The Brood X cicadas have risen again, crawling up our tree trunks, our wooden posts, our concrete foundations—any upright surface suits them fine. The last time they emerged, I was living in a city and wondering where I’d find myself after 17 years. Now here I am in the country, with the cicadas’ deafening song rattling the farm fields like a siren, as if announcing an endless emergency just beyond the tree line.
In 1800, my fellow Marylander, Benjamin Banneker, recorded his evolving awareness of cicadas in his astronomical journal:
The first great locust year that I can remember was 1749. I was then around seventeen years of age, when thousands of them came and was creeping up the trees and bushes. I then imagined they came to eat and destroy the fruit of the earth, and would occasion a famine in the land. I therefore began to kill and destroy them, but soon saw that my labour was in vain, therefore gave over my pretension. Again in the year 1766 which is seventeen years after the first appearance, they made a second, and appeared to me to be full as numerous as the first. I then, being about thirty-four years of age had more sense than to endeavour to destroy them, knowing they were not so pernicious to the fruit of the earth as I did imagine they would be. Again in the year 1783 which was seventeen years since their second appearance to me, they made their third; and they may be expected again in the year 1800, which is seventeen years since their third appearance to me. So that if I may venture so to express it, their periodical return is seventeen years: but they, like the comets, make but a short stay with us. The female has a sting in her tail as sharp and hard as a thorn, with which she perforates the branches of the trees, and in them holes lays eggs. The branch soon dies and falls. Then the egg, by some occult cause immerges a great depth into the earth, and there continues for the space of seventeen years as aforesaid.
I like to forgot to inform that if their lives are short they are merry. They begin to sing or make a noise from the first they come out of earth till they die. The hindermost part rots off, and it does not appear to be any pain to them for they still continue on singing till they die.
For those of us who feel trapped these days between competing tribes of vandals, Banneker’s note on cicadas is a model of civilized thought. Time, observation, contemplation, and a willingness to amend his prejudices all add up to a more mature understanding of the world, one that still allows for amusement, enchantment, and even a flicker of poetry. Where I’ll be in 17 years doesn’t matter—probably here in the same patch of woods on the same quiet road—but I hope we’ll find more Bannekers among us.