Culture At Large

The swarming witness of cicadas

Karen Swallow Prior

In his book Letter to a Christian Nation, atheist Sam Harris points to the 350,000 known species of beetles and remarks: “The biologist J. B. S. Haldane is reported to have said that if there is a God, He has ‘an ordinate fondness for beetles.’ One would have hoped that an observation this devastating would have closed the book on creationism for all time.”

To the contrary, such evidence of a wanton imagination does not belie but bespeaks a Creator.

I have pondered this copious creativity over the past few weeks as the mid-Atlantic region where we live has been overtaken, not by the beetles Harris so disdains, but by their entomological kin, Brood II cicadas.

While cicadas are a regular part of the seasons here, this particular species comes around only once every 17 years. They make up in intensity what they lack in frequency. While some areas have seen fewer of these visitors than expected, our neck of the woods has experienced near-plague proportions. In fact, their presence has illustrated - in a way the Sunday School flannel graphs of my youth never could - just what the plagues described in the Old Testament might have been like.

The local and national media tried to prepare us. They warned of the “loud, piercing racket” that would come after billions of bugs emerged from the underground bunkers where they’d lived for 17 years in order to shed their husks, shake their wings and sing for a mate over the course of their last few weeks of life. But nothing can convey the bizarre experience of actually living with these creatures (although the stunning time-lapse video below comes close and is well worth the seven minutes it takes to watch it).

Such evidence of a wanton imagination does not belie but bespeaks a Creator.

The day they arrived, I had returned home from my morning run, turned off my Pandora and taken out my earbuds only to hear a loud, high-pitched whine, like the sound of a belt slipping in a far-off vehicle. As the noise increased, I kept waiting for the vehicle with the squeaky belt to pass by, but it never did. Then I thought perhaps the farmer next door was having trouble with a hay baler. But when I finally noticed all the holes in the ground at the base of the trees and the noise approached deafening - more akin to a spaceship hovering overhead - I realized that “the greatest insect outbreak on earth” was upon us.

We have lived with this hum - carried by the breeze like waves surfing from tree canopy to tree canopy - for nearly a month now. It is said to be one of the loudest sounds in nature. Fascinated, we have walked into the woods in the vain search for what we were sure would be a swarm of millions. Amid the constant din rises up the occasional cry of the lone, anguished lover, like that of a distant cat - or child - in distress. I have pulled weeds out of the flower bed, only to be startled by a loud bleat of protest from within the stalks.

Japanese scientists have invaded our friends’ yard after traveling here just to study the creatures. Single bugs helicopter into me during my daily runs.  We pluck them like berries off the rosebushes and feed them to gleeful chickens - not out of animus toward the invaders but for love of the hens. Indeed the red-eyed, golden-winged insects, bigger than my pinky, don’t sting or bite or damage crops. They only sing, copulate and leave their discarded, decaying bodies on the ground where they nourish the trees they so lately ascended.

Our forester friend says that every 17th ring in the trees hewn down in this region show an extra spurt of growth.

This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science