By Katy Major
If you live somewhere in the stretch between northeast Ohio—that’s where I am—and northwest Virginia, I don’t have to tell you: the fifth brood has emerged. You can already hear their whirr and click in the morning and early afternoon, when they sing into the dense August air. The ground bears the perforations of their emergence—where they clawed their way to the earth’s surface like the living dead. If, like me, you have investigated thoroughly, crouching to overturn the backs of leaves, the undersides of rocks, you see their shells—startling doppelgangers of the bugs themselves that they leave behind in what must be the most freeing sensation of their lives, at least since their rise to the horizon between earth and sky.
My friend Adam, who makes my amateur naturalism look like a weak attempt at a hobby—his brain locks in facts about the natural world with an alacrity I could never match—anticipated the cicadas’ arrival tremulously. During a family vacation to St. Thomas, he told a local: “Well, there’s kind of a big to-do where I’m from.” I’m sure that the man was expecting a briefing on the Presidential election underway, or perhaps a seedy local scandal like last year’s exposé of the Ariel Castro kidnappings in Cleveland. But Adam meant the cicadas: “It’s a big deal where we’re from,” he explained. Okay.
As funny as Adam’s solemnity on the matter strikes me, he’s not wrong: the arrival of the cicadas rings of portentousness, reminding me of the giddy fluttering in my chest I feel when a blood moon rises, or a tropical storm spits rain, or a famous politician passes through town. It has the ring of once-in-a-lifetime—though that’s not true. Periodical cicadas come along every seventeen years. I don’t remember witnessing their first emergence during my life—I was six. The next time they emerge, I’ll be thirty. Once every seventeen years seems like an eternal stretch; a precious rarity, a phenomenon one shouldn’t miss.
In a way, you can’t miss them. Cicadas are everywhere. Driving, I see them dart across my windshield. Walking the dog, my feet crunch over their corpses and exoskeletons. Drinking my coffee in the morning, I pad around barefoot, peering inquisitively at the folds between ridges of tree-bark and at the undersides of blades of grass and there they lie, chirping loudly. Of course, their omnipresence doesn’t exactly endear them to the humans who cohabitate the lawns, public parks, and shallow woods where they dwell. People hate bugs—for reasons that are both cultural and evolutionary—and cicadas are, by human standards, monstrous. They are around an inch and a half long, perhaps a half an inch thick around. Their eyes protrude dramatically from their bodies—two bloodred globes. Their wings are as large as they are, webbed with russet veins, clicking furiously when they take off. Their legs are sticky, seeming to permanently cement them where they rest. The rest of them is a dusty jet-black. People also mistake cicadas for bad luck: they are sometimes called locusts, though they look and behave quite differently. The only similarity is their quantity—the swarm.
I know all this about cicadas—besides their relationship to locusts, which I had to research to confirm—from watching them, squinting into their little red eyes. I drink in the sight of them—they fascinate me, seemingly as exotic as a komodo dragon crawling down the driveway. Because of their rarity, I feel a reverence for them that I don’t generally reserve for the insects that frequent my backyard. It’s impossible not to feel awe when you hear their song—or, more accurately, what sounds like a song to my untrained human ear, which is actually a cicada’s mating call. There is no organic sound as deafening; several articles I’ve read in the past few months warn against June picnics, as the high-decibel noise of the insects can cause hearing damage. I would happily go deaf listening to them, just as I would happily blind myself staring at various solar phenomena. When nature puts on a show, I’m loath to miss out.
The cicadas still have a month to tick and purr their way to reproduction, but already I feel a seemingly absurd advance regret: I’ve missed too much. Every second I’ve spent inside, windows shut, TV blaring, has been a waste of precious time—time when I could have been acquainting myself with beings so special that I will only witness them another two times in my life, three if I’m extraordinarily lucky. I sit here, eyes glued to a laptop screen, hyper-aware of the faint murmur of the cicadas’ song outside of my office’s closed window, and lament my own foolishness in squandering days of the cicadas’ reign in a sealed manmade shelter designed to force wilderness out. The cicadas only highlight a preexisting issue: we people miss out on ripe discoveries that lie among the trees each and every day. Just because fireflies emerge most nights out of the summer scarcely makes them any less precious.
Against my own convictions, I willingly trade authenticity for artifice every day. I exist, alongside others, in an artificial sphere: the world of man. Maybe it has always been this way. Maybe it has been this way since the Industrial Revolution, when smoke replaced fluffy cumulonimbus in cities and Americans saw the advent of the suburb. Maybe it has been this way since the Post-Industrial Boom after World War II, when luxury became a commodity. I suspect it gets worse by the day, that with every new modern convenience, people move farther and farther from what originated here on earth, what was given to us freely and guilelessly. It’s not all doom and gloom: much can be gained from technology. There’s no arguing that. Still, a certain distance from authenticity widens and widens.
The house where my mother and I live, for example, is absurdly inauthentic—a plaster-and-wood concoction that calls to mind Pete Seeger’s 1960s hit—and, fellow millennials, the theme song to “Weeds”—“Little Boxes”:
Little boxes, on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same …
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same …
They do. Our house is one of hundreds—if not thousands—mocked up and built with astonishing speed by the likes of Drees or Ryan Homes. The suburb we live in, like so many suburbs, consists of the same three or four home designs, recycled again and again by the same home-building company, closely side-by-side in a sprawl that extends over several streets. They vary, of course—in the approximate shade of taupe that the homeowner has chosen for the siding, whether expensive “add-ons” like a back deck have been purchased, and in the caliber of the property’s landscaping surrounding the house—but, still, such minor distinctions are easy to overlook, and all seems identical. It’s not the sixties, and no one would dare choose a daring hue like yellow, much less pink.
There’s such an ease to building or purchasing such a house—designing one is little more than a personality quiz, driven by economic standing and taste; buying one is a matter of finding the house in the neighborhood that is within budget, balancing an explicit formula between expense and good taste. Granted, the challenge is in being satisfied once you choose—and my mother is, understandably, disappointed with her choice in retrospect; the extraordinarily low price for our four-bedroom home now seems perfectly suited, given the cheap fridge that won’t close all the way unless you shove it, hard, with one shoulder, and the air conditioning unit that breaks every few months, and the stovetop that unevenly cooks, burning whatever is on the stove more often than not. “You get what you pay for,” she sometimes laments. She says, wistfully: “I’ve never felt ‘at home’ here.”
I wonder if the contemporary ease with which we choose our homes is partially to blame. I think of houses I’ve read about, well-loved and constructed with care: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s wood-frame family home on Rocky Ridge Farm, Bilbo Baggins’ cozy Hobbit-hole, Mr. Toad’s elaborate Toad Hall. Each one is carved from nature, seemingly not to the detriment of the forestry or plains which surround them but, rather, in a sort of unspoken harmony with nature. But it’s too simplistic to romanticize the homes in storybooks, which are, of course, really constructed from ink and paper and designed to inspire such feelings of warmth and comfort. (Only Laura Ingalls Wilder’s home, of these three examples, is “real,” and even her stories notoriously wind up being more fiction than fact.) Children’s books, too, aren’t to be relied on for objective analysis: they carry nostalgia secondhand even without my foolish romanticizing. I have to admit that I’m even skeptical of myself here: where is the logic, exactly, in stacking logs and slicing lumber and nailing in everything from door-hinges to windowsills by hand when, today, the middle class can afford to hire an expert to build more quickly and less expensively? Who says that authenticity lies on the other side of a laborious, lengthy process of construction?
The inconveniences of even building one’s own home—I mean, actually building one’s own home, not as shorthand for “hiring other people to build a home”—seem to outweigh whatever benefits I speculate could result. I can almost see it if I think hard enough: the sunburn from hours of roof-building, the bruises from a misaimed hammer, scrapes from rogue boards. The aching muscles. The exhaustion. The jaw-clenching stress. I live in an age of relative luxury—at least for the middle class—and I never need to leave the temperature-controlled, bug-free, cushioned living room in my mother’s house if I don’t feel compelled to. It’s a great privilege, one I should not take for granted for even one second—especially when the modern world still includes expanses of undeveloped nations where luxuries are few and homes are more likely to be constructed of mud and grass than cheap lumber and eggshell paint.
Still, I find myself troubled by the irony of shivering in air conditioning in ninety-degree heat, a paradox which calls to mind psychological repression. Wilderness is our origin, but we refuse to face it—like the developing child, we reject our parent (planet). Instead of covering the features we’ve inherited from our mother with make-up or breaking up the surface with plastic surgery, we cover the all-too-familiar plane of the earth with spectacular architectural wonders and enormous blacktops where we can park our terrifically luxurious cars.
Freud argued that in order for children to grow and develop into adults, they needed to first repress strong feelings of attachment that they were born with and replace them with either castration-anxiety (for people born with penises) or a fierce rejection of the mother’s lack (for people born without them). With strong feelings of fear and loathing, the developing child can properly individuate without being tempted back to the warmth and attachment of infancy. The process serves its purpose for adolescents, of course—assuming you subscribe to even this somewhat innocuous tidbit of Freudian psychoanalytic theory—but I sense that as a society we have gone too far in individuating from the earth itself, designing a world exactly counter to the one we have walked since the beginning of time. What’s more, even true repression should not become a permanent state—there’s a reason why rebelliousness fades away as people age. As adults, we don’t resent our parents with the ferocity of our teenage selves—the affection that was so much less apparent to us then returns and, although cross-generational relationships are rarely easy, things tend to improve as time goes on.
Perpetual repression, on the other hand, is torturous, an unpleasant combination of discomfort and confusion, like trying to decipher the image on an incomplete jigsaw puzzle. What you don’t consciously see—what you don’t consciously know—can still haunt you. I believe that I best understand things through observation, but it’s difficult to see through the web of gas stations, telephone poles, parked cars, lawn ornaments, billboards, and exhaust that so often constitutes the outdoors. It’s easier to pull up a livestream of a baby animal online than it is to see one in the forest, which is now so thin, or in the plains, which are now blanketed with concrete. Fortunately, I can Google what a whippoorwill sounds like, because I encounter few in our packed little suburb—as opposed to their constant, musical presence in rural West Virginia, where our family frequently camped out when I was a child.
I also used Google to research this essay. I typed in “periodical cicada” and a couple million results popped up. I spent about an hour clicking around and reading. In this way, the Internet—a spot-on vehicle of artifice if there ever was one—brought me closer to understanding the natural world, exemplifying the paradox I’m trying to articulate. With everything at my fingertips, it’s a miracle I miss anything at all.
My iPhone is loaded up with an app for every form of social media I use: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and SnapChat. It alerts me whenever someone contacts me via any of these outlets, whether it’s a Facebook “like” or a Snap ready to be viewed. I have my Twitter app set to notify me whenever certain people tweet: my closest friends, to be sure, but also Brie Larson and Kylie Jenner and Kumail Nanjiani. I have news apps on my phone, too, both “real” news (AP, NPR News, the BBC) and, well, the other kind (TMZ and E! News). Breaking news alerts inform me that Hillary Clinton has won the California primary, materializing onscreen alongside a Twitter notification (some misguided follower urging me to vote for Donald Trump). Below that, emails—Barnes & Noble coupons, an update on a freelance assignment, The New Yorker’s daily newsletter—and a couple of blue Facebook icons—my friend Julie liked my photo, I have a friend request from a writer I met at a conference, it’s a high school classmate’s birthday—and a notification from Discover that this month’s bill is available.
How is it possible for me to feel less knowledgeable in this dizzying maze of information? It probably takes wiser people a lot less time to come to the conclusion I’ve recently reached—that you might get lost in such a maze, unable to break free of the tangle of information communicated secondhand. I’m missing something else—not a news item, a photo of my friend’s newborn, or a sale. But something—something beyond four walls, or two book covers, or any kind of screen.
Yesterday, I found myself so overcome with this sense of missing something that I had to get out.
The beige eggshell walls; the cheap beige carpeting; even my mom’s eclectic trinkets, ceramic elephants and birds and little angels, seemed to be multiplying. Flushed, clenching my jaw, bouncing my leg, I was beyond restless: time to go. I hopped up from the couch, pulled on my sneakers, and told my mom I was going on a walk. She looked up, relieved: “Good. Go get some of that energy out. You’re making me nervous.”
I padded down the sidewalk; half of my thoughts wishes. I wish I could find something that looks and feels real. I know I’m not wanting for shelter, clean water, medicine … essentials granted only to a special few. What a superficial desire: authenticity, a concept which I barely have a grasp on. It ranks low on the basis of “want” over “need.” I’m such a spoiled brat, I think, reflexively.
Nonetheless: I want. As ungracious as it is. I walk around the neighborhood, veering into the wealthier sector of the suburb, where the houses are slightly farther apart by virtue of their size. Many of them are Spanish-style, a perplexing choice for a Midwestern town. I examine their pink roses, black mulch, and colorfully painted mailboxes from afar. There are signs on their property forbidding both human footsteps and canine poop, which I find perversely funny. What is land for, if not for the animals?
I make my way off the street eventually. I already feel better, just from breathing the fresh air and greeting the cicadas as they hurriedly pass. They click in response—or so I imagine—and, again, I feel a rush of gratitude that they’re here—that they have another month of survival before their husks are all that remain and then even they fade into dust. I track one’s flight off the street as she—or so I think, assessing her large size—buzzes ahead of me. She seems to be in more of a hurry to escape the yawning shadows of the neighborhood’s elite than I am. She heads for the trees—no surprise there. She knows where to find scads of potential suitors—unlike me, I joke ruefully to myself as I follow closely behind.
And, then, to my surprise, I find something real.
I have known since my mother moved here that the Falls are a few streets away, but I haven’t gone in years, over what turns out to be a technicality. The Falls is a rocky outcropping, where the cliff that divided the forest that the neighborhood once was remains preserved, a creek running through the division, smoothing mossy rocks and painting the trees a muddy green. The truth is: I’ve always dismissed the preservation out of hand. It’s so small, I’ve always thought, skeptical. What’s the use of getting such a small taste of nature, only to be left wanting? My own cynicism can make me defeatist: If it’s preserved by people, I reasoned, it must not be authentic at all.
Authentic: real, genuine, true, accurate. There’s nothing in the dictionary definition that specifies “original.” In fact, one definition of “authentic” reads: “made to look like an original.” In that sense of the word, the Falls are quite authentic. They aren’t a copy, per se, but certainly an altered version of what was “original”: a trail has been eked out around the edges of the outcropping, keeping those confined to strollers or wheelchairs an appropriate distance from the jagged stones that crown the Falls themselves. There is a high point, a diversion from the main trail up a few dozen feet of rocky hillside, that serves as a “lookout,” a segment of fencing serving as an unspoken warning to exercise caution. When you enter or exit the forest that hides the falls, you pass a sign, advertising the name of the Falls, specifying it as an asset to our neighborhood specifically; Ridgewood Falls, the name on the sign, is also what our suburb is called.
My eyes drink it all in greedily. I feel a little dizzy, almost as if my eyes aren’t used to such variety—in three dimensions!—anymore: layered sheetrock; the still water of the creek, dappled gold; grit shifting beneath my sneakers … and more, so much more, filling every sense. An overwhelming smell, rotting fruit, fills my nostrils, pungent. The wet pulse of the humid air around me dampens my brow. A slight sense of vertigo nearly topples me when I balance on the uppermost reaches of the cliff. It’s beautiful—and the voices of doubt that so often fill my head—don’t believe this; you’re in the suburbs; it’s too good to be true—are silent. All I can hear is the deafening roar: cicadas, all around me. They know what I don’t—whether urban or remote, great or tiny, the earth can be found all around us and, with it, what is real. The truth rests in the crevices between their sticky feet and squelches under my sneakers, as omnipresent and as precious as the cicada’s calling.
About the Author:
Katy Major is a writer and critic from Medina, Ohio. Previously, her award-winning work has been published in Otterbein University’s Quiz & Quill Magazine. Katy is currently at work on her first essay collection, Self(ie) Made: American Essays. You can find her on Twitter at @wildthingwriter or visit her website on all things horror at WildernessHorrorBlog.wordpress.com.