The emergence of 17-year cicadas in the summer of 2021 revived interest in a paper Janet Barber co-authored about the role of Benjamin Banneker — a free African-American in 18th-century Maryland — as one of the first naturalists to record scientific information and observations of the insects.
Now, like Banneker himself, those cicadas are gone. Their offspring, however, are nestled underground, sipping from tree roots as they’ll do until 2038, when they emerge to repeat their species’ astounding display.
November 9 marks the 290th anniversary of Benjamin Banneker’s birth. His story begins as one of a young child attracted to and inspired by nature, and concludes as one of an elder constantly amazed and intrigued by the functioning of the world around him. This story, too, re-emerges — not every 17 years, but every day and every time a child’s eyes grow wide as she watches an insect, or as the plants he has cultivated bear fruit. Nature inspires. Nature guides. Nature provides. And nature writes poems in the lives of her creatures, with lines that echo and rhyme through the generations.
Janet Barber’s telling of the life of Benjamin Banneker makes up some of those lines. Whose life, child or elder, will rhyme with them today?