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)