Your Brood And Mine

The cicadas of Brood X have come to cen­tral Ohio, and soon they will leave again. With them will go a thriv­ing busi­ness in local news­pa­per arti­cles and nov­el­ty recipes. Hav­ing expect­ed the dra­mat­ic scenes I knew from the gyp­sy moth cater­pil­lar infes­ta­tions of the north­east, I was, despite myself, a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ed by the lack of giant red-eyed car­pets of insects on the streets. Those of us deep in cen­tral Colum­bus missed them entire­ly; I had to trav­el out to Dublin to see them and hear them myself. 

For decades land­scape archi­tects have tak­en as a base assump­tion the virtue of bio­di­ver­si­ty in the places we make. When the biol­o­gist Dou­glas Tal­lamy claims that 280, or 456, or 534, or 4,000 dif­fer­ent species are sus­tained by native oak trees (the num­ber varies over time, or by reporter), we inter­pret the fig­ure as a gener­ic wealth; we prob­a­bly see the tree as a well-kept hotel full of col­or­ful trav­el­ers, peace­ful­ly com­ing and going. 

But the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a bio­di­verse city, if suc­cess­ful, would mean a pres­ence of ani­mal bod­ies and ani­mal waste that would at times, be over­whelm­ing; at very least, to share the table with oth­er ani­mals is to be will­ing to suf­fer sharp elbows. It is one thing to have deer in your hostas; anoth­er to have a pre­dictable infes­ta­tion of nat­ty lit­tle dev­ils, every now and again; anoth­er to be in the midst of bib­li­cal mouse plagues like the one Aus­tralia has been suf­fer­ing through. The exu­ber­ant, open-end­ed ecolo­gies we cel­e­brate – in the absence of expe­ri­enc­ing them – pre­cise­ly do not hum along in a pre­dictable steady state, but express them­selves in die-offs, exhaus­tion, and crowd­ing – events that coin­cide with our dai­ly lives.

brood x flag
An enthusiastic neighbor.

Such stress­es in swarms of peo­ple, if unwant­ed, at least seem com­mon enough, but swarms of any­one else have come to seem freak­ish in their absence. I have been struck in research­ing the his­to­ry of Colum­bus the reports of ani­mal abun­dance the first colonists report: mass­es of squir­rels migrat­ed through the woods, and piles of snakes gath­ered in the fis­sures of the future lime­stone quar­ries, mak­ing a hideous smell for a mile around. An ornithol­o­gist report­ed that as late as the 1850s, flocks of pas­sen­ger pigeons would block out the sun for hours at a time as they passed over­head, leav­ing a fluffy fecal lay­er behind on the woods. The colonists set about, pas­sive­ly and active­ly, to remove these dis­tur­bances; if putting boun­ties on squir­rel scalps (no, real­ly) didn’t work, turkey-shoot­ing the pas­sen­ger pigeons cer­tain­ly did. 

Land­scape archi­tects, when they appeared, joined the push. I learned from my for­mer stu­dent Andy Polefrone’s the­sis that many rec­om­men­da­tions for urban tree plant­i­ng in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry were dri­ven by avoid­ing insect life entire­ly. A.J. Down­ing rec­om­mend­ed ailan­thus specif­i­cal­ly because North Amer­i­can insects showed no inter­est in it. He lat­er piv­ot­ed under the influ­ence of Know-Nothingism and con­demned it as a tree that has the fair out­side and the treach­er­ous heart of the Asi­at­ics.” But the deed had been done; and besides, his advo­ca­cy of lawns for every prop­er­ty did just as much to cull the insect masses.

A friendly visitor.

Gen­uine good­will toward oth­er species – not just the main­te­nance of a zoo ecol­o­gy under lock and key – would entail a true open­ness to shift­ing val­ues, one that would like­ly not be shared by many oth­ers in the same sit­u­a­tion. We can aim for an opti­mal ecol­o­gy for all, know­ing that the per­fect ecol­o­gy will not be achieved. But as with social equi­ty, it seems unrea­son­able for the priv­i­leged to expect a bet­ter state of things with­out giv­ing up a mea­sure of com­fort and convenience.

If such species are not always just orna­men­tal, how do we keep peace with them? One last thought about the cica­da – to spend some time look­ing at it sun­ning itself on a leaf is to imag­ine what land­scape is at anoth­er size, what the bod­i­ly adven­ture of the cicada’s month-life would be. If the will to land­scape has meant the will to make the pic­ture flaw­less, and damn the con­se­quences, it might equal­ly be the capac­i­ty to under­stand how 4,000 dif­fer­ent land­scapes could unfold in the same place, at the same time. 

(June 2021)