Once a cicada emerged from seventeen years underground to find little had changed. Oh, there was no denying things had changed for the world it emerged into, which seemed much warmer than was the case less than two decades before. And conditions had changed for many of the plants, animals, birds, and fish that had been forced to adapt or had disappeared when they couldn’t do so quickly enough. But not in the world of Homo sapiens, by all indications. They were behaving as if confident the creature comforts they’d enjoyed in the past would be theirs forever. In fact, their numbers had increased significantly, and the next time the cicadas emerged, they might well face a struggle with these supremely successful invasive bipeds for breeding space in the trees. Not to mention the risk of going deaf from the grating racket humans made wherever they turned up. If they limited their deafening insistence on calling attention to themselves to a reasonable mating season, the din might have been tolerable. But to carry on as they did at all hours, in all seasons and weather, as though competing to be recognized as the best endowed species on earth was the only activity of importance in life, regardless of how boorishly you went about it or how many pills you had to pop to perform—now that kind of behavior could be distinctly annoying to a cicada, having itself waited so long and so patiently for its own moment to sound off and get it on with some six-legged hottie. Beyond which, why did humans want to climb back into the trees at an increasing pace anyway when they’d proven over and over again they were ready to do the dirty whenever and wherever they had a spare moment? Nor could their arboreal retreat be for any evolutionary advantage. Hadn’t they turned their backs on an existence spent dangling from branches long, long ago? Upright gait, tool-making hands, a cranial capacity that proved size does matter—what was all that about, if not a clear demonstration there was no turning back their development to the way things once were in simpler times? Human beings ought to accept that they’d moved on and just make the best they could of the next stage. But no. Being a member of the species Homo sapiens evidently had its vexations, chief among them being what the cicada hypothesized was a “big-brain burden.” Given, of course, the necessary caveat that its hypothesis was based solely on preliminary observation but did seem to account for the available evidence better than rival claims. Most telling, in the cicada’s view, was the number of humans lurching about today in an apparent effort to shake off unwanted brain cells and reacquaint themselves with the habit of scraping the ground with their knuckles. Such regressive behavior suggesting difficulty in shouldering the demands of modern intelligence was of limited help, though, in understanding the deeper significance of any postulated “big-brain burden.” The basic motor skills of humans appeared to be up to the task, so the phenomenon must arise from a different cause. For they weren’t just crawling back into the trees on all sides but fighting others tooth and nail in assertion of their absolute right to be there. This aggressive behavior was true not simply of overheated individuals, whose reaction to the first hint of opposition was to reach for the nearest lethal object and shriek menacingly, but also of those one might have assumed had outgrown such behavior. The truly stunning development had to be the swarming of the trees now by whole populations who, regardless of location on the planet, seemed uniformly intent on never again finding themselves limited by having their feet on the ground. For a life form so identified with intelligence, it was astonishing to an observant cicada how many humans now sought to get by without recourse to thought. Having spent a long time buried in darkness itself, it might have been assumed to be sensitive to the way in which another species regularly sought to blot out whatever it was determined not to be disturbed by. Nevertheless, the scale of the phenomenon and the energy expended took the cicada aback. Mere willful distraction or mental idleness or the thousand and one befuddlements that naturally come with age would hardly be sufficient for the effect observed. A lifetime spent renouncing the brain one had the good fortune to have been born with must be necessary to attain the results so strikingly on display among more and more humans. When not up a tree, they moved about the land with an increasingly hunched posture, as if returning to a kind of mental crouch was the safest way to get through their lives without the risks that came from new ideas. In an age of technological marvels, medical miracles, inquiries into the smallest of the small and the farthest reaches of the universe, speculations on the origin and meaning of existence itself, many Homo sapiens, this most cerebrally advanced of species, gave every sign of having decided: “Thanks, but no thanks. We prefer the familiar world of age-old village wisdom because, hey, it tells us who we are and everything we’ll ever need to know. So, put us on the ‘do not call’ list from now on, willya?” It seemed, after generations straining to break free from dark superstition and primitive fears of what reason might reveal, superstition and fear had won out. All that had been gained so far or only glimpsed as yet of greater enlightenment to come apparently demanded too much be sacrificed of the comfort still offered by past ignorance. As though you really believed you could enjoy the advantages of life in the twenty-first century without leaving a hovel slapped together long ago out of Dark-Age illusions. Truly astonishing, the cicada reflected. Times ahead looked grim indeed for its own species as a result, no question about that. Given the likelihood there soon wouldn’t remain a single branch on a single tree on the face of the earth that wasn't crawling with humans raising a greater and greater racket about less and less, what space would remain for future generations of cicadas? Not a square inch, at this rate?
Copyright © 2012 by Geoffrey Grosshans