Here's something I admire about the cicadas: They know what to do.
As I walked around my back yard last week, looking at the hundreds of empty cicada shells that hung from the trees like so much misshapen fruit, I marveled at these bugs' single-mindedness.
The curse of the modern human is to be multi-minded, to be overwhelmed with options. We humans agonize.
I don't think cicadas agonize. They don't worry over whether to move to a bigger house or add a few bedrooms to their existing house. They don't worry about whether their kids will get into the magnet school. They don't worry about paper vs. plastic or liposuction vs. gastric bypass or Kerry vs. Bush.
They don't come home from work exhausted but intent on accomplishing something nonetheless: the bills paid, the bathroom cleaned, the novel worked on. They don't feel guilty when they flop onto the couch instead and watch "Monster Garage" on cable TV. They don't watch "Monster Garage" on cable TV.
They eat underground for 17 years. They climb out of their holes, they climb onto a branch, they shed their skin, they grow their wings and fly away. They mate. They die.
Eat, mate and die. Okay, it doesn't sound like much of a life, but what are your favorite things to do?
What's in a Name?
So, is it "si-KAY-duh" or "si-KAH-duh"? I've heard it pronounced both ways. (I even heard one person say "CHI-kay-duh." Showoff.) My dictionary allows both the KAY and the KAH pronunciations, although it lists KAY first, meaning it's the preferred way to say it.
I called University of Maryland entomologist Mike Raupp to ask how he pronounces it.
"Oh, 'si-KAY-duh,' dude," he said. Raupp added that he's heard both pronunciations but that all the entomologists he knows say "si-KAY-duh."
You say si-KAY-duh and I say si-KAH-duh You say to-MAY-toh and I say to-MAH-toh Si-KAY-duh, si-KAH-duh To-MAY-toh, to-MAH-toh Let's . . . combine then in a sauce pan, saute them in olive oil, drizzle them with balsamic vinegar and serve them with a well-chilled white wine.
What Are They Good For? (Ugh)
Why do we have 17-year cicadas, anyway? What role do they play in the Great Scheme of Things?
Charles Darwin showed that evolution creates interesting creatures: the bug that looks like a stick to avoid predators, the bird with a curved beak that fits perfectly into a certain tropical flower.
But why did cicadas evolve? Do they pollinate a specific plant or provide vital turf aeration at a time when the soil is in danger of fatal compaction?
I sent Mike Raupp an e-mail. This is what he wrote back:
"I think they are more 'Circle of Life' type critters. You know, kind of like those antelope in 'The Lion King' that bow down to Mufasa knowing full well that he and the pride will eat them in the morning. They exist in the 'Great Scheme' because they have found a way to survive against all the tribulations that Mother Nature has thrown against them over untold millennia. They take from the Circle of Life by feeding on the roots of plants those 17 long years underground. They give to the Circle by being food for the many foxes, birds, reptiles, insects and microbes that will consume their living bodies and nonliving remains. I think that is about as deep as it goes."
I'll go a little bit deeper. Cicadas have a symbiotic relationship with journalists. We feed on them every 17 years, filling the newspapers and the airwaves with stories just like this one.
But the main thing cicadas do is provide a nice excuse for humans to stop and think back on our lives. I like the scale of the cicadas' recurring occurrence. Seventeen years: not as frustratingly long as the time between Halley's Comet sightings or as annoyingly short as the time between presidential elections.
How is the 2004 you different from the you in 1987? How are the two of you the same?
It's also a chance to look forward. There's no guarantee that you or I or any of us are going to be here in 2021, or even tomorrow. But the cicadas will be, regular as clockwork.
Our haiku contest was such a smash hit that I'm announcing the John Kelly's Washington Cicada Poetry Contest. I'm loosening the rules a bit. Haiku are fine, but so are limericks and rhyming couplets. You can send me any type of poem -- even doggerel or free verse -- as long as it is
no more than 17 lines. No "Paradise Lost"-length epics. The winning author, as selected by me, will be treated to lunch at a fancy restaurant.
You can e-mail your entries, with "Cicada Poem" in the subject line, to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Or mail them to Cicada Poem, John Kelly, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. The deadline is June 2. Please include your name, number and the town you live in.
This year's Send a Kid to Camp campaign officially kicks off on June 1, but you can get a sneak preview and learn about Camp Moss Hollow at a special breakfast from 7:45 to 9 a.m. Monday at the Renaissance Washington Hotel. The breakfast is free.
To reserve a seat, call 202-289-1510, Ext. 126. I hope to see you there.