Everything I know about bugs and stars, I learned well before kindergarten.
I was watching a circle of children scrawling starbursts on the patio steps with the lighted ends of fireflies. A mother, appearing from nowhere—as mothers often do— yanked her child from the gathering and posed a question worthy of careful consideration: “Hey, how would you kids like someone drawing on the pavement with your backsides?”
It was a rudimentary lesson in biodiversity and sustainability, lessons that are being pursued in other ways by faculty studying the behavior of the periodical cicada.
This month, we are beginning to witness the emergence of the cicada, a symbol of metamorphosis that had caught the fancy of generations well before our own. In ancient China, cicada “funeral jades” were placed on the tongues of the dead, a custom, some believe, to help speed the “death to life” process the cicada and its cycle represented.
Judging from the mud-daubed towers that have sprouted in yards throughout Bloomington, I think of the cicadas as great land speculators. They burrow downward, equipped with a natural proclivity for choosing land that won’t depreciate. Location! Location! Location! It’s a survival motion, what they do, staking their claim and then hoping that the ecosystem they rise to after a snug sabbatical of 17 years is just as neighborly as before.
We all tend to see ourselves and our behaviors played out in some distinct way among creatures great and small. Think of the “ant farm,” a veritable blueprint for life in the workplace. In that plastic and sand habitat, a window into the world’s most famous social insect is opened, suggesting to the human child lessons about diligence, hard work, an ability to be orderly and patient (and sometimes very impatient).
We cannot help but anthropomorphize. We also tend to benchmark our personal lives through memories of natural phenomena. IUB SPEA staffer Grace New will always remember her family’s summer of 1987, when brown clouds encircled her southside home each day, much to the annoyance of her sons, then 11 and 16. The din at night had a distinct hum, “like a radio not quite tuned in to your favorite station,” New said.
It is in these recollections that our children and others in our inner circles are crystallized in memory. We collect the wonder in the world in the glint of a wing, marvel at the perfection and, always, sense its deepest fragility.
We will have a chance to observe another smashing natural phenomenon next month. No one alive today has witnessed a “transit of Venus,” says Rick Steldt, director of the IU Kokomo Observatory. (The last was in 1882.) Venus will appear as a small black speck, a cosmic ant, moving across the face of the sun, a kind of “mini eclipse,” Steldt said, on June 8. So get thee to an observatory!
Transits of Venus happen in pairs, separated by eight years, so if you miss this year’s or the transit of 2012, there won’t be another for 130 years. But the periodical cicadas, brown whirring clouds of them, will rise again in 2021, and that certainty, in an unsettling world, has a pleasantly comforting ring to it.