by Marc Fisher

Washington Post

May 23, 2004

It may be of little solace, but those cicada guys whose mating call creates the whirring drone now ringing in our ears really do go quiet, and not only when they die. No, Mr. Cicada produces his courtship calls while searching for a mate and while attempting to mount the female. But the moment he, as the scientists say, engages, he falls silent.

(Sound like anybody you know?)

Luckily, the cicadas are with us only for a few short weeks. Otherwise, given our local passion for legal action, we would soon see the establishment of the ultimate NIMBY group: WACCC, the Washington Area Citizens for a Crackdown on Cicadas. The WACCCos would demand the silencing of the cicadas and the development of a detailed code of conduct for all future visiting insects.

Actually, I like the cicada drone. It’s vastly preferable to the 7 a.m. lawn mower and leaf blower brigade, a pestilence that deserves the time and energy our lawmakers now devote to telling us when, where and what we can eat, drink and smoke.

Noise, according to the Census Bureau, is Americans’ No. 1 complaint about our neighbors. And noise, it turns out, is the top reason Americans give for wanting to move.

Those last facts are cited prominently on the Web sites of the astonishing number of groups of Americans who have banded together to argue, lobby and sue their way to the proverbial peace and quiet they crave in our noisy world. is an anti-“boom car” organization, raising hell to lower the volume on the other guy’s car stereo. Noise Free America has a more catholic approach; it can’t stand car alarms, leaf blowers, motorcycles and many other noisemakers. Our own Citizens for the Abatement of Aircraft Noise has been driving local airport bureaucrats to drink for decades.

Such activists are inherently annoying — they’re indistinguishable from the anti-smoking and anti-fast food zealots. But I do agree that leaf blowers and the most passive-aggressive noise machine of all time, wind chimes, may be the only justification for terrorism.

Curiously, anti-noise activists seem nowadays to restrict themselves to campaigning against man-made noise.

“If you believe a noise is controllable, then you have a different attitude toward it,” says Hillel Schwartz, a scholar from the University of California at San Diego who is in Washington working on a cultural history of noise. Many California cities have banned leaf blowers entirely, and increasingly, local governments are getting tough on loud car stereos.

But human beings also recoil against some natural sounds. Horse stables were gradually evicted from American cities in part because of the foul smell, but mostly because of the neighs and brays that interrupted the night, Schwartz’s research reveals. He also has found that newly formed towns in Colorado in the 19th century often included ordinances against dog barking among their first 10 laws.

“We’re irritated by sounds that are out of place and out of time,” Schwartz says. For example, in experiments on sonic booms, the Air Force found that people who were told ahead of time that there would be a boom overhead sometime that day were far less upset by the noise than those who were surprised by the boom.

We were warned well in advance of the cicada drone. So why are folks carping about it? Because the bug songs rise above the whine of the air conditioning and enter our sacred chambers of sleep. “If people feel their interior spaces are invaded, that sound is out of place, so it’s noise,” Schwartz says. “A single cricket in your house can be more upsetting than a dripping faucet because it doesn’t belong in your house.”

But if the cicada drone is driving you nuts, how to cope? The old-fashioned way: Drown them out. For centuries, Catholic churches inscribed their bells with invocations against thunder; when storms approached, someone would run to the steeple to ring the bells to protect the church against nature’s fearsome noise.

You could zap them with the tune our boys at Abu Ghraib employed against their Iraqi prisoners: the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.” Or just put the speakers in the window and give the bugs anything by Wings. They’ll be on the run for at least 17 years.