Once a cicada emerged from seventeen years underground to find little had changed in its absence. 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 certainly changed for many of the plants, animals, birds, and fish that had been forced to adapt to the new climate or had begun to disappear when they couldn’t adapt rapidly enough. But little to nothing was different for the human species, by all indications. They were still behaving as if the creature comforts they’d enjoyed in the past would belong to them and their offspring in perpetuity. Moreover, their numbers had increased dramatically, and the next time the cicadas emerged and took to the trees, they might well face a struggle with these supremely successful invasive bipeds for breeding space on any tree limbs that remained. Not to mention the risk of going deaf from the grating racket these 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 as though competing to be recognized as the best-endowed species on earth was the only activity that satisfied them—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 at last while getting it on with some six-legged hottie. Beyond which, why did humans want to climb back into the trees at an accelerating 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 offer any evolutionary advantage. Hadn’t they turned their backs on an existence spent hanging from branches long, long ago? Upright gait, tool-making hands, a cranial capacity they flattered themselves proved size does matter—what was all that about, if not a clear demonstration there was no return now 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 their current state. But oh no. Belonging to Homo sapiens sapiens evidently had its vexations, chief among them being what the cicada speculated was a “big-brain burden.” Of course, the cicada’s hypothesis was based only on limited observation. Yet it seemed to explain the available evidence better than other interpretations did. Particularly telling, in the cicada’s view, was the number of humans lurching about in a swaggering stoop these days as if trying to shake off unwanted brain cells and reacquaint themselves with the mental equivalent of scraping the ground with their knuckles. Such regressive behavior, though suggesting some difficulty in shouldering the demands of modern intelligence, was of limited help in understanding the deeper significance of any hypothetical “big-brain burden.” The basic motor skills of humans appeared to be up to the task, judging by the number of flashy devices they prided themselves on being able to manipulate or simply gaze at hour after hour. So the regression might in fact be a more complex phenomenon than it appeared, the cicada had to concede. For humans weren’t just clambering back into the trees on all sides but literally fighting their own kind tooth and nail in assertion of their absolute right to be there. This aggressive behavior was true not simply of excitable individuals, whose reaction to the first hint of opposition to their slightest wish was to reach for the nearest lethal object and begin cursing loudly, but also of those that one might have supposed had put such brutish behavior behind them. The most stunning development had to be the swarming of the trees now by whole populations who appeared intent on never again feeling themselves hindered in the slightest by having their feet on the ground. It seemed that after generations straining to break free from lightless superstition and a primitive dread of what reason might reveal, superstition and dread had won out. In an age of technological marvels, medical miracles, inquiries into the smallest of the small and the farthest reaches of the cosmos, the latest speculations on the origin and extent of existence itself, many human beings, this most cerebrally advanced of species, gave every sign of having decided: “Thanks, but no thanks. We’ll take the familiar world of age-old village wisdom because, hey, it tells us who we are and everything we’ll ever need to know. Ev-er-y-thing. So, put us on evolution’s ‘do not call’ list until further notice, thank you very much.” Tough times indeed lay ahead for cicadas—and for many another species as well.
Copyright © 2020 by Geoffrey Grosshans