Nonfiction by Julia Shipley
Go ahead, tell me your totem animal is Wolf, She-bear, Eagle. Mine? Heat Bug, Jar Fly, Lyre Man: Magicicada Septendecula.
I was a nymph, a greenhorn, when my friends went into Manhattan’s elevators. And as they ascended into upper management, I burrowed into soils, deeper and deeper: farm apprentice, assistant farmer, farmer, farmer-teacher.
Seventeen years is an epoch in any life. To go pacing across a human lifespan using seventeen-year-steps is to make children into men and women; change matrons into grannies; poor boys into patriarchs: and to see one dream leaf out, then wither, as yet another pushes out of the ground.
“The earth is the stomach of the sky,” French Philosopher, Gaston Bachelard suggested. Seventeen years after
I submerged, I wanted to exchange the stomach of the sky for the actual sky.
August Fly, Brown Locust, Chicharra, Dogday Cicada, Harvest Fly, Heat Bug, Hot Bug, Jar Fly, July Fly, Lyre Man—call them what you want–they won’t care, and they won’t shut up. Loud buggers is what they are. A throbbing buzz, a loud ruckus—the sound of a neighbor electrocuted by his shaving razor—that’s them. They come in summers like a plague, oh yeck, they’re everywhere, yammering, a current zapping at your temples. They’re the seventeen-year cicada. Go ahead, tell me your totem animal is Wolf, She-bear, Eagle.
Mine? Heat Bug, Jar Fly, Lyre Man: Magicicada Septendecula.
Here’s why: Suddenly, in the middle of my maidenhood, everyone started to die. First Tina died, then Jeff died, and then my Aunt died, and then my Uncle died. Tina was 36; Jeff was 48. My aunt was in her 60s; my uncle was 57. Cancer, cancer, cancer, heart attack. And I had no inkling of where they were any more. In the ground? In the sky?
In lieu of all their mortal specificities—Tina’s paintings of mythic horses, Jeff’s buckskin suit he flensed himself, my aunt’s accounts of bingo night in Barefoot Bay, my uncle’s pleas to Jesus in his sleep— I had their precious detritus: a birthday card with glued-in pieces of fern, its tidings spelled out in the spideriest handwriting; the hand-loomed woven bookmark, “Here, I want you to have this”; her wrist watch; his extra hearing aid batteries.
Meanwhile the students I so loved grew bored and petulant.
And then the prospective husband said he thought we felt differently.
And then I came in to work to discover a maintenance guy packing up my papers to move me to a new, yet to be determined, office.
Meanwhile, the milk cow I had reared from a calf kicked me and every bucket I positioned beneath her. Amid this, I felt a frantic anxiety that I had not yet done anything—anything meaningful, anything worthwhile, anything worthy of my life. And I was afraid I might die before I did.
This life I had yearned for–being something other than a farmer’s wife and someone’s mother, being instead a solo female farmer-teacher— was burying me alive.
I wanted to move into a new possibility, without leaving home.
The underground cicadas, with their seventeen year emergencies, proposed the way out was up.
1. There are two kinds of cicadas. Annual cicadas emerge individually, every year, usually in August. Periodical cicadas (magicicada septendecula) emerge every 13 or 17 years, en masse, surfacing in the late spring when the temperature reaches 64 degrees.
2. How do periodical cicadas know 17 years have passed? How do they know it’s 64 degrees?
3. There are 23 broods of periodical cicadas splotched out across 23 different regions in the central and eastern United States.
Living near New Haven, Connecticut? You’re contending with Brood II.
In Iowa, you’re graced with Brood III.
Kansas, Brood IV…
4. Wayne Kritsky, Editor in Chief of American Entomologist, has come up with a formula for predicting on which date each due brood will emerge: E= (19.465-t)/0.5136. With it, he predicted that Brood X would emerge in Cincinnati on May 14th.
5. The singing male cicada produces the loudest sound in the insect world.
When Brood II emerged in 1996, New York and New Jersey residents called up Ed Johnson, Director of Science at the Staten Island Museum, held their phones to their yard and said, “Listen to this, I can’t take it any more.”
6. A point at which any real change becomes possible: “I can’t take it any more.”
7. Once a nymph has fastened herself to some apparently stable structure—branch, flower stems, fence posts, roadway signs— the skin of her back will slowly split. Like a Russian doll, part of her parts, yet she is still intact. Using muscle contractions she pushes her head through the folds of the split of her former self.
8. This is called “eclosion.” If not for their beady red eyes, and their graceless movements, and the sheer surfeit of their populations — up to 1.5 million per acre — we might have the symbolic metaphor of the cicada alongside the one we so love about the butterfly. But the poetry of this eclosion is so plentiful it becomes grotesque.
9. One possible reason for their periodic emergence: no predator’s appetite can match their mob.
10. A Washington Post reporter noted, “[Cicadas] don’t care about us. They are fearless, oblivious to our curiosity, obsessed with their own motives.”
11. Their motives: emerge, change costume, mate, lay eggs, die.
12. Their offspring will hatch after a month and drop from the tree and burrow in the ground where they will nurse on roots and rootlets for 17 years. Then the cycle will repeat.
13. Daniel Gilrein, an entomologist at the Cornell Cooperative extension on Riverhead, Long Island, said, “Clearly many cicada colonies have been lost to development…Nymphs that burrowed into the ground 17 years ago would have been entombed if the ground was paved over.”
14. Ed Johnson, of the Staten Island Museum, told those calling in cicada duress, “Well, they’re going to die soon, so you’re going to have to wait.”
15. Presuming you live an average life span entirely in Cincinnati, you will hear Brood X, also known as the Great Eastern Brood, rear its head and screech its song–a song that sounds like chanting the word, Pharaoh–four or five summers in your life, at most.
16. “I’m looking forward to two more colony hatches,” said Dr. Remington, the 74-year-old entomologist, counting ahead to the year 2030.
17. The periodical cicada has waited 17 years. Meanwhile I got my shit together, graduated from college — finally — then hopped like a flea from farm to farm. I went through a deck of men, one of every suit, clubs through diamonds. I let my hair grow long, then cut it short, a mistake and I knew it, then grew it long—what can happen in seventeen years—it’s a mini lifetime. I was a nymph, 26, when these suckers went under. Now I’m 42 and rising.
When I was two-years-old, an aerialist (what a beautiful word — is that what I’ve been aspiring to be?) stepped onto air. Philippe Petit footed a cable strung between two impossibly tall buildings. They were 1,340 feet high. All that remains of this physical feat, of his body swanning back and forth over his path — a strand the thickness of an arm above a 1,340 deep chasm — is the aerialist himself. Nothing else.
First, I searched for things to ascend: the Johnson Village Clock Tower, the neighbor’s Harvest Store Silo, Bald Mountain (1,250ft), Elmore Mountain (2,608 feet), Belvedere Mountain (3,360). Then I began a series of ascents, my workaday journeys out of my valley and into the air.
Climbing Diary: Elmore Mountain
(October 8th, cool 62 degrees, overcast afternoon)
My feet plod, my heart stampedes. A mile and a half up leafed dirt and flat rocks leveraged into steps by work crews. It’s for the view: a field, a forest, a road, and far below, a lake the width of my toenail.
Climbing Diary: Neighbor’s Silo
(November 1st , chilly, 48 degrees, dusk)
One night shy of the full moon I climb the nearby silo: part harp, part jug. My feet clang as I rise. I face the cobalt blue with its rivets, like the airplane wing (“no step”), but without a view. I’ve looked at the rungs for months; twice the neighbors said, No, we don’t think that’d be a good idea. The backs of my knees feel hollow as this silo. The cold rungs cut into the meat of my palms. Yes, this is high. My moonshadow is the only moving part of this stalwart thing. Beside us, the dead barn—a half picked carcass of buckled rafters. The silo is the mast of a defunct farm; I become its flag. I hoist my body up to the cusp, where the chopped corn would gush down into the silo, and where I see my wider world, in which this tower is only a sepal. A Canada goose squawks once, higher still.
Then I searched for vehicles to carry me even higher.
Some 250 years ago, before anyone knew how to sit in the sky, two brothers, the Montgolfier’s, had a sneaking suspicion that it was smoke itself that allowed matter to rise, and could, if enough were made, suspend a being with a beating heart high above his countryside. They experimented, burning paper bags, moldy hay, wool and wooden shoes to make enough smoke to lift their balloon.
Their first vessel was made of paper and taffeta and fastened with buttons. It lifted a crew: a rooster, a duck, and a sheep. Now we know it was heat, not smoke, that took the animals off the ground and above the trees, honking, bleating, quaking. The sheep and the rooster and the duck returned to the common dirt in better shape than Icarus. So why not lift the woman with earth in the cracks of her palms above everything she loves, too?
I went up in my neighbor’s Cessna. We leapt into the sky and the air received us and everything became dollhouse small, petite, inconsequential. Barns were raisins, sheep became aphids. It was a blessed overview — the whole cloth without the pathos. And I saw everything was contiguous–all the places I used to live, the work I did, the men I used to love, and then the place I live now, the new job I found, the man I married, the barns and fields and graves revealed themselves to be one gigantic locale.
The plane became my eclosion.
Peering down at the landscape, I smiled like a parent over a child in the crib—oh, there you are.
Julia Shipley is the author of a debut collection, The Academy of Hay (Bonafide Books, 2015) which won the Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the 2016 Vermont Book Award. Her prose book Adam’s Mark: Writing from the Oxhouse (Plowboy Press, 2014) was named a 2014 best book about New England by the Boston Globe. A recipient of fellowships from The Frost Place and The Studios of Key West, she has also received support from the Vermont Community Foundation and the Vermont Arts Council. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Collagist, FIELD, Gettysburg Review, Harvard Review online, North American Review, Orion Magazine, Poetry, The Rumpus, Salamander, Utne Reader and Verse Daily. Her story “The Giving Tree” was selected as a notable narrative in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2017. She holds an MFA from the Bennington College Writing Seminars and works as an independent journalist. You can find her at www.writingonthefarm.com