Washington, D.C., is under attack! Swarms of Qaedas are invading the nation's capital. The chatter, as experts call the communication between these envoys of doom, is the most intense it's been since 1987. Qaedas in recent weeks have attacked weddings and graduations. They've infested homes, woods and fields, even office buildings. Fearful citizens are postponing barbecues and putting off jogging until autumn. For years, these Qaedas have been lying low, living underground. Sleepers. Now they've emerged to challenge all that America stands for.
Oops. I stand corrected. It's cicadas that are attacking, not Qaedas. Every 17 years the bulbous, vaguely revolting species of bug known as Brood X emerges from the ground to grow wings, molt, breed and die, all within the span of a few weeks. Males emit high-decibel mating calls, a sort of screeching twitter which might be romantic if they weren't counted in the trillions. As I write, Brood X cicadas are attacking in 15 states, from Ohio to Virginia.
They are harmless. Cicadas literally couldn't hurt a fly. But they sure are loud. Their "song"--which one scientist likens to the sound of "flying saucers from a 1950s sci-fi film"--can hit 90 decibels. They're also slow and tend to fly into things that get in their way, such as people. And no doubt about it, they take up a lot of space. In certain Virginia suburbs, you can't walk across a playground without crunching the jumbled bodies of hundreds of slow- moving creepy-crawlies. Swarms can weigh up to 1.5 tons per acre.
Perhaps that's why they are this summer's sensation. Gourmets are cooking up cicada recipes--deep fried, chocolate covered, raw. (Au naturel, they apparently taste like cold canned asparagus.) Music lovers have taken to the howlers, too. The Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce has put out a CD of local bands paying tribute to the winged visitors; called "Seventeen Year Itch," it sold more than 2,000 copies in the first few days of Ohio's infestation. A Cincinnati theater group is producing "Cicada: The Musical," while David Kane, a composer from Silver Spring, Maryland, is writing a piece called "Emergence: The Cicada Serenade." And the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History has produced a 51-track CD by the cicadas themselves, entitled "Treehouse Opera."
Everybody, it seems, is cashing in on the craze. In Washington, hotels tout holiday cicada packages. (One Georgetown bar offers a "cicada cocktail"--Curacao, vodka and pineapple juice.) Artists sell silly cicada paintings at extortionate prices. Example: an oil on canvas of a female cicada saying to a male, "Is that all you ever think about?" ($58). Web sites offer T shirts with slogans like CICADA: THE ULTIMATE LOW-CARB SNACK and RESISTANCE IS FURILE... JOIN BROOD X.
Call me wacky, but after spending a weekend with Brood X, I actually think the cicadas might do the world a service. With Washington ensnarled in its global war on terror, increasingly wary of all things foreign, the cicadas seem to have introduced a newfound tolerance of the Other in the capital. Like my 22-month-old niece, who treats the mysterious visitors like honored guests, picking them up and even trying to pet them, Washingtonians are displaying renewed appreciation for things that are different from themselves--instead of ignoring or crushing them. Who knows? Maybe a little cicada love will trickle down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.