Last week I journeyed home to Appalachia, looking for a wildlife spectacle that first captured my imagination in 1969: The emergence of Brood IX periodical cicadas. There are both 13- and 17-year species in the genus Magicicada. They emerge from underground, en masse, on these periodic long cycles, and are often referred to locally as “locusts” due to their biblical plague-like numbers. Locusts that devastate crops in many areas of the world are actually grasshoppers (order Orthoptera), not cicadas (order Hemiptera).
Cicadas feed on plant sap, and although their sheer numbers may damage plant tissues, they don’t kill the forest trees that insure their own life cycle. After mating, the females lay eggs in plant stems, which hatch into nymphs. The nymphs drop to the ground, burrowing down to begin a 13- or 17-year subterranean life of feeding and slow growth. The last growth stage emerges from the soil on cue, splitting out of the last exoskeleton, leaving behind myriad brown husks on twigs, trunks, and leaves. After drying off, the adults wing their way to the canopy for their brief blowout of mating.
The yearly green cicadas whose droning buzz sets the background music of every childhood summer afternoon are different species. The periodical species emerge in their billions around the United States, from the east coast to the plains states, south to Texas, in 15 separate, staggered broods.
The leading explanation for these long life cycles is the survival advantage of mass emergence, which is unpredictable to predators cued to a constant need for food. Predators simply don’t “know” when the cicadas are coming, and when they do, they swamp out the predators’ ability to consume them all, thereby insuring the next cicada generation. A colleague who works with insect sound relates that a Magicicada emergence is said to be the only time when no animal in the forest goes hungry.
Brood IX, restricted to northwest North Carolina, southwest Virginia, and southern West Virginia, is composed of three different species of 17-year cicadas. I was eight years old, turning nine in June, when my brother (then age four) and I collected handfuls on our occasional trips “below the mountain,” just east of Virginia’s Blue Ridge escarpment.
Memory is faulty, but the images still come of woods and gardens filled with fluttering wings. I easily conjure a strange, sharp, pungent odor on my fingers after handling cicadas, that transferred to anything else I touched, including one powdered Kool-Aid pack that I discarded without preparing because the odor was so strong. This brood has emerged four times during my life: 1969, 1986, 2003, and 2020. I missed the middle two episodes due to commitments elsewhere, so I was determined to go home and find them again this year. After this breeding orgy, Brood IX cicadas will go underground again until the year 2037. I may or may not be there to see them.
My job as a field biologist and faculty member has kept me outdoors for a good portion of my career. I am one of the fortunate few who managed to continue a primary love for natural history in gainful employment. It’s impossible to overstate how much my immersion in the woods, fields and creeks of childhood forged my current world view. Episodic memories mark watersheds in that lifelong journey, and that 1969 Magicicada magic is one of them.
And so, on Tuesday, June 2 just past, I headed north to rekindle those memories.
I struck black gold on North Carolina state route 8, just north of Lawsonville, south of the Virginia border. A dark, slow-flying fuselage with the right gestalt crossed the road from left to right, so I turned onto an unpaved road, parking by farm fields and woodlots. I stepped out into the sonorous music of hundreds of cicadas, still emerging from timothy and brome grass, swarming up into a black cherry canopy.
They were as easy to hand capture as I remembered. Close examination yields a stunning insect, with a black exoskeleton, gilded tent-like wing cape, and orange-yellow upper legs and abdominal margins. The head is crowned by two enormous ruby-red eyes. They are Nubian royalty among the insects.
After capturing and releasing several, I sniffed my hands expecting that osmatic memory to return, and . . . nothing.
I since learned that the strong odor I remember is associated with large drifts of post-mating, dead and decaying cicadas. The only explanation for my faulty memory is that I have forgotten rummaging through piles of dead cicadas in 1969. One author describes the smell as “like a rotten pork roll, bacon and cheese sandwich.” I don’t exactly remember the rotten part, but then again, I admit to liking pork rolls, bacon, and cheese.
Over the next two days, I found them again, at low elevations in my home county, and to the north along a hiking trail in Montgomery County. There was still no emergence in my hometown, which matches my memory of seeing only a tiny number there in 1969. Each brood is not uniformly distributed; there are gaps with no cicadas.
For biologists studying the internal rhythms of animal physiology and behavior, the German word “Zeitgeber” has special meaning. The literal translation is “synchronizer,” and it refers to environmental cues that entrain the internal clocks of many organisms. Zeitgebers of the natural world include light, temperature, social interactions, and other cues.
In thinking back, it occurred that my lifetime’s four Magicicada appearances provide a framework for reviewing my life’s history, and an opportunity to reflect on environmental, cultural, and personal history over that span. In a technical sense, these cicada emergences are more Zeitmarke (timestamp) than Zeitgeber, but the framework serves.
When I first planned my journey home several weeks before, I could not foresee where my exploration of that personal and cultural history would lead.
I was just finishing third grade, looking forward with delight to being free of school for the summer. June’s heavy morning dew and puffy afternoon cumulus clouds were my summer Zeitmarken. Time to roll over logs, break apart stumps, sieve through creeks, belly-crawl through pastures engorging myself on wild strawberries, and pack jars with lightning bugs for bedtime son et lumière.
Cell phones and electronic games were undreamed of. An old black-and-white vacuum tube Admiral television required manual adjustment of a rooftop antenna to clonk-clonk-clonk among three or four analog stations, broadcast from Winston-Salem and Greensboro, North Carolina, or Roanoke and Lynchburg, Virginia. Radio was still as common a source of news and entertainment as TV.
The US national debt sat at just over $347 billion dollars.
That summer and the years prior, our 6:30 p.m. staple was the CBS evening news, delivered by Walter Cronkite. The war in Vietnam had drafted a first cousin, as prior wars had taken members of previous family generations. Before every “that’s the way it is” sign-off, Cronkite’s war statistics appeared on screen, with national flags and numbers representing United States, South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese casualty counts. Just the year before, after January’s Tet Offensive, Cronkite had reached his now famous conclusion that the idea of winning the war was false optimism. And yet, that war dragged on for another six years.
Later in July, after the cicadas had rotted, it was also Cronkite who told us that Neil Armstrong was on the moon.
Cronkite and his contemporaries covered many other stories, of course, during that turbulent era. In the year before the cicadas came, riots had roiled Washington DC, Baltimore, Chicago and other cities, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And the year before that, 1967’s summer race riots shook many cities, as black ghetto residents revolted against systemic economic discrimination and abusive police violence. Those riots in turn followed a long list from preceding years. Other episodes of civil unrest continued well into the next decade, as citizens rebelled against race- and sexual orientation-based oppression, and against the war in Vietnam.
Businesses and whole city neighborhoods were looted and burned. Polling indicated at the time that a majority of respondents viewed the riots as the work of “hoodlums,” not a reaction to racial discrimination.
In February 1968, in Orangeburg, South Carolina, just 90 miles southwest of my current home, three college students were shot and killed, and many more wounded, by South Carolina Highway Patrol officers who opened fire into a crowd, following escalating tensions over a segregated bowling alley.
In October 1968, in the midst of all the other turmoil, the H3N2 influenza virus, then referred to as the “Hong Kong flu,” emerged and became a global pandemic, killing an estimated one million mostly older people worldwide, and around 100,000 people in the United States.
At school, a hallway bulletin board during that Fall of 1968 educated us about national politics, and the upcoming presidential election. After Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek a second term, three faces stared mutely out at us from the board: Democrat Hubert Humphrey, a former Minneapolis mayor; Republican Richard Nixon; and the southern segregationist George Wallace, candidate of the American Independent party.
Despite Johnson’s achievement in coordinating signing the Civil Rights Act, racial conflict, along with war opposition, had turned sections of America’s cities into infernos. That unrest set the stage for Nixon’s “law and order” presidential campaign, and saw him eke out a victory in the popular vote, but cruise in the electoral college. In the south, Humphrey carried only the state of Texas, home of then-president Johnson.
Nixon’s message was simple: The criminal forces overrunning the country had to be put down. The “law and order” segment of Nixon’s acceptance speech at the 1968 Republican convention is a poignant echo today.
Those cicadas of 1969 buzzed their way into my childhood, rich in many ways: abundant outdoor time in a rural setting, with many dedicated and caring public school teachers. They also emerged into a troubled America, and into a childhood with family woes and a deeply racist culture.
I did not have a single black or minority school classmate from first through seventh grade. Race would sometimes come up in school, as it did the day someone questioned why there were no black families in our tiny community. A teacher expressed sincere hope that no one would ever sell property to black families, as that would allow them to “get a toe hold” on the mountain.
Many members of my family, friends, and other acquaintances were deeply, shamefully, overtly, and in most cases irretrievably racist. The word “nigger” rolled off tongues like tickets from an amusement park dispenser. Racist jokes, racist aspersions, racist anger, racist fear. Relatives and in-laws from urban centers to the northeast brought news every summer of riots by criminal blacks and hippies, raging that someone must “go in there and show them who’s boss.”
Little wonder about Nixon’s “law and order” victory, in that national environment of hatred, fear, and enraged black people.
In 1973, entering eighth grade, I transitioned to long daily bus rides to a single, central high school for the entire county. That consolidated school opened in 1970, reflecting nationwide desegregation efforts. The year 1973 saw my first direct experience with black classmates, and began my long, slow, halting journey out of the overt racism that contaminated my psyche. As much as I look back with joy on childhood experiences in the natural world, I am ashamed and embarrassed about racist aspects of a culture that corrupted my world view. Growing up in a culture drenched in racism cannot but affect the outlook of children. It certainly, and regrettably, affected mine.
On January 11, the country’s first African American Lieutenant Governor since reconstruction, Douglas Wilder, was sworn in in my home state of Virginia, and January 20 was the first federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Four days later, the Voyager 2 spacecraft found new moons in its first fly-by of Uranus. Four days after that, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all seven crew members, including Ronald Erwin McNair of Lake City, South Carolina, the second black American in space. On March 20, New York City passed its first gay and lesbian rights legislation, which was signed into law by Mayor Ed Koch on April 2.
The US national debt crossed the $2 trillion mark on April 3.
The second cicada swarm emerged that summer after I had started graduate school to begin a master’s thesis, and as one “eats, sleeps, and drinks” graduate school, I did not go back home that summer to see the cicadas. For most ecology and other field research-based graduate students, summers represent precious and limited opportunities for field work and data collection. I studied the effects of thermal environment on frog locomotion, and as a result spent many hours at night studying frogs.
During that and many subsequent summers, I continued various research projects, either as a student or as a consulting biologist employed through Federal grant funding for endangered species. One of those projects focused on field ecology of the endangered Carolina northern flying squirrel, which included nighttime telemetry sessions to track squirrel movements and determine habitat occupancy.
Last week I read a field botanist’s reflections about experiences in the field with law enforcement. Parking beside a road, standing outside taking notes, or walking through woods or fields with equipment is bound to eventually draw the attention of police or sheriff’s deputies. That botanist, like me, is white. His main point was that not once in episodes of questioning did the color of his skin make the situation worse for him. Each query by law enforcement was easily answered through brief conversation, after which he continued his work. I remember several similar incidents, and the same experiences. The only difference in my encounters was that some occurred at night, since I worked with nocturnal animals. There is no doubt in my mind that had I been black, my encounters would have taken an entirely different tone, and maybe even a dangerous turn. Many black students, and black youth in general, don’t engage in outdoor nature-based activities because of fear.
On February 1, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on its return to Earth, killing all seven astronauts, making it the second fatal accident of the shuttle program after the Challenger in 1986. Construction of the International Space Station was temporarily suspended. On March 19, a United States and British-led coalition began the invasion of Iraq, without United Nations support.
On April 23, a SARS-CoV virus outbreak caused the closure of all schools in Beijing. The virus originated in 2002 near Hong Kong, and was thought most likely to have jumped to a farmer from a palm civet sold at market. The virus had a fatality rate of about 9%, but fortunately did not spread as easily as other coronaviruses. It was contained by mid-2004; total mortality was 774 deaths in 26 countries.
On April 14, the Human Genome Project was completed. On June 10, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover mission began with the launch of the Spirit Rover. On August 10, the United Kingdom recorded its first day in history to exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 Celsius). A day later, a heat wave reaching 112 degrees in Paris killed around 144 people in the city, and 15,000 people total in France.
The US national debt was nearly $6.8 trillion dollars.
By May and June, I had just finished my twelfth year as a biology faculty member at a small, liberal-arts focused university in the coastal plain of South Carolina, where I still live. Summer teaching and research activities again prevented me from experiencing my life’s third Magicicada emergence.
The university where I teach is among the most diverse in the region, other than HBCUs, with minority student enrollment hovering somewhere around 50% annually. Most of our students come from a few surrounding counties in the region. Our primary mission is to serve the undergraduate higher education needs of the area, and, increasingly, to offer graduate programs that address health care needs of rural, poor, and under-served populations. Health indicators here are among the nation’s worst, with high rates of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and stroke.
Our students go on to great careers in many fields, despite their horrible deficits in secondary education. The legacy of American discrimination is stark in the surrounding tragic “Corridor of Shame,” paralleling Interstate 95 in the SC coastal plain, with its crumbling schools, inadequate resources, and provision of a not even “minimally adequate” education. The current senior Senator from South Carolina admits in that documentary linked above that the problem is basing school funding on local property taxes in poverty-stricken areas, but insists that it’s “not because we’re prejudiced at the governmental level.” This is another example of denying individual, overt racism to hide systemic, governmental legal and policy racism that drives housing discrimination and underfunded schools. Eliminating racism means changing policy.
La fe no solamente consiste en creer con la cabeza sino en entregarse con el corazón y con la vida. — Archbishop Óscar Romero, El Salvador, 1979 homily.
This year’s daily ambit started out much like any other. The US national debt is was just under $26 trillion dollars.
History may not repeat itself exactly, but we hear echoes return, and we watch doppelgangers materialize.
Just after Christmas in 2019, the first case of a novel SARS coronavirus appeared in Wuhan, China, thence spreading rapidly to Europe, the United States, and onward to become a global pandemic. Although it bears a lower fatality rate than the 2003 SARS coronavirus, SARS-CoV2 has a much higher transmission rate. As of my writing, the disease COVID-19 has infected nearly 7.2 million people worldwide, causing over 408,000 deaths and still climbing — compared to 774 total deaths from the 2003 virus.
Delays and obfuscation in the United States accelerated the coronavirus spread, with current infections totaling over 2 million people and over 113,000 deaths, more than a quarter of the global total. Eventual attempts to slow viral spread involved business and public event closures, along with strong social distancing recommendations. The negative economic impacts for many small businesses and workers has been catastrophic, with unemployment numbers blowing past any period since the Great Depression.
Just the week before my return to recover Magicicada memories, George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, was killed by a white police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck, choking the life out of him as he begged for mercy, for at least eight minutes in front of a filming smart phone. Floyd’s offense was allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill to buy groceries. For that offense, he will be buried today in Houston, as the cicadas continue to call in southwest Virginia, oblivious to human upheavals.
And once again, the nation, and world, has erupted in protest over George Floyd’s death. Marches and protests have been primarily peaceful, but some in Minneapolis and elsewhere turned violent, with property damage and looting, just as happened in the 1960s. And yet again, another President, an incumbent standing for re-election in November this year, has cast himself as a “law and order” president, vowing to control the violence by whatever means necessary — even if it means unleashing the United States military on peaceful citizens.
In the middle of this pandemic and upheaval, two NASA astronauts traveled to the International Space Station in a capsule launched by the rocket company SpaceX, the first such orbital trip funded largely by private investment instead of government funding.
Over the years since my first Magicicada sighting, much overt racist language and behavior went into hiding underground. People learned that it was “impolite” to use the N-word in public. Our contemporary President has given succor to overt racism again by denouncing “PC culture,” and by dog-whistling a code of hatred to his most extreme followers. This hatred, and its amplification by justifiably aggrieved protestors, represents is the second great pandemic of 2020.
Of course, it is a pandemic that never really left the United States over 400 years.
The language used to describe protests is coded by the groups using it, and is keyed to their targets. Many reflexively refer to black protestors as criminals, thugs, animals, and other dehumanizing terms. This is nothing new, and it highlights the stark contrast in media coverage of white versus black riots involving property destruction for many years.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues are known for their work describing the main “moral foundations” that underlie politically conservative and liberal thought. According to Haidt, there are five main moral foundations: Care, fairness, loyalty (ingroup), authority (respect), and sanctity (purity). People hold all five foundations to different degrees, but political liberals tend to emphasize the “individualizing” cluster (care and fairness) most, whereas conservatives seem driven more by the “binding” cluster (loyalty, authority, and sanctity). Haidt maintains that all of the moral foundations have value.
There are criticisms and shortcomings of the theory, not an uncommon situation in social psychology. Yet careful analysis of the current upheaval presented in conservative and liberal media outlets shows some corroborating patterns. All media tend to focus on dramatic images of protests such as fires and broken windows over peaceful protestors, but conservative news in particular (e.g. Fox) focuses more attention on scenes of looting and property destruction by mostly black people, triggering negative reactions from those with intense authority and sanctity foundations. People who share these clips on social media use the familiar coded language of anger, fear, and disgust to describe the looters: thugs, criminals, parasites, animals.
Many are shocked that anyone would burn their own neighborhoods to express anger at police violence. They don’t get a simple psychological state that I learned from another childhood natural history encounter: desperation.
Up the hill from our house was a scooped-out rock face that had resulted from blasting out the ± 500 million-year-old Proterozoic — early Cambrian rocks of Virginia’s Alligator Back formation. It was pulverized for gravel to hard surface nearby US Highway 58, paved years before my birth. Some of the original dynamite bore holes are still visible. My brother and I called this area the “rock cliffs,” even though it may have been three and a half meters high at its tallest. Everything seems so much larger when you’re a kid.
One summer day, I spotted a groundhog (or woodchuck, Marmota monax) foraging between me and the rock. I got the bright idea to chase it toward the “cliffs,” where I trapped it in an inescapable corner — or so I thought.
To my surprise and adrenaline-juiced electric shock, the groundhog turned on me. I can still see two huge, bare incisors coming at me like a pair of daggers. Needless to say, I hastened from the scene at speed. Like the first finger burn from a hot stove, I learned an important principle: when desperate, any creature turns on its attacker. People who have been pushed to the edge lash out.
Even harmless animals resort to some sort of defense when threatened. Magicicada males start calling when captured, perhaps in an effort to startle a predator enough to release them.
Condoning or not condoning violence is not the whole picture. No one condones violence, but we have to understand its origin. Further, we must not only understand, but really and finally address, the root inequities, including police violence, that drive black Americans to acts of desperation. Black people have heard the same story over and over and over and over again, after each killing. Every rebellion is met with pleas to stop the violence, engage in peaceful collaboration, and “work together to find solutions.”
But the solutions never come. Once calm returns, everything is forgotten; as soon as “law and order” is restored, people can return to peaceful shopping in their nice Target stores, where most of the customers look a lot like they do.
Until the next unarmed black death at the hands of law enforcement.
Many people are encouraged by the scale and duration of the protests happening now, and by how widely galvanized people of all backgrounds seem. I want to see an end to violent, deadly policing, and redress of a long legacy of social, economic, and health care discrimination. We must seize the opportunity to begin those efforts now, and at last see them through.
History does not give me cause for optimism, but a window is now open.
As a natural historian, one of the brightest lights of hope I’ve seen during this horrible period has been the concerted effort to promote, organize, and increase the visibility of young black people interested in nature, bird watching, and outdoor activities. All children are captivated by birds, bugs, plants, and nature as a whole, and they must be encouraged to pursue those interests in an environment free of fear. May their numbers increase, as we work harder to welcome them.
What kind of world will the next brood of magical cicadas in my little corner of Appalachia emerge to?
The world will be hotter, with unpredictable weather disruptions. It’s conceivable that the emergence year might even shift from 2037 in response to climate, or that the entire brood may diminish from some other factor driving many insect populations into alarming declines. If current trends continue, 2037 Brood IX cicadas will emerge into a world with far fewer predators. North American bird populations as a whole have declined by 29% since the year I watched my first Brood IX cicadas.
I want both the natural world and the human society to see dramatic improvements by 2037. We must address accelerating climate change and extinction. And we must grub out systemic racism, a problem the United States has never solved, by the root. That root has both tap and fibrous character. It runs deep through 400 years, starting with the slaughter of natives and the enslavement of black Africans, and now ramifies out laterally into every aspect of culture, commerce, education, housing, medical care, and employment.
In pulling out the root of my own racist past, my purpose is to again lay it bare in the withering sunlight of contrition. But I, and we, must go further by actively eliminating systemic racism, in its many manifestations.
Some white responses to this essay will be as predictable as the sounds of cicadas. They sound like this:
I’m not racist. I don’t see color. I am kind to everyone. I have black friends.
I . . . I . . . I . . . am not listening. I am not seeing my own racism, when I fail to recognize that my life has benefited in a thousand ways from my own skin color, while others have been held back because of theirs. It is not enough to be equitable in my dealings with all people. It is not enough to be not overtly or consciously racist. We must become actively antiracist, by working hard to eliminate the inequities that drive people to desperation, that hold them back from success. I must actively call out both overt and systemic racism every time I see or hear it, no matter who is shocked or offended.
And most importantly, we must leave the “me space” and silence our own white voices enough to listen and reflect on the realities and recommendations of people of color.
Long ago I shed the active practice of traditional religion. Yet I continue to study the teachings and insights of world religions. The Old and New Testaments of the Bible describe many instances of people “waiting for the Kingdom of God,” and of the Christ teaching that “the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” One interpretation is that that Kingdom is always coming.
Racist thoughts may be as old as the human species, perhaps tracing their roots to our evolution as social primates, with its attendant selection for ingroup equity and outgroup enmity. Any such tendencies are not inviolate, but they can be firmly set into place by experienced cultural prejudices and expressions of anger, fear, or disgust toward the “other.”
I must note here that biology, whatever its influence, is not destiny, and that any selective advantage conveyed to our long deceased wild ancestors from fighting outgroups is grossly maladaptive in modern human society. In this sense, the work of rooting out racism will be difficult and continuous. Dr. King’s kingdom is still coming, and it’s up to us to finally see it through. We cannot claim to have vanquished racism when we live in a system that continues it.
Archbishop Óscar Romero was assassinated in 1980, after years of advocating for the poor, tortured, and abused people of El Salvador, just as Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968. Romero’s words ring true:
Faith consists not only in believing with the head, but in committing oneself through the heart and the life.
Let’s re-commit to the work.