The Exodus:5 Project
They shall cover the surface of the land, so that no one will be able to see the land. They shall devour the surviving remnant that was left to you after the hail; and they shall eat away all your trees that grow in the field. Exodus 10:5
Within the next couple of years, the Washington, DC area will be revisited by the local 17-year cicada invasion. If you have not experienced the phenomenon, you have not visited the alternative universe that nature provides on a cyclical basis. These harmless but spooky insects emerge from their gestation underground, shed their hard exterior and fly haphazardly seeking the fulfillment that is the purpose of their arrival.
Cicadas emerge every spring and into the summer. But the 17-year cicadas are especially prolific and spend a week or two flying in any empty space and landing on any available leaf or branch. During that time, any human being who ventures outside must be forewarned. The cicadas don’t care what is in their way.
My daughter described a car trip during this infestation as being like driving through a video game.
And then they die, mostly with a smile. But because of their sheer numbers, the carcasses are absolutely everywhere. The piles in the gutters may not be as deep as leaves raked from autumn yards, but they are ubiquitous. The telltale crunch is unmistakable and, well, gross. Lasting until a couple of good rainstorms wash them away, cicadas become the landscape.
Other such pervasive natural phenomena have their season. In DC, the early spring sees cars, windowsills and patio furniture covered with a mustard-yellow powder emitted by fertile trees. The fuzzy output of other trees can make a front yard look like a cotton field. And a Nor’easter in the winter can obscure every feature of the landscape in an undulating carpet of white.
We know what is under all of this stuff. It was there in years 1-16, in the middle of summer, in the dry days of early winter. But when they cover the surface of the land so that no one will be able to see the land, what is dependable and recognizable underneath disappears not just from sight, but also from consciousness. Crunch, achoo, brrr. It is what is on top that captures our attention and our reaction.
It seems to me that we are going through such a period of time in the political life of our country. The landscape is obscured by the detritus of phenomena that capture our attention and our reaction. The day-to-day functions of government, the necessary deliberations over sound policy and the difficult business of implementing law and policy seem unidentifiable because of the distraction of oversexed cicadas, irritating dumps of pollen and chilling blankets of precipitation. The landscape is still there; the processes are still in motion and the decisions made unnoticed are still being instigated.
I can understand how hard it is to ignore that top layer of concealment. It is quite literally in your face, provoking your discomfort and demanding your response. We are blinded by it, forced to remember the contours underneath instead of experiencing them. (And too often, our memories are less than accurate.) Unlike the stuff of nature, I can’t help wondering if it isn’t intentional to cast tantrums and tweets that obscure the questions that really need to be considered in our society.
My response to the cicadas and pollen is a broom, sweeping clean or near to it. My response to the snow is a shovel, valuable for other accumulations as well. I try to keep my eye on what is beneath the detritus so that I do not mistake the cover for the book.
But it is hard, I know. Especially when I worry that other plagues are down the road.