern United States.

Maybe there’s another story here about media representation. Sure, Brood X—as the 2021 Magicicada are known—is one of the “largest, and mostly broadly distributed geographically” groups of periodical cicadas, sure. They also just happen to be Magicicada that emerge in the northeast corridor, including New Jersey, New York, and D.C., where many, many journalists happen to live and work, myself included. No wonder there’s so many news items about them! I also remember a lot of fuss about Brood II, which is even more concentrated around New York than Brood X, when they last emerged in 2013, although the city isn’t a particularly hospitable place for cicadas. That said, New York City residents probably won’t see much of Brood X either unless they spend time in New Jersey, maybe Long Island. Even so, I wonder if Brood IV—also known as the Kansan Brood—would ever get the same level of attention.

The Kansan Brood last emerged in 2015, when I was already living in New York. Before that, in 1998, when I was eight. Lyon County, where I grew up, may be at the very edge of the Magicicada range, but it’s squarely in that of the Brood IV range. Now I wonder if I in fact do remember a particularly screechy summer, where the song of the cicada was more like the drone of a train than a soothing lullaby, the bug casings dense as a second-bark on the trees.

I certainly don’t remember feeling any particular horror about them—which some people reportedly do.

“I think it’s the fact that they’re an inconvenience. Also, when they die in mass numbers they smell bad,” University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum told the AP, explaining why some people dread the Magicicada. “They really disrupt our sense of order.”

More on cicadas

87,000 people have already signed up to be citizen cicada watchers (Linda Poon and Marie Patino for Bloomberg). Is climate change disrupting the 17-year cicadian cycle? (Shannon Osaka for Grist). The lifecycle of the Magicicada (Kate Wong for Scientific American). One of the earliest naturalists to document the life cycle of the periodical cicada was Benjamin Banneker, a free Black man born in 1731 whose work has gone woefully underappreciated and unacknowledged (Nina Kravinsky for NPR). As Banneker wrote, “if their lives are short, they are merry…they still continue on Singing till they die.”


In other news

The upside to vertical farming: I was thrilled to learn this week that my story about manipulating the flavor of plants in indoor farms for The Counter won a 2020 Best in Business Award from the Society for Advanced Business Editing and Writing.

I feel I have consistently struggled to articulate what’s so interesting about this story, especially on social media, and it never reached as wide an audience as I hoped it would (part of the reason I submitted it to awards contests in the first place). So it has been extra gratifying to hear things like, “The writing was excellent and gripping at times. The quotes added wonderful color. The research led to well-supported conclusions.”

Winning this award (and an honorable mention from the North American Agricultural Journalists) has been extra, extra gratifying considering the fact that an (inferior) version of this article—as I wrote in Pinch of Dirt when it was first published—was killed at a different publication. I’m so glad I stuck with it. Read “What does a vertical farm taste like?” here.

Recently published: Last week I reported on the EPA’s move to phase down the use of hydrofluorocarbons, commonly used as refrigerants, for The Counter.

ICYMI: As I wrote in last week’s newsletter, a power plant in the Finger Lakes has begun using the electricity it produces burning natural gas to mint the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. Local environmentalists say the power plant is unnecessary—the region didn’t suffer for lack of electricity during the more than five years it was shut down—and is likely harming wildlife and local water quality, not to mention its contributions to global warming. Read my first feature story for Grist here.


Thanks as always for reading Pinch of Dirt.

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