By Kathy Berken
Seventeen years ago, in May 2004, was the last time billions of cicadas of Brood X emerged from the earth to reproduce. It seems a lifetime ago. For the cicadas of this particular group, it was.
If you live in any of the 15 states where these insects perform their magic, you may find this phenomenon wonderful, beautiful and amazing, or feel annoyed by the noise and the mess. Either way, the 17-year emergence of the cicadas is a wonder of God’s creation. They wait for the temperature of the earth to reach about 64 degrees F., come out of the ground all at once, shed their skin, get their wings out and fly to the trees to mate, avoiding as many predators as possible.
The males sing in unison to attract the females and create a sound one entomologist likened to a jet plane or a train engine. Six weeks later, the nymphs fall and dig into the earth to feed off the trees’ roots and wait another 17 years to begin the cycle all over again. Talk about quarantining and social distancing! This particular brood of cicadas can teach us a thing or two.
First, Brood X depends on the entire community of billions of them to emerge together in order to perpetuate the species. Other broods of cicadas emerge yearly, but their survival skills are based on their green color to camouflage them in nature and their ability to fly fast to avoid predators. Brood X cicadas are more vulnerable and depend on their vast numbers to overwhelm any critter that seeks them out for lunch. They are not a dependable food source for any would-be diner and generally outlive them. The cicadas survive by cooperation on a massive scale.
Second, Brood X is good at waiting. I doubt that they are conscious of their patience, but their built-in instinct to stay underground for 17 years is akin to the perseverance of St. Monica, who supposedly spent 17 years praying for her son Augustine to get his act together.
Third, Brood X cicadas are willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the community. Again, I doubt that they think about it, but their behavior certainly points to their selflessness. As we increase the number of people who are fully vaccinated and begin to end our quarantine, masking and social distancing this year, I find it more than serendipitous that the cicadas have also emerged from their hiding to create new life.
How can this fascinating event not make us want to feel awestruck as we think of the perfect rhythm of creation? How can the cicadas’ 17-year emergence not move us to recall this Scripture verse: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5)? Or, these words: “He has made everything beautiful in its time” (Eccl 3:11). Or, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17)
I’m humbled and hopeful, despite what I hear and see on the news. Many young people are emerging with ideals that remind me of my generation’s optimism during the Vietnam War era. Will they recognize that the planet is uniquely one body of God’s precious creation, and they will need to work together with times of sacrifice to achieve new life that will benefit the whole earth? I pray that they will emerge in unison to sing the praises of God!
The cicadas of 2021 might just have something to teach us.
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton from 1999-2009.)