The Commencement Day of the Locusts
W hen I sat down to apply for colleges, I just didn't think about insects. But I should have known better. After all, I hadn't forgotten what it was like to listen to the whir, the particular cadence, of thousands of cicadas rubbing their wings together in unison. I remember being a five-year-old in Wheeling, West Virginia, on a hot, muggy day, and being both fascinated and repelled by what we mistakenly called locusts: their red eyes and translucent wings, their crisp, empty carapaces clinging to bark and leaves. And I remember knowing that most wonderful of facts: they would not be back for seventeen years--in other words, not until I was very, very old.
As I pored over college brochures, I used all kinds of criteria to rate and rank the schools in which I was interested without, alas, paying any attention to the connection between time, geography, and entomology. As a result of my flawed system, among my applications were two for colleges in Ohio, both a relatively short distance from Wheeling. When all was said and done, I accepted Kenyon's generous offer. I picked my alma mater for mainly whimsical reasons: it looked so pretty, with all those gothic buildings, all those rolling hills. To me, the very word "Kenyon" sounded like the quintessence of a small, peaceful liberal-arts college. Little did I know.
I didn't do the simple math. If I was five in 1965, seventeen years would bring me to the ripe old age of twenty-two in 1982: I'd be ready to graduate from college, possibly ready to face the world, but not necessarily ready to face a lot (and I mean a lot) of big, winged bugs. If I had bothered calculating, it would have all added up to one simple equation: Class of 1982 plus mid-Ohio equals plague of locusts.
The rest of my incoming class and I had unwittingly signed up for a senior year that would end, inexorably, with the insistent and inescapable song of the cicada. We unknowingly risked a graduation day with the very real possibility of having one or more large, unmatriculated insects drop from a tree onto our mortarboards. But before the fateful day arrived, time passed more or less eventfully (or uneventfully) for my cohort. Classes were good, bad, but rarely indifferent. Friendships were formed, calories were consumed at Peirce or Gund, hearts were broken, February in Gambier was survived--in other words, the whole panoply of undergraduate life, Kenyon-style, took place. There was, to be sure, the occasional bee, maybe a hornet, or an iridescent beetle, but nothing resembling a cicada.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, there are more than one hundred eighty species of cicada know in Canada and the United States. They range in size from a petite three-quarters of an inch to several inches in length, and they occur in deserts, forests, and grasslands. Besides the dog-day cicadas that appear yearly in mid-summer, there are periodic cicadas, including three northern North American species of seventeen-year cicadas (one of which obviously has its headquarters in Gambier). They occur in very large numbers in chronologically and geographically isolated broods, always associated with oak woods.
Males of all three species have three distinct sound responses: a congregational song, the production of which is regulated by daily fluctuations in climatic conditions and by hearing songs produced by other males; a courtship song, which is usually but not invariably produced prior to copulation; and a disturbance squawk.
Females are not known to "sing." Their eggs are usually laid in woody tissues, and hatching nymphs burrow into the ground, where they feed on the juices sucked from roots of perennial plants. Nymphs usually undergo five molts during the several-year period required for all species to reach adulthood. Both adults and nymphs imbibe copious amounts of plant fluid and eliminate much of that liquid. (Yuck!)
By the time final examinations rolled around in the late spring of 1982, a few old timers at the bank or post office might have murmured something oblique about it being seventeen years--and time. Maybe someone even mentioned the word locust or cicada. But other, more pressing matters absorbed our minds: exams, to be sure, but also the particular mixture of euphoria and anxiety that constitutes the mental state of soon-to-be alumni.
Our years of undergraduate toil certainly testified to the fact that we didn't believe that ignorance is bliss, but in this case I wonder. Personally, I did not become aware of the cicadas as something other than fantastical and fleeting rumor until one day when I was sitting on the porch at the Craft Center. It was undoubtedly one of those warm, idyllic, nostalgia-in-the-making May days. I was likely procrastinating, not writing some final paper, and ruminating on what life after Kenyon might look like, when I noticed that the earth was strangely pockmarked.
As it happened, the shady swath of what should have been grass, but was actually dirt, in front of the Craft Center was an ideal venue for viewing the various stages of the cicada's life cycle. It wasn't clear to me at the time whether the insects in question were coming up out of the ground or going down into it, nor did I know what stage of their complicated and, to me, peripheral life was on display. Nor, I am sorry to say, did I rush to the library to find out. My head was already replete with too many arcane facts, all waiting to be summoned forth in a blue book.
Not only did the cicadas leave holes all over the ground, but at some point they also "molted," came out of their shells as it were, and left behind ghostly, amber-colored facsimiles of themselves, sans the red eyes. By senior week there was no ignoring them. Their march up and down every available tree was in full swing, providing real competition for the numerous parties and bands assembled to see us out of Gambier. They also made a terrific racket.
I remember standing on Middle Path on a hot afternoon listening to the cicadas' hum subside only to rise to new crescendos. I remember thinking that the trees were more sound than branch and leaf. By then it was June, and almost all of my classmates had left town. I stayed on in Gambier for the summer to further a last-minute romance. (Our graduation had gone off without a hitch: the cicadas allowed President Jordan, Senior Class President Jimmy Allen, and Commencement speaker Alan Alda to have center stage--even though we had waited only four years, while they had waited seventeen, for a moment in the sun.)
Cicadas remained the leitmotif of that summer. My future spouse, Max Pensky '83, and I made up recipes, in our case strictly imaginary, for things like sweet cicada pie. If we had read up on cicadas at the time, we might have learned that we were not the first to think along these lines. The Encyclopedia Britannica allows that cicadas have been an important source of food dating from at least the time of ancient Greek culture; newly emerged adults are considered particularly edible. It goes on to say that cicadas are also kept as pets in many lands! (Surely not.) Max even invented a new mixed drink: the Cicada Sling (two parts dark rum, one part grenadine, and two maraschino cherries), which he served up to any willing patrons at the Tomahawk Golf Course, where he tended bar.
To help put deli sandwiches on our table that summer, I sewed costumes for a production of Romeo and Juliet by the now-defunct Kenyon Festival Theater. My industrial sewing machine made a loud, chattering thrum, not unlike the ever-present cicada conversation taking place outside, as I seamed yard after yard of brocade. The cast featured a forty-year-old Juliet. Not only did she seem too old for the part, but from my twenty-two-year-old perspective, she seemed just plain geriatric.
Now that seventeen more years have elapsed, now that I am as old (or rather as young) as that miscast Juliet, it's time for the cicadas to make another appearance. I may not make it to Gambier for my twentieth reunion in 2002, but I certainly plan to be there for the reawakening of the cicadas in 1999.
Kat Anderson, a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group, works as a development officer and freelance writer in Ithaca, New York, where she lives with her husband, Max Pensky, and their daughter, Anna.
Editor's note: The cicadas appeared, as scheduled, for Commencement Weekend 1999, although they were not nearly as disruptive as in times past. A few days later, though, as alumni began arriving for Reunion Weekend, they were visible in much greater numbers, and they were considerably more audible as well. By the end of the first week in June, the noise was downright deafening. As the Bulletin went to press, though, the only remaining evidence of the invasion was the odd carapace here and there.
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