Photo illustration by Stacy Reece
Photo illustration by Stacy Reece

Window Splat

Cleaning insect innards off his mother’s windshield was this ecologist’s childhood chore of choice. Pesticides and climate change had mostly negated the need to scrape bugs—until the Great Southern Brood of cicadas descended this May.

Summers back in the last century meant car trips and vacation cabins by the lake. It was never as idyllic as those ads in the lifestyle magazines, but the one blessing of being in a family of two, me and my divorced Mom, was the lack of fighting siblings, as in “Mom, he’s in my space…”

As early as my preteen years, I had responsibilities as the “man of the house,” and on our vacation trips, my main job was cleaning the windshield of our 1954 Chevy sedan, which invariably was encrusted with the gooey residue of less intelligent or agile insects. Beasts we had sent to meet their makers, the insect gods, as we progressed at sixty-five miles per hour.

Every two hundred miles or so, we would stop at a Sunoco or Esso station for gas and a leg loosening, during which I trundled out of the back seat, strode over to the pumps, got a quick buzz from the octane-laden atmosphere, and eventually picked up the cleaning brush, whose lonely home was a plastic bucket of ashen, soapy water.

Those were the days of full-service gas stations, staffed by uniformed attendants, wearing forest green or khaki, complete with captain’s hat. When they saw me reaching for the windshield brush, they invariably told Mom, “I can do that.”

“No, it keeps him occupied,” Mom always responded.

After several hours of driving, our windshield resembled a country road, graveled with sticky corpses oozing orange, green, and translucent gunk. The brush had two sides, a rough scrubber side and a smooth rubber scraper side, that were used in sequence to produce a smooth, clean windshield. Bug corpses resembled—and were as difficult to remove—as desiccated snot, so I was usually still scrubbing away when the attendant finished pumping our gas.

After several hours of driving, our windshield resembled a country road, graveled with sticky corpses oozing orange, green, and translucent gunk.

The chore actually gave me satisfaction.

Flash forward fifty years, and my wife and I are driving southwest from Athens, Georgia, to the fourth Poets and Writers at Pasaquan festival, organized by John Charles Griffin, a poet/musician from Macon. The site is on the outskirts of Buena Vista, pronounced euphoniously (unless you’re a Spanish speaker) with a long U. B’YOU-nuh VIS-tuh. Like many places in rural Georgia, you can’t get there from here—well, at least not in a straight line. But as a retired professor of ecology, I find these excursions down the country roads of rural Georgia more of a blessing than a curse.

Pasaquan itself is a seven-acre art installation, the former home of Eddie Owens Martin, the self-anointed “St EOM”, pronounced ohm, as in the unit of electrical resistance Beginning in the late 1950s, Martin modified a late-nineteenth-century house, built long concrete fences and six outbuildings, and then covered every surface with his unique and fantastic, psychedelic visionary art. The work can’t be pigeonholed but is reminiscent of Tibetan or Bhutanese architectural painting, like that found in the Dushanbe Tea House in Boulder, Colorado.

Unfortunately, Eddie himself is long gone, having passed from this world in 1986 at an age of seventy-eight. However, many of his friends survive, as does the organization established to preserve the installation, the Pasaquan Preservation Society. Thanks to this organization, Columbus State University, and the Kohler Foundation, Pasaquan has been reanimated and restored. Tom Patterson is the lead author of a highly informative book on Pasaquan, St. EOM in the Land of Pasaquan: The Life and Times and Art of Eddie Owens Martin published by UGA Press, so I’ll inform no further.

Driving Georgia’s back roads, one needs to adopt a relaxed and landscape-absorbing pace, and being an optimist, I’ll barely mention the tranquility-lessening experiences of snail-paced chicken or log trucks.

Instead of stressing, I prefer to sit back and enjoy the highway’s tree-lined borders, even when the sights are monoculture pine “plantations” which we ecologists call “pines in lines.” But on less commercially valuable landscapes, nature has operated for lifetimes to produce towering bowers of hardwoods. Sweet gums, tulip poplars, ashes, and various oaks that may extend upwards for eighty feet or higher. On less traveled routes along our way to Buena Vista, the tree canopy almost completely closes, creating a spiritual feeling, like driving through a living house of worship.

Drives along routes like these, with my mother a half-century ago, always required me to do my favorite chore. But surely, y’all have noticed that insects no longer pepper our cars and that windshield de-corpsing has become a thing of the past. Sadly, this is related to the well-documented multi-decade declines in insect abundance over North America. We haven’t lost many species yet, and most population losses have occurred in common species, rather than rare ones. These declines, which affect the many birds and mammals that rely on insect prey, are related to multiple factors, including widespread use of pesticides and climate change.

As we traveled along Georgia State Highway 83 toward Monticello, a loud thump on the windshield startled us. The sound was squishy, clearly from some form of a living creature, rather than pebbles or wood chips. Two minutes later another thump, and suddenly thumps became our play-list. We had driven into the emerging and swarming Brood 19 of Thirteen-Year Periodic Cicadas—the Great Southern Brood. Thump, thump, thump, the strikes were hard and coated our windshield with the fleshy juice of these red-eyed and orange-winged flying cigars.

It wouldn’t have been unreasonable to assume that the apocryphal insect plague of the Old Testament, sent by Moses to punish Pharoah, was cicadas. But no, those were locusts.

Pulling over for gas after an hour of thumping, I returned to the chores of my youth, walked over to the pump station holding the windshield cleaning brush and set to work.

Cicadas are a relic from the Age of Insects, which occurred during the Devonian and Silurian geologic eras about 400 million years ago. Not surprisingly, they evolved just after terrestrial plants, and like many “ancient” groups, have diversified into hundreds of species. Australia has the broadest cicada smorgasbord, with over 300 different species, but we in the Eastern and Central portions of the United States are host to occasional plagues of “periodic” cicadas. The one we drove into on Highway 83 felt biblical. It wouldn’t have been unreasonable to assume that the apocryphal insect plague of the Old Testament, sent by Moses to punish Pharoah, was cicadas. But no, those were locusts.

Here in the South, we have both types of periodic cicadas, the thirteen- and seventeen-year forms, as well as the more common annual cicadas. During their years underground, larval cicadas feed on the roots of trees and other plants, emerging later as short-lived adults that mate and then perish. The explanation for the origin of the cicada’s long-term periodic emergence is that cicadas were trying to win the predator-prey “arms race” by outliving their predators.

As a child, you may have visited a natural history museum that had diorama displays of life that evolved during the geologic eras of Earth. Perhaps they were your reward for doing your chores without reminders. I recall exhibits for the Age of Insects, with huge dragonflies sporting yard-long translucent wings, and the Age of Fishes, beginning with jawless fishes like lampreys, then sharks and rays, and finally, bony fishes. Our museum had soundtracks that accompanied each era, and I still recall the loud buzzes, clicks, and chirps played for the Age of Insects.

As we Pasaquan poets read our work, the loud vibrational love songs of Brood 19 felt like a fitting remembrance—a recollection of how our world used to sound, the perfect counter-melody to our words and St. EOM’s lifetime of buzzing artistic achievement.

new site curlicue

Donations to help preserve Pasaquan may be made to the Pasaquan Preservation Society via Columbus State University.


About the author

Gary Grossman is a professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Georgia and lives in Athens. His poems, short fiction and essays in have appeared in forty-seven literary reviews. His work has been nominated for inclusion in The Best Small Fictions and for the Pushcart Prize for 2023. For ten years, Gary wrote “Ask Dr. Trout” for American Angler Magazine. He is a lover of people, nature, productive gardens, fishing, and the ukulele. He has published two books of poetry: What I Meant to Say Was… (Impspired Press) and Lyrical Years (Kelsay). In 2023, he released a graphic memoir, My Life in Fish—One Scientist’s Journey(Impspired).

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