Cycles and Cicadas – Patterns of the Past

Contributed by John J. Grabowski, Ph.D., Historian/Senior Vice President for Research and Publications.

The forthcoming emergence of the 17-year cicadas is fast approaching. It’s one of nature’s most incredible cycles – periods of time built around natural rhythms that define our lives.

Indeed, this event is a good occasion to think about how we choose, in many ways, to divide the past into regular spaces of time, and then how we park our memories within those spaces.

Obviously, the earth’s orbit of the sun and the four seasons that accompany it are the natural set of cycles that define our lives. And, of course, within that orbit there are the shifting positions of the stars that form the Zodiac and the astrological links to Capricorn, Gemini, Taurus, et al. that some believe govern our personalities and our fate.

But within that natural cosmic cycle we create and encounter other time nodes to which we link our lives and memories — all of which are based on the calendar that defines the days and years of our journeys around the sun. The school semester, baseball season in spring, and football in fall are markers we sometimes use to chart our lives. Then there are others – every four years a Presidential election, the time in one’s youth of a bar or bat mitzvah, or a first communion are remembered stages in life.

There are longer cycles defined by other cosmic events – Halley’s comet appears every 75.3 years. Mark Twain was born in 1835 during an appearance of the comet. He noted in 1909 “I came in with Halley’s Comet. It is coming again next year. The Almighty has said, no doubt, ‘Now there are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together. ‘” Twain died in 1910 when the comet returned.

This year the cicadas seem to provide us another natural cycle – the emergence of Brood X which will be prevalent in Ohio and Indiana. It is estimated that this will be an occasion when billions of cicadas come out of the ground beginning in May. It happens every seventeen years and things will get a bit noisy and sidewalks and streets a bit crunchy. And it “sounds” like it will be memorable.

Indeed, what do Clevelander’s remember from the last time Brood X emerged? It was 2004 and the Indians would end up in 3rd place – Omar Vizquel was still on the team. The Browns, well forget about it, as it would be only a 4-win season (remember coaches Terry Robiskie and Butch Davis?). But then the Cavs had LeBron on the squad. He had been drafted the year before. Jane Campbell, the city’s first and only woman mayor was still in office and still dealing with the economic issues that followed the “Dot-com” collapse in 2001-2002.

Nevertheless, some of us may wish to link a life event to this natural event this year. Will we someday tell someone that he or she was born in the year of the great Cicada emergence? Perhaps, but, that could get confusing particularly if he or she moves out of the area. Brood X is one of 14 broods of 17- year cicadas, each emerging on its own annual cycle in specific areas east of the Mississippi River. Add to that the three broods of thirteen-year cicadas that emerge at different times, and it’s hard to measure a life event like a birth, wedding or graduation around a noisy spring unless you stay in the same place over time! Indeed, there were and will be only five years between 2013 and 2029 in the Midwest, South, and East Coast that will be absent cicadas.