The cicadas' last song
Cicadas will soon fill the air in eastern North America.
You may remember that movie that begins when two terminally ill men meet in a hospital and decide to go on a road trip with a to-do list before they die. What follows is scenes from all over the world where Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman go skydiving, riding a motorcycle over China's Great Wall, or climb the Great Pyramid of Giza. They hope to have enough time left to work down their wish list before they 'kick the bucket.' The 2007 movie The Bucket List may have received mixed reviews, but I enjoyed the movie.
With this movie, scriptwriter Justin Zackham coined the phrase "bucket-list." The rising popularity of social media, combined with a globally connected world where hundreds of millions flew to their dream destinations in a pre-covid world, resulted in the broad acceptance of the word bucket list. If you spend 15 minutes on Instagram, you will see "I added this to my bucket list" in comments under photos of bungy jumping or exotic destinations.
Would anyone actually have an actual written bucket list? I do. Not as the list of things I definitely want to see or do before I die, but I organize notes and hyperlinks of places where I would like to make a stop the next time that I am in that area. For instance, sites referred to in pop music; I want to stand on that corner in Winslow, Arizona, or visit E Street in Belmar township in New Jersey. I know that there is likely not much to see in these places, but I wouldn't pass without making a stop. My list is filled with notes that people have sent me in reaction to posts on Twitter. I copy them to my list. This is an example of one of them:
'Travelled everywhere in Canada except northern Manitoba and still my favorite place is Georgian Bay (Scenic Lake Huron recreation staple with historical sites & lighthouses, beaches & rock formations) around the Moon River area.'
The zoo in St. Louis is on this list. Like the previous quote, I am not sure how it made it to this list; I have my list, but I am not organized like a librarian. I have only once visited St. Louis. In 1986, I spent a long summer in the U.S. I first stayed a while in New Jersey, without seeing E Street, but with a visit to a bar where Bruce Springsteen used to play. Then, I took the bus to the American West. Flying was too expensive for me as a young student, so this was my best travel option. St. Louis was a stop on the road. Like for so many before me, it was my gateway to the west. I visited the Gateway Arch and Union Station, which had just reopened as a modern complex with shops and cafes. It preserved the typical station architecture of the late 19th century that had boosted the city's economy.
Union Station is no longer in use for trains, but some railway workers continued their involvement with trains by working for the narrow gauge railway track in the St. Louis Zoo. The 1.5 mile trip with kids around the most favorite animal exhibits must be a stark contrast to the trips that they used to make across the U.S. But this is undeniably a famous railway line; it has transported close to 40 million visitors since the opening in 1963.
The World Fair of 1904
Although I have no idea why I ever put the St. Louis Zoo on my bucket list, I would like to visit it someday, especially to see the flight cage. It was left after the 1904 World's Fair. There are often not many structures left of World Fairs; on the famous World Fair's venue in London of 1851, where once the Crystal Palace stood, it is now just an open field. In the 1990s, I used to play sports on that holy ground of World Fairs with friends and colleagues, and I looked out over the area from a temporary apartment. Only a part of the gates is still original. Over the years, cities got better at keeping at least part of the exhibitions; the Eiffel Tower, for instance, or the pavilions left in Seville, Spain, after the 1929 Ibero-American exhibition. They are still worth a visit, and on your way, you pass the Royal Tobacco Factory. In the 1880s, some 6000 women worked there, rolling cigars; Bizet's free-spirited Carmen being one of them.
The Flight Cage
In St. Louis, the negotiations on preserving part of the exhibition apparently started only towards the event's end. The people had grown so fond of the sizeable walk-through Flight Cage of the Smithsonian Institution that they campaigned to preserve it for the city. They managed to keep it and then bought the first birds; $7.50 was the price for a Mandarin duck pair in 1904. It was the start of what later became the St. Louis Zoo.
I have had questions about why a lover of nature and vegetarian can appreciate animals kept in a zoo. The short answer is that in most cases, I don't like zoos, especially the classic type where animals are locked up in a cage, and I avoid going there. The first panda I ever saw was a shocking sight to see in a tiny cell in Beijing, long ago in 1988. Many animals should never be kept in a zoo, killer whales, for instance. But there are also good examples of animals roaming around with lots of space. And in a world where species are rapidly dying out, zoos have also contributed to the research and preservation of species, like the Przewalski's horse's breeding program that saved it from extinction. Older zoos are often challenged to preserve the classic architecture but combine that with a modern view on research and animal rights. I used to live close to the oldest continuously operating zoo in the world, on the grounds of the Schönbrunn Palace. The mid-18th century architecture is beautiful but not designed for modern views on zoos and animal welfare.
Let's go back to St. Louis, and step back in time to 1875, when Robert Snodgrass was born in this city. The man who would become a well-respected entomologist and artist showed an early interest in zoology. As a child, he was so good at imitating a sea-lion that his bark and movements scared away visitors from home. This story was recalled many years later by Ernestine Thurman on the occasion of his 84th birthday. I have not double-checked this story. For the moment, Thurman is my best source on Snodgrass, but I am left with some questions. Thurman describes that his love for animals and especially that sea-lion started in the St. Louis Zoo. However, Snodgrass must have been 29 when the Zoo opened in 1904, and there were then only birds. But Thurman knew him personally, and I assume that most facts and stories in the book will be correct. The copy of her writing in the Smithsonian Institute archives is fascinating but not easy reading. As an example, only part of her description of Snodgrass reads:
'All these attributes are harmoniously composed into a dignified, erect, gracious, unassuming gentleman of remarkable health, agility, and strength who is possessed of a profound depth of philosophy, a sparkling sense of humor, and a vigorous zest for living.'
In short, this must have been a great guy. At the age of 84, in the late 1950s, Snodgrass told her his first recollections of entomology that she published as:
"The first entomological observation which Dr. Snodgrass recalls is seeing that the legs of grasshoppers, cut off by his father's lawnmower, could still kick while lying on the pavement. This apparently mysterious fact made a strong impression on him, and he decided that sometime he would look into the matter".
In high school, he had to read Darwin at home since the Methodist school curriculum forbade the teaching of evolution. His knowledge of the science of evolution led to tensions with the church. He was no longer allowed to participate in any church activities in the community. He then studied at Stanford, where he majored in Zoology. Later he did fieldwork in the Galapagos Islands, where his hero Darwin had found essential clues for his theory of evolution that he then for years didn't dare to share with the rest of the world.
This drawing shows the artistic skills of Snodgrass. It is one of the 3000 species of described cicadas, and many more haven't even been adequately studied. Note the big eyes and see-through wings. Most notable are the seven species knows as the periodical cicadas that live in eastern North America. Their life cycle is one of the many fascinating stories of nature.
A cicada is born when the egg hatches that its mother has left in the bark of a twig. Soon after, the tiny nymph drops to the ground with 599 brothers and sisters (assuming the mother adheres strictly to the count of 600 that scientists registered). What then follows is a rather dull life underground of either 13 or 17 years while living on the roots' juices. And then, after all these years, they finally appear above ground on an evening in late April or early May and begin the last weeks of their lives.
They will die soon, but they had 13 or 17 years to work on their bucket list for the last four to six weeks of their lives. Like Nicholson and Freeman, they do lots of skydiving, but they skip the Great Wall's motorcycling. On top of their bucket list is singing, flirting, and mating. They are hard to miss when they are around in great numbers. The males produce a sometimes deafening sound of up to 100 dB. Their repertoire seems to consist of calling songs and a distinctive courtship song when approaching an individual female. This musicality seems to be highly attractive to the females who respond with charming timed wing-flicks. Soon it is all over; they tick off their bucket list wishes and leave the next generation behind.
The eggs of May and June this year will form the class of 2034 or 2038. I wonder what the world will look like when they appear above ground. They come above ground at 20C or 64F. Considering climate change, the class of 2038 may start to work on their bucket list earlier in the season than their parents.
Illustration: Plate 7 from Insects, their way and means of living, R. E. Snodgrass.
Caption: The periodical cicada (Magicicada septendecim) A female inserting eggs with her ovipositor into the under surface of an apple twig.