It’s just about cicada time here on the East Coast, when millions (billions?) of these strange, noisy creatures will make their way up through the dirt, looking for love. They’ve been waiting down there in wingless nymph form, feeding on the dilute sap of plant roots while they undergo the longest juvenile developmental period of any insect. When the ground reaches 64 degrees and they emerge, outnumbering humans hundreds-to-one and nearly deafening us for our troubles, well, it’s gonna get a bit freaky. Not for nothing did the colonists at Plymouth in 1634 dub them locusts, despite little resemblance to the Biblical grasshoppers.
As entomologist May Berenbaum assures, though, there’s nothing to worry about. “It’s not like these hordes of cicadas suck blood or zombify people,” she says. It’s just such mistaken attribution of outlandish abilities that inspired Berenbaum’s “modern bestiary,” The Earwig’s Tail. She’d come to realize, she writes in the book’s Preface, that “the majority of the most bandied-about insect facts familiar to the general public aren’t facts at all.” In The Earwig’s Tail she takes on twenty-six of “the most firmly entrenched modern mythical insects,” and, in many cases, leaves us with an even more fantastic truth.
When she gets to cicadas, Berenbaum turns to politics and Washington D.C., where the emergence of “Brood X” (the various populations of cicadas run on different schedules and are given roman numeral names) coincides with a presidential election every sixty-eight years, most recently in 2004.
First to take metaphorical advantage of the infestation was the Republican National Committee. On May 14, 2004, at the height of the emergence, 700,000 registered Republicans received an email attachment from the Republican National Committee. A narrator intoned, “Every 17 years, cicadas emerge, morph out of their shell, and change their appearance. The shells they leave behind are the only evidence they were here. Like a cicada, Senator Kerry would like to shed his Senate career and morph into a fiscal conservative, a centrist Democrat opposed to taxes, strong on defense . . . But, he leaves his record behind . . . when the cicadas emerge, they make a lot of noise. But they always revert to form, before disappearing again.” The voiceover accompanies a time-lapse film of a cicada eclosing and expanding its wings and ends with an animated cicada morphing into John Kerry.
The Kerry campaign’s retort? “Maybe, if given another 17 years, President Bush could create a job in Ohio.” Cicada burn.
Cicadas also had a cameo in presidential politics in 1902, Berenbaum reports, when President Theodore Roosevelt “was practically drowned out while trying to give a Memorial Day speech defending national policy to impose ‘orderly freedom’ in the Philippines.” The experience of inundation seems not to have adversely affected his feelings on colonialism.
We’ll wait to see what metaphors are made of this coming return.