Columns Garden Road - June 17, 2014
By Jason W. Selby
Jun 16, 2014, 09:26
The summer solstice has rolled around once again. Ancient builders aligned many of their stone monuments to mark the solar events, where sunlight as it sets would hit selected spots on the sacred structures. This is called archeoastronomy. Stonehenge is a famous example. Because of the movement of the earth and the alteration of orbiting planets, the markers are no longer as accurate as when they were first constructed. This makes them no less spectacular.
Out of practicality, our ancestors needed to chart the regularity of the seasons. Some deeper urge compelled them to sanctify the solar and lunar events. Then there were the exceptions, the eclipses and comets that terrified the ignorant. Apparently, the emergence of the 17-year cicada was one of these events. Iíve read that some of our ancestors in America took their arrival as a sign of foreboding. I imagine 17 years was too odd or long of a time to accept as normal. And then, of course, the cicadas have red eyes and are loud, neither of which are seen as endearing traits in humans or insects.
I feel fortunate to be able to see the stars from my home on the edge of Corydon. When I lived in Des Moines, the first thing I did when I got home to the farm, if it was night, was stare at the stars. Light pollution takes their meaning away from a vast many people, to our detriment. It is unfortunate we are losing our dark places, but thatís just how it is. Thatís progress.
In our yard, the first 17-year cicadas have emerged recently, dizzy and lethargic, leaving their exoskeletons clinging to our white oak and pecan trees. My oldest son, Wes, mispronounces it as Ďangel skeletons.í
This is my third go-around with the species. In 1980, they cluttered our yard, and I was young enough I just assumed it happened every year. In 1997, they swarmed me as I moved hay bales with a cab-less International tractor, grabbing onto my long-sleeved shirt with their little claws. A member of the swarm would hit me with regularity, with a thunk and then a click of beating wings as they rode the wind into the timber. They mate and then their descendant nymphs burrow into the ground, where they feed for the next 17 years.
Their life cycle bridged my fatherís first few years. He was born the November after their ascendance, molting and then the new generations burrowing to feast on sap. This must take patience. He graduated from high school at 17, in 1963, and then the cicadas reemerged. Itís about the same time it takes a human to go from birth to the earliest stages of adulthood. Another brood of the species takes 13 years to slip aboveground, and I wonder what it is about prime numbers these insects like.
They filled our yard when I was four years old, under the Chinese elm, which is no longer standing. Along with the green ash that grew out of the cave west of our house, shedding bundles of flat seeds, that Chinese elm came to represent part of my childhood, though I barely remember the specifics of its leaves, flowers or bark.
Parts of the Chinese elm can be consumed as sustenance, and I find it interesting that the USDA lists its stem bark as a hypnotic. Though it is resistant to Dutch elm disease, one problem with the tree is its susceptibility to breaking under the stress of high wind or heavy ice, and thatís what eventually killed ours, the ice storm that clung to everything at the end of 1994.
Wes is seeing the cicadas at around the same age as I did. He collects the angel skeletons in his baseball cap and runs around the yard, through the lanes my oldest stepdaughter, Haley, makes when she first starts mowing the lawn. He counts them, and is very particular about numbers. He counted out exactly five peaches at the grocery store one day, and stopped there, for some reason. Wes is loud like the cicadas. I was fairly quiet when I was young, and I wonder how he will see the experience differently. He will be in college the next time the cicadas come back out to sing.