The Sound, The Fury, and the Lanternfly

Learning to accept the things we cannot change—and which things need to be changed right now.

Illustration by Zohar Lazar

MY SPRING FEVER IS AS PREDICTABLE AS THE SEASONS. A string of 70-degree days sends me to the back patio, where I rhapsodize about the musty, rich odor of the forest coming alive, and lakes rolling over, and buds and bulbs emerging, and creatures birthing, or whatever is happening out there.

Once outside, though, I start to hear the motorcycles and big trucks accelerating and braking along Virginia State Route 9, about a quarter mile from our home. My rhapsody over the smells of spring quickly turns to irritation at its sounds.

I know the sound of a Harley or Indian with pipes modified. They come out of the factory relatively quiet—around 80 decibels is the standard and the law–but then some folks pay good money to make them louder. I guess they just like the iconic burbling roar of a big American bike.

Then there’s the jackhammer of tractor-trailer engine brakes. Like the modified bikes, they mock the 80-decibel limits set by the EPA and other regulatory agencies. If I let it, the illegal thunder makes me feel like a victim of a crime—countless counts of misdemeanor aural graffiti in my personal space. If I let it.

Yeah, I know. Relax. Accept the things you cannot change. I get there every year. It just takes some time.

Illustration by Zohar Lazar

Oh, wait a second.

This just in: “Billions of cicadas set to invade the U.S.” The largest population of 17-year cicadas in the eastern United States—known menacingly as “Brood X”—is set to reemerge this year. “Some cicada species can register

sounds louder than 100 decibels—louder than an approaching subway train,” a National Geographic story warns me.

One hundred decibels. That’s an engine brake or unmuffled hog right in our back- yard. Throughout the forest behind us. All night long. For months.

Some people call their psychologist when panic attacks hit. I call my local Virginia Tech extension agent, Jim Hilleary. “It’s not that big a deal,” he tells me. “Think how amazing those guys are. When I was 10 or 11 in Arlington, I couldn’t get enough of them. Some big cool bug just bored its way out of the ground after 17 years, and made its way to a tree, and sang a love song, and left this wild shell to play with. The cicada has always been kind of a wondrous creature to me.”

Jim always seems to find the beauty in things. I call him with a nightmare—fungus gnats, hogweed—and he flips it into an episode of “The Wonder Years.”

Noise aside, Jim admits that there are a couple of real issues with cicadas: They can make a mess, and they can damage the ends of branches. But the trees will recover. “Comparatively speaking, it’s kind of a big yawn,” he says. “You wanna talk about the real issue? Give Mark Sutphin a call.”

“Yeah, I know. Relax. Accept the things you cannot change. I get there every year. It just takes some time.”

Which I did. “The spotted lanternfly is by far our biggest concern right now,” says Sutphin, the area Virginia Tech extension agent who is leading efforts to combat the invader.

Spotted lanternflies have destroyed fruit crops and swarmed cities north of Virginia. They wound large trees, kill smaller ones, and cover everything beneath their swarms with a sticky substance that attracts mold. They were sighted near Winchester in 2018 and in several Northern Virginia counties last year. If they get established, life will change.

Sutphin, Hilleary, and others are hellbent on stopping the lanternfly by educating the public and drawing up battle plans. They’re having some luck protecting cash crops, but residential areas, especially in Winchester, are already being swarmed. “This issue has occupied most of my time for the last three years,” Sutphin says. “It’s that serious.” “But how loud is the lanternfly?” I ask.

“Completely silent,” Sutphin says.

Well, that doesn’t help my issue.

Or, maybe it does, since realigning perspective is key to accepting those irritants you can’t change. The bikes, trucks, and cicada are all sound and no significance. They bother me only because I let them. And if one of the biggest irritants in life is a bit of noise, then I obviously have much to be thankful for. I’ll focus on those blessings—and the beauty of nature in bloom—instead.

I’ll try to marvel at the din of the cicada’s love songs and the wonder of their unique existence.

And I’ll work harder not to let annoyances blind me to the real problems around me that need to be, and can be, confronted.

Thank you again, wise university extension agents.

For more information on spotted lanternflies, visit here.

This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue.

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