Waiting for Brood X

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Periodical cicadas? Every magazine and newspaper has an article. And they all use the term “invasion” – as if the writers welcome the chance to use this forbidden word so openly. These creatures, the beasts of Brood X, will irritate only the irritable; children will be delighted, they say. They will not even really hurt the trees, though for some of the smaller ones, when the cicadas finally die it will be a bit of a re-leaf. We are therefore looking forward to a fairly painless invasion, an un-plague of proportions not so much biblical as Unitarian: if you want it to be a blessing, it’s a blessing. Fire up the grill: these suckers are good eatin’!

Their strategy for staying ahead of predators partakes heavily of the economies of scale. As an article in The EconomistThe Invasion of the Brood – observes,

Most biologists believe that the odd lifestyle of periodical cicadas is an example of a survival strategy called ‘predator satiation’: the insects emerge in such prodigious quantities that predators cannot possibly eat them all. And their curious prime-numbered lifecycles may be another anti-predator strategy.

Glenn Webb, a mathematician at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, has demonstrated mathematically that prime-numbered lifecycles could help cicadas avoid damaging ‘resonances’ with the two- and three-year population fluctuations of their predators. These would result in lots of predators being around in years when there were lots of prey. Dr Webb’s model shows that, over a 200-year period, average predator populations during hypothetical outbreaks of 14- and 15-year cicadas would be up to 2% higher than during outbreaks of 13- and 17-year cicadas. That may not sound like much, but it is enough to drive natural selection towards a prime-numbered life-cycle.

As with most insects, little is known about the habitat preferences of periodical cicadas. Fortunately, a long-term study is underway:

Dr Clay’s research builds on data that generations of Indiana’s entomologists have been gathering at 17-year intervals for over a century. He estimates, though, that he will need results from at least three more Brood X outbreaks to draw firm conclusions about cicadas’ habitat preferences. Like his forward-looking predecessors, he will have to rely on future generations of entomologists to ensure that his labours bear fruit. Many entomologists in the American mid-west, it seems, are also now on a 17-year cycle.

This is not the stuff of a 2-year master’s thesis – or even a PhD. In fact, I venture to suggest that the “publish or perish” strategy for survival differs quite strongly from “predator satiation,” and is more proper to a higher trophic level.

There is something refreshing about the cicada ethos: unlike the mentality of a horde of locusts, say, or American shoppers intent on mass consumption, the cicadas aspire only to molt, metamorphose, sing, mate and lay eggs. There’s no mistaking the mechanical quality in a male cicada’s noontime trill: this is a sex machine. His real life as a larva burrowing in the dark, sucking sap from tree roots – that’s all over. This is the afterlife; he’s in cicada heaven now. And according to the preliminary findings of Dr. Clay and his colleagues, that heaven looks a whole lot like a sprawling suburban subdivision in the American Middle West.

This post also appears on the PA Wildlands news blog.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Verde que te quiero verde.
Verde viento. Verdes ramas.
El barco sobre la mar
Y el caballo en la montaña.

Federico García Lorca, “Romance Sonambulo”

Green, how I want you green.
Green wind. Green branches.
The ship upon the sea
And the horse in the highlands.

These very famous lines, with which the ballad begins and ends, may be taken to connote love of both literal and figurative greenness. It’s hard to show this in the translation, but perhaps we could have the first line say:

Green, how much I love your greenness . . .

But for me, what’s important is that the beloved remains unspecified. One wants/loves this greenness in the sea, in the mountains, one searches for the beloved in every green thing.

AFTERTHOUGHT (afternoon):
In Sufism, the ‘unseen guide’ is Khidr, the Green One. Though comparable to the figure of Elijah in Judaism, in fact, scholars assert, he is none other than Adonis in a new guise.

According to the Wikipedia, “Green is the traditional color of Islam . . . because of its association with nature. Muhammad is reliably quoted in a hadith as saying that ‘water, greenery, and a beautiful face’ were three universally good things.” The Quran compares the divine word to a green tree planted in the heart.

The Wikipedia article points out two further connotations of green: envy and go. Green may be associated with both peace and warfare. Truly, a color with a split personality!

Parenthesis and antithesis

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The heat and humidity, which makes the birds so happy (and the dawn chorus so full) is bad for my brain. Bear with me here, folks! At this rate, I’ll have to slink through the summer in borrowed thoughts. (Barring inspiration, I could pay more attention to the look of the site, borrow codes from sites I admire. (You can see I already took the momentous step of introducing an Image yesterday, which necessitated learning to use a free image hosting site and the photo-touchup software that’s on my machine. (For anyone who’s wondering, it’s the Egyptian glyph KA, which refers to the undying part of the soul – the “spirit” or doppelganger – which in ancient times, according to Bika Reed, was understood by analogy with an egg in the womb of BA, the overall soul-complex.)))

If the oviducts of my imagination fail to produce any original thoughts soon, the stewpot will beckon. I could turn Via Negativa into a regular potpie of pithy quotes and striking images, maybe even build up a real readership! All sorts of folks who don’t have the time or patience to struggle through my usual fare would begin stopping by for Pearls of Wisdom – presuming I could keep my more swinish tendencies at bay. (Like insulting the present readership by implication – bad bad bad!)

Today, I’m off to town (first time in three weeks!), so I’ll cut the crap right here and retrieve a pearl of sorts that you won’t read anywhere else. You may remember me writing about my niece Eva, who is eight years old and a bit precocious in the spiritual sense. I reprinted her first-ever poem, which she wrote over a year ago. The beginner’s luck didn’t last, but she did send me a poem about a month ago that was impressive in its own way. I wrote back with praise and what I hope were encouraging remarks. Here’s the poem:


Why do people kill?
Why do we have wars?
Why do we cut trees for houses?
Why did we invent the nuclear bomb?

Why? Why? Why?

Everything is a question to me.
Why does the world have so much evil,
and sadness,
and kindness?

Why is the world like it is?

–Eva Bonta, April 6, 2004

Here’s how I responded. I don’t know how much of this she understood, but I’m a firm believer in not talking down to children.

Hi Eva,

Good work! What can I say? I still ask these questions, too. A lot of people would rather avoid wrestling with tough questions like these, and prefer to settle for easy answers. Why do they do that? That’s a question that’s not so hard to answer: because people want to feel safe and secure. Who can blame them? Very few people are brave enough to face up to the basic unfairness of existence.

I like the fact that you added “kindness” at the end. That’s a mystery too: why love when it’s easier to hate?

I don’t know whether a willingness to ask big questions will make you a happier person. But it will stretch your mind and make you wiser – and a better poet. You know what they say: the brain is a muscle, it needs to be exercised. I’m glad you’re giving yours such a workout!


“There is always another way . . . “

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Some good quotes from the physicist Richard Feynman today at wood s lot. I especially liked this one:

If we will only allow that, as we progress, we remain unsure, we will leave opportunities for alternatives. We will not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth of the day, but remain always uncertain… In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.

Curious to see what else Feynman might have said about the limits to knowledge, I followed the link to his Nobel lecture and found this:

There is always another way to say the same thing that doesn’t look at all like the way you said it before. I don’t know what the reason for this is. I think it is somehow a representation of the simplicity of nature. A thing like the inverse square law is just right to be represented by the solution of Poisson’s equation, which, therefore, is a very different way to say the same thing that doesn’t look at all like the way you said it before. I don’t know what it means, that nature chooses these curious forms, but maybe that is a way of defining simplicity. Perhaps a thing is simple if you can describe it fully in several different ways without immediately knowing that you are describing the same thing.

I’ll go along with that! The question, though, is whether this “simplicity” lies in nature itself, or merely in the mind of the observer?

Gold fever

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

This time four years ago, my friend Crazy Dave had come up from the Philly area, where he was living at the time, to help me out with a project, and ended up staying for a couple of weeks. One evening an old friend of Dave’s, Dr. D., stopped by for a brief visit. Dr. D. had been bitten by the gold mining bug, and the intensity with which he talked about panning for gold in the Appalachians was almost frightening. The following account appears in my manuscript Spoil (available for download as a .pdf document at my other site). I decided to convert it into prose – it reads better that way.



Rain interlaced with birdcalls, the god-forsaken moan of a cat in heat & without warning a crash of thunder, so close it’s simultaneous with the flash.

We lean over the porch railing, crane our necks, peering into the dusk. Some black or scarlet oak must still be shivering, its newly unfurled leaves as if in the throes of a proprietary wind, with the raw stripe–sapwood laid open from earth to sky–where the lightning-tree stretched one revelatory limb.

A heartbeat later the rain turns torrential. We have to pull our chairs close to talk.

Let me tell you, some of these eastern creeks can really tease honey from the rock says our visitor, hunched around his hunger like an inverted question mark, wire-thin arms tense with current. He pulls out his portable titanium sluice box & the green plastic pan–only eight dollars through the mail. Says there’s one thin seam that runs the length of the piedmont from Georgia to Maine: in plate tectonic theory, perhaps the very line where the continents tried to fuse. Somehow you need that heat, those exact pressures.

I decide to save for later my polite queries about his children, whom he’s just been up to visit. He’s busy unscrewing a vial full of dust, balances a grain on his fingertip. You don’t do it for the money, just the realization: it’s been lying there on that creekbed for ten thousand years.

He runs an anxious hand through thinning hair. Here, feel how heavy, how hard the gold itself tries–this little grain! to get under your skin.