Michiana Chronicles: Cicada Days

Jul 30, 2020

In our neighborhood, the cicadas are back, buzzing on the high branches in the evening, sliding out the slit backs of their exoskeletons when nobody’s looking, and then hanging on the side of the house all green and black and shiny in their fresh jackets. The exoskeletons remain on a tree trunk for ages, ghostly reminders of the oddest, most unlikely renewal. The new wings are finely drawn, a shiny metallic green near the body but clear further down, something so fabulous a king would have paid a master artist a stack of golden coins for one in days gone by. If these blunt, ugly little digits can live underground for months and even years, can sing with their tails from the tree tops until they find a mate, and can be both homely and intricately beautiful at the same time, well, that reminds me of the wonder of the natural world.

Credit Ken Smith

But we aren’t much like cicadas. We humans have worked pretty hard to cut ourselves off from the regenerative cycles of nature. We’re more like hothouse flowers now than anything else. We’re fine in winter as long as the ducts radiate heat and in summer as long as the cooling towers hum in the yard. But if the economy sputters, watch out. Break the glass in winter and a hothouse rose freezes overnight. Disrupt the water supply in summer and that rose shrivels. We’d be lucky to be cicadas if the economy crumbles.

People everywhere have felt the fiscal tremors for some time now. A phone call came yesterday from the Manhattan part of the family, two young adults working and studying near Columbia University. They were walking down a sidewalk by a tall building, our daughter said, when many small jagged pieces of paper came fluttering down around them. As the scraps came to rest on the sidewalk, they saw that these had been lottery tickets, useless now with all the hope drained out. Someone well above in the building had torn up a stack of tickets and tossed them out the window.

That’s just one omen among many these days. People are hungry for something, anything, that might bring renewal. My spouse and I remind ourselves not to get sloppy about the easy parts: soapy water, a cloth mask, social distance. Careful reflection about safety in the public spaces we might visit and the places people work and learn. Helping to save the economy by helping to stop the pandemic. Before he died in July, civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis left us a message about renewal that you can read now on the New York Times website. Congressman Lewis pointed out that there are wise, useful lessons waiting to guide us in the passages of history. He said that people all over the planet would love to be our partners and allies as we try for social, economic, and ecological justice and renewal. He urged us all to get out and walk with the wind of history.

Under the psychological pressure of COVID fears and economic shockwaves and isolation, I find peculiar memories emerging, unlikely as a cicada. Here’s one from my college days. The professor had learned languages as a kid in a postwar refugee camp in eastern Europe. Now he was in Iowa teaching a seminar on medieval lyric poetry. On the last day of class, he said: “Someday you will receive a collect call from someone in trouble, perhaps just an acquaintance. Pay for the call.” We don’t have collect calls any more, but you get the picture.

Music: "Wrong Foot Forward" by Flook