Norman Knight: We’re all on nature’s time

Recently, a news blip appeared on my radar giving me a heads up that within days a massive number of Brood X cicadas will be emerging from their 17-year underground food fest.

We are advised to dig snow shovels from sheds and be ready to scoop up mass quantities of discarded cicada exoskeletons. We should all be prepared for the intense noises that could approach 100 decibels as the males try to lure mates by singing love songs.

Becky and I will need to wrap netting around the two saplings we planted not too long ago since young trees are a prime target for the egg-laying females. This will continue for five or six weeks until the insects drop to the ground and burrow back in for another seventeen years.

I, for one, am looking forward to it.

So are the scientists who study these insects. “This is our Super Bowl,” says Michael Rupp, professor of entomology at the University of Maryland. He likens it to a “cicada-palooza” and reminds us, “It is a great opportunity to witness a natural phenomenon.”

It is understandable that those who don’t make a life’s work studying and researching insects might not be quite as excited by the upcoming opportunity to experience nature. The idea of walking on thousands of crunchy outer shells and of insects crawling over every imaginable unprotected surface might evoke something less than festive images of Super Bowl parties and music concert raves. And if you are a bit squeamish about bugs to begin with, the next several weeks of Brood X cicadas might be a bit stressful.

I was delighted to learn that I was mispronouncing the name “Brood Ex” when in fact the “X” is for the number 10. Brood Ten. Scientists say the coming swarm is one of many groups that appear over different years. Brood IX, for example, appeared in 2020.

(My mistake reminds of a story that supposedly shows how young people don’t know history. Apparently, a student once referred to the iconic African-American leader Malcom X as “Malcom the Tenth.” I suspect this story needs to be fact-checked.)

It is fascinating how nature has a way of following its own program on its own time schedule. Take the odd 17-year life cycle, for example. Seventeen is prime number divisible only by one and itself. Some theorize that the emergence of cicadas only once every 17 years makes it less likely to coincide with the lifecycles of wasps which prey on them. (In fact, lots of predators prey on cicadas. Apparently, they are easy pickings.) Another theory says the prime number cycle reduces the risk of inbreeding with other species and/or generations.

It is true the emergence and short breeding period of Brood X cicadas might be a hassle and probably a bit messy for us humans. But that’s nature for you. I try to discern a message when I contemplate nature’s ways. It can be a lesson in humility. Human-created number systems, for example, don’t always dovetail with nature’s numbers. It would be so much easier if the earth circled the sun in an exact number of days. But, of course, it doesn’t. It operates on another time. Nature’s time.

I hope I can approach the coming cicada appearance with appropriate humility. Like when a snowstorm stops us all in our tracks, or when a record-breaking cold paralyzes our human endeavors. I hope I can see it as an opportunity to confront properly the awesome power of natural events.

Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to [email protected].