(Something) In The Air Tonight – A Polysensory Episode

Roughly thirty five years ago when I was hiring a new assistant for the Furniture Conservation Lab the interview process was pretty anti-climatic, as Mel Wachowiak was head and shoulders above all the other candidates.  Nevertheless the process moved forward, and when Mel’s interview with me occurred there was really only one item on my agenda; were his musical tastes compatible with mine?  (Had he been hardcore C&W there would have been a problem)  I liked music in the workspace and had the very best stereo system in the building, along with scores of CDs.  Happily Mel’s music preferences were similar enough to my own that we managed to coexist in the same workspace for two decades.  Other than the character flaw of disliking the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a preference he shared with Mrs. Barn, we coexisted amicably at work for more than two decades until I departed at the end of 2012.

One of the things about a small-ish organizational unit was that according to Federal regulations there had to be someone in charge at all times.  This became an issue as the staff rose in seniority such that there was almost universal absence for the primary Federal holidays so someone on Senior Staff had to be designated as Interim Director.  The task fell to me with some frequency which I did not really mind too much as the joint was pretty much empty except for the newcomers who did not yet have enough annual leave accrued to take vacation days.

This situation was especially notable on Thanksgiving Friday, when the lab was “open for business” except that there was almost nobody there.  One Thanksgiving Friday was particularly memorable as Mel and I were among the half-dozen folks on-site, and the only ones in our section between the fire doors.  Essentially we were acoustically isolated from the rest of the world, and as a lark we decided to see how many times we could listen to Phil Collins’ tune In the Air Tonight without interruption, a song now up to 225 million (!) views.  Mel was a big Genesis fan and I recognized the iconic signature of the song’s drum riff as an identifier of the era.  So, we put the CD in the player, hit the “Repeat Song” button and let ‘er rip.  Loud.  Really, really loud.  I think we made it to 42 or 43 repeats until lunch, by which time we were ready to move on to something else.  I can tell you we had the windows pulsating with the beat, made possible by the sparse attendance that day.

And yet, this post is not about an iconic rockster song.  It is instead about cicadas.

Mrs. Barn and I were in Mordor for the past many days as Mrs. Barn and the barndottirs were hosting a baby shower for a beloved friend, a young woman whom we all call our third daughter/sister.  I did some preparing, and none of the hosting.  I was in the basement workshop during the festivities.


As we approached barndottir’s house we were almost overwhelmed with the deafening drone of the 17-year cicadas, partying hard after 17 years of underground isolation.  They had six weeks to party and find a mate, desperately looking for the boy or girl cicada who had left the graffiti, “For a good time call Cicada 867 5309” on the wall of the cicada bar.  If you have not gone though this cacophony it is almost indescribable, the closest thing being the space ship special effect from the original Orson Welles “War of the Worlds” broadcast, only cranked up to 11.   Or, the racket from vuvuzelas at a soccer game.

This racket is not the only sound effect to bombard your ears during a cicada invasion.  There is also the almost ever-present crunch of cicada carcasses underfoot with every step in the yard or across the deck.


One of the things I never really noticed before in my previous two experiences with the cicadas was the shimmer in the sunlight as they swarm in the heat of the day.  The air really does glisten as the sunlight refracts off their wings.  Almost captivatingly beautiful, actually.  Not only are there approximately eleventy bazillion of them, they are large (almost the size of my thumb).


Encountering the live cicadas is a real experience.  I encountered this while mowing the lawn as the insects actually fall on me like hail.  And it’s not just the light impact of contact, I’ve had that from the state bird of Minnesota, the mosquito (you can actually hear mosquitos thumping against your tent while camping), but rather the prickly barbs of the cicada legs.  The barbs dig into your skin on contact, and though the bug does not sting it can be unpleasant to remove them from your skin or from underneath clothing.  Extracting a big barbed crawling thing poking you underneath your shirt is a real thing.


The last of the direct sensory experience comes from the fact that each of the party insects dies in short order, and the smell of death and decay is pervasive.  Enough so that it precludes any outside gathering until they are all gone and the Circle of Life returns them to the humus.  Think of doggy-doo and rotten milk combined as a room freshener and you get the idea.

I did not eat any of the cicadas so I cannot comment on the taste, notwithstanding the urging of some of our mid-wit “elites” encouraging us to ingest insect protein to reduce the current global crisis, whatever that is today.  To them I say, “You first.”  I’ll stick to dead cow, dead pig, dead chicken, dead fish, dead lamb, etc.  They wanna eat dead bugs?  Have at it.

On top of everything else it was 10-15 degrees hotter in Mordor than Shangri-la, so while we loved seeing the barndottirs we were glad to get back home.  En route we had a doc appointment as Mrs. Barn is dealing with the consequences of extensive basking in the southern Kalifornyuh beach sunshine fifty years ago.