Cicada song evokes awe of creation

Guest Outlook blog by Katy Shevel

Seventeen years ago, I did not live in the range of the Brood X cicadas and therefore did not experience their last emergence. But my husband did. He told me tales of skies dotted with little flapping wings and the loud din of constant, humming song. Of course, I could have done without his detailed description of the crunchy blanket of exoskeletons littering the ground. He just wanted to make sure I knew what was coming. (Though he took a bit too much pleasure in informing me!)

Fast forward to this week. The trees are buzzing with life in Princeton, New Jersey. Strolling around campus, I didn’t expect the sight of innumerable little insects bursting from the ground, shedding their skins and making a mad dash up into the treetops to be quite so… magical. I saw couples holding hands stop to allow passerby cicadas to slowly waddle across the sidewalk. On several occasions, I watched people use sticks and leaves to rescue fallen cicadas. Up close, I witnessed adult cicadas shed their skin to emerge into the world in an eerily white form. I was surprised to find that mature cicadas are sort of cute and even cartoonish-looking, with dark blackish-blue bodies, red beady eyes on the side of their head and big translucent wings.

And the sound. Oh, the sound.

The pulsing serenade of cicada song cascades down from the trees and fills your eardrums, occasionally growing so loud you can’t hear the person talking right beside you!

I can honestly say I have never witnessed anything quite like the emergence of Brood X before. Alongside this new firsthand experience, I have been thoroughly entertained reading up on their unique life cycles. They ascend to the trees and sing their sonorous songs for one singular purpose: to mate. After they mate, the female cicadas lay eggs in the treetops. The adult cicadas will die about two to four weeks later. After a while, the tiny eggs will hatch, the nymphs will drop down and they will burrow underground. The nymphs will feed on a nearby plant root for the next 17 years, after which they will emerge to the surface once more and start the process all over again. Periodic cicadas overwhelm the threat of predators by the sheer immensity of their numbers, thereby ensuring the survival of their extraordinary species for generations to come.

Naturally, people have widely varied reactions to this sudden onset of trillions of bugs. Numerous headlines describe the arrival of the cicadas as “plague-like” or “invasive.” Some folks have donned beekeeping suits. Some people have opted to just hide out inside their homes for a couple weeks. There’s a fascinating club of Princeton High School students who are reportedly super stoked to catch a bunch, freeze and eat them. (Cicada cookies, anyone?)

As I personally took in the dizzying sights and sounds of a town teeming, I couldn’t help but wonder what must this experience have been like for early New Jersey settlers hundreds of years ago. A 1979 New York Times article reports that “in 1613, Pilgrims mistook the wail of healthy brood for the sound of crop-devouring locusts of the biblical sort.” Naturally, settlers would later learn that cicadas, unlike locusts, are mostly harmless. Native Americans considered them sacred.

These periodic swarms of cicadas have elicited awe in humans for centuries. Their massive emergence attests to the wonder and mystery of creation. Even after they are gone, the cicada bodies decompose, leaving a lasting mark on the earth — and in the digestive tracts of hungry animals. In considering the impact of the cicadas, a recent article from Vox points out, “When it comes to these insects, there’s still plenty of mystery, partly because they live the majority of their lives underground and only emerge every so often.”

Psalm 139 keeps coming to mind. The psalmist speaks of being “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and “being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” Deep underground, out of sight and mind, countless cicada nymphs live and thrive, biding their time. Every 17 years like clockwork, Brood X ascends to the surface, their once-secret existence suddenly exploding onto our world’s surface. How can something so small, so seemingly insignificant, burst forth with such sheer force and have such lasting effects? And what best describes our response to these tiny creatures over the ages if not fear and wonder?

The life cycle of the cicada is an extension of God’s original act of creation: at once continuous, miraculous — and mystifying. God’s creative work is ongoing, moving and stirring across every inch of our beautiful planet. If each little periodic cicada takes such a long and intricate life journey, with rippling effects on the planet, what then does that mean for each of our lives? How have we been made to embody the wonder and awe of God’s creation? How have we been called to have a lasting positive impact on the lives of our neighbors and friends, in our community and in our world? If insects singing in the trees leave us breathless every 17 years, what other extraordinary creative work is God doing in our world every day and how are we sent forth to participate?

Cicada song calls us back to childlike wonder at what God is doing in our midst.

Let’s listen and learn.

KATY SHEVEL is the associate pastor for congregational life at Wayne Presbyterian Church in the Philadelphia area. She enjoys a good cup of tea, nerding out about theology and history, paddleboarding, and pretending to have a green thumb.