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The Bug Stops Here? thoughts on Brood X, Med-students and the Social Media of Trees

Updated: Jun 26, 2021

UPDATE, late June 2021, as promised:

It's almost quiet again, humming-in-the-trees-wise, 17-year-cycle-wise. The carcasses of emerged cicadas ring around the base of oak trees in the front and back of my own humble yard, and the base of most trees in my own humble region of the mid-Atlantic U.S.A.. As it turned out, I did not hear the reproductive-passionate hum of cicadas in the depths of the woods where I climb dirt trails, routinely, only as I would approach the perimeters, where paved roads and spaced-apart trees and human houses, stand. I can't say why. Your guess is as good as mine, as always.

Yet I can say, sound-wise, the crowded, natural growth of trees in the depths of the woods did not achieve ANYWHERE CLOSE to the sound of cicadas around the perimeter of the looping dirt trails in the woods ...

that I frequent to spend an hour in silence, or in grateful greeting of an aging floof-golden-retriever such as my Lexie, whom I greeted just yesterday in grateful gratitude that she was still "among us," as I told her human companion, Michael, who assured me that Lexie, although "11 years now" was doing well.

(Part of my soul, 17-year-Brood-X or not, was afraid NOT to stumble upon Lexie, whom I loved as much as any creature I'd ever stumbled upon.)

I asked Michael, her human, how Josie was doing. (Lexie had made it clear that Josie was HER cat, not the cat of any humans in the house, or any other prior dogs, like Lexie's mom, or Lexie's sister, from the same house.)

Lexie's face shifted when I asked about her Josie, just 2 days ago. "Josie's doing well, as well." (Michael responded.)

To feel more grateful for all this news on a dirt trail, as Brood-X cicadas' hum surely recedes, until 2038? when I, one basic woman, will likely have shed this mortal coil? Just, ever-grateful to know, and still be able to hug, my woodsly Lexie. I will not even mention how long, how unexpectedly long, she held my eye-contact, yesterday, as if she might never see me in this life, again. I can't mention that, without melting into a pile of loss and longing and gratitude for the mystery of meeting souls in some kind of body, that I'm not able to share with anyone, just yet?)


In late winter 2015, the Harvard Book Store press published my short-short “Herd Immunity” in its collection Microchondria II. I had planned to fly up for the release party (thanks, Didi, for the offer of hospitality) but a rare March snowstorm kept me home and shoveling. Nature, weather, surprises, life itself – have their own timing and rhythms.

I’d been thinking about herd immunity beyond virus terms. How, for example, when commuting to work with a wandering mind, you can expose yourself to the risk of known speed-cameras. But if enough other cars slow down, they move your foot to the brake, too. You’re protected against the flash and fines. (To my herd -- on Connecticut Avenue alone -- thank you.) My county now hides cameras behind Porta-Potties on stretches of road-construction. Crafty buggers. To be clear, I want to drive safely; I also want to drive, how to say, efficiently. Guess I’ll have to saddle up for riding with that herd again, soon, when the university reopens in August.

It’s late May. Our newest crop of med-school graduates will be pomped and circumstanced at 11:00 am today, via Facebook live-stream.

Together, the class of ‘21 made it through the strangest year-4 of medical learning in decades. No away rotations, no residency interviews in-person, not even a foot inside a hospital, for a while. All amid a crescendo of police killings of unarmed Black citizens, and international protest, for the simple argument that their lives matter. Crowds in protest. Felt like a tipping point, last summer. As a herd, this class of med-students is exceptionally committed toward the causes of equity and parity in practice, including mental-healthcare, for their future herds of patients and care-teams. If not immunity, their protectiveness, their speaking up, their saying enough! – this has got to stop here, now -- feels like another vaccine, to me. So very grateful to walk the planet at the same time with them.

It’s late May. Our neighborhoods thrum from the 17-year-cycle of emergence by Brood X cicadas. Their empty husks cover everything green and growing in my yard, my zip code, my large swath of a somewhat United States. The buggers do little harm and much good; all they’ll want is to bury themselves inside new tree-growth, to live on their tree-sap until 2038.

So unless you are a young tree, they are a high-decibel fascination. And a periodic “food pulse” for feasting birds, smaller mammals, even fish, and some humans.

During their previous emergence in 2004, my little cocker, Caddy Compson, would prance at my front door, staring at me in desperation. Can’t you hear them? All that candy in the grass outside? It’s free candy! Why are we not outside all the time? They’re gonna be all gone, mama Mary!

The unfortunate bugs in her belly seemed to do no real harm. (17 years, waiting to mate, and they landed in Caddy’s eager mouth, or some squirrel’s mouth, sigh.) Her poop looked different and smelled nasty, but. I’m grateful she lived through that cornucopia of astonishing wings and big bellies. A neighbor joked throughout those few weeks, “You should put some in the freezer for her, for next winter.” (A laugh, and a hard No.)

They are back in almost-full force, now, this graduation weekend in 2021.

Strangely, though? The hilly woods where I get my cardio-sweat on are only 2 miles away, but in the woods, there are no cicadas. Not one husk on one tree’s bark, not one pale, shedding body that turns into a red-eyed flitter at low altitude. Not one slow-buzzing, limping, juicy bug along a dirt trail. Zero. And I can’t even count the number in my own yard -- or in the yards of houses just outside the perimeter of those woods.

Only the trees around the parking-lots there (human-planted, well-spaced and -tended) show a scattering of husks.

Are the woods just on a different cicada-rhythm, biding their births for another week or two?

Or, I have to wonder, is it herd immunity?

In books about trees I’ve read recently (The Hidden Life of Trees by Wohlleben and The Overstory by Powers) the social life and communicability of trees has astounded me. One example: if the bark of a single tree gets punctured by a single insect pest, that tree releases chemicals that tell all the other trees, Change your scent – danger from this specific threat! And they all produce those chemicals in turn, specifically repellent to that species of infest-risk. They all send out a siren that reaches well beyond the trees any animal could see. Trees, in all stages of aging and life-cycle.

But, key factor: they can do this only when they grow very close to each other. Like in any woods, left alone by planting humans.

In human yards and in common, designed outdoor spaces, we think: “Oh, I’ll have to ‘give this tree plenty of room, space it far apart from the next.’”

Nope. Trees can’t communicate so far apart; their social networks don’t reach. They like to be near each other, to nestle up on a sofa of soil, get some root-tangle going, watch a funny movie together, smell each other’s joys and sorrows, laugh, cry, touch. Know that that may be both enough, and plenty.

(I paraphrase.)

(And, full disclosure, I haven’t finished either book. I haven’t finished a single book since early 2020. And, I highly recommend any such books about trees.)

I do look at and think about trees every day. Both as they live alongside human intention, and live by unplanned processes of seeding, growing, dying and decay. What if their communities are being true to themselves as we understand them now, saying:

Let the human-adjacent, spaced-apart trees take these cicadas in to drink their sap. They’ll all be fine. And there are so many human “yards” with lonesome trees. We’ll just keep putting out the word to Brood X to look elsewhere, take their 17-year-itches to the people-trees to scratch.

I’m none the wiser about this idea, just a wonderer who thinks it up. Sometimes I make connections from tangents that aren’t necessarily web-able, just fun to think about, webbing-wise.

To turn the dialectic from my own thought, I wonder why, if trees sound alarms and chemically respond to threats of pests, who do damage, which cicadas like Brood X do not do, why would they say such a thing to each other in the woods? Why spend the energy to repel a benign, if occasional, visitor?

Maybe the trees in the woods, and the cicadas burrowed beneath them since 2004, are just late-bloomers, like your own Muffin.

Maybe the trees in the woods, alternately, are just plum tuckered out. From the history of woods pests, which are real. Infections that, post-traumatically, launch an oversized protective shout to a current, non-damaging presence? Maybe even a Brood with a crossroads Roman numeral like that, just needs time to adjust to an abundant, root-solid, nourishing topography.

None the wiser, here, as usual. Making a web of connections that might make sense only to memuffinlyself. Just a wondering wanderer here, open as she can be, and then stretching a bit more open, then a bit more, if she can, with her aging joints. My same old woods are never the same, from one day to the next, and always full of wonders.

I hope I’ll be surprised, one way or another, with whatever does or doesn’t happen regarding cicadas in the thick of my woods nearby. We’ve got weeks of wing-singing to go, they say, here in the Mid-Atlantic region. (Promise to update, once the world goes quiet again.)

Meanwhile, I’ll pick my way through less-traveled dirt trails, and visit my barked friends as they keep living and dying and living after they’ve died, in their way. They have enough to do, once they lose their leaves and their bodies fill with pecker-holes and fall down – thus feeding so many other insects and worms and the very earth underneath them. The decaying bark, the well-lived bark! So much more interesting, then, and breathtakingly gorgeous.

Sometimes I look around to make sure no other humans are around, and I say out loud to a herd of trees, I love you.

Because I really do. I imagine they can smell that I love them, somehow, but I want to say it in my language of childhood learning, as well as my pheromonal language of older, vertebrate origin. Maybe they can hear that something else, in the vibrations of my animal sound. Your guess is as good as mine.

Maybe they hear something else like, Dang that’s one noisy generation of plump, earnest, red-eyed flying creatures, with their regalia and giant hearts.

And good for them, and all of us trees.

Thanks for reading. Would love to hear if you're hearing these incredible winged creatures!

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