Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born and lived twenty years in Knoxville, Tennessee where I spent many evenings Agee-style with the saw of cicadas and the scent of hose water on hot grass. As an adolescent, there was nothing I wanted more than to leave the place for some far-flung mountain in the West. Once I was gone, though, I realized I could write of nothing else. I may have left Tennessee, but it will not leave me.
It’s early October. Afternoon. Tennessee. The sky is swept clean of anything but blue. The leaves have started to rust and crinkle. A dry one lingers on the sidewalk, skittering along on the wind.
I billow out the thin, gray blanket and lay it flat on the dry grass. It has a striped texture, raised seams sewn into the fabric, worn down over time.
On my back, I gaze through the branches of the neighbor’s oak. They extend over our yard, offering shade. Soon, we will rake its leaves. I laze, putting off homework, pondering how deep the sky goes, until I realize the light has shifted toward evening, but all remains quiet.
A single cricket chirps from the damp edge of the lawn as the day cools, but the cicadas have gone. This is how I know it is autumn. The missing sound. It is a bottomless quiet, no background.
It is not erasure, this silence. It is periphery, coming into view.
I live in Colorado now, and every summer there is a moment when I realize, again, this silence I’m unaccustomed to.
It makes me think of breath, laying in the silence under the oak tree as day falls to dusk, how life is in both the inhale and the exhale. Questions live in both the coming and the going, the growing sound and its waning.
Silence, I understand, is fully experienced just after a song ends.
The cicada song is a territory all its own.
A rise and sigh, an elemental sound, expressing what?
The earth’s sorrow, it’s yearning for heat and languid beauty of such a forlorn place—the South.
Colorado. There is rushing water, a creek near our campsite. Spring is late, and the snow is still melting. Hummingbirds flit and blur my consciousness at daybreak. They buzz through the quiet, tearing a line through my thoughts. Once I’ve heard them, they are already gone.
There are no cicadas here, no fireflies, either. Their absence reminds me what it is to know suddenly, by the shape of what’s missing, that they are gone. I listen, straining to hear something that is not there, insects sawing into the night. The noise, as I imagine it, wanes and grows, over and over.
Cicada song lulls me to sleep in my upstairs bedroom, pink heart wallpaper, the whir of a white ceiling fan. It—the room—is what I have picked out. But, the hearts are wrong somehow. The wrong color at first. I remember my mother half-yelling at the sales clerk in the wallpaper store when the order comes in. She cannot make him understand what the problem is and keeps repeating the word “wrong” over and over until her voice nearly gives out.
Eventually, the right paper arrives. It hangs slightly crooked to me after that, despite Dad’s meticulous cutting and hanging, matching of all the seams. There is residual emotion in it. I never know if she holds onto whatever frustrates her, or if she has any memory of it at all.
Cicada sound is a room, a wallpaper. A natural history.
The noise is a constant whine. An unseen buzz saw or lawnmower occupying the distance. It is suggestion of betweenness, of intervening space. An empty wandering.
The song of the cicadas is a room I walk into. It is built entirely of sound.
Cicada music is a threshold. It is the freedom to remember. To be drawn into the past. But, it is a loneliness, too. It is a room for one. Inside its boundaries, this sound is the bearer of childhood. The landscape where I materialize.
I enter the heat. The heavy August air holds the wet. The cicadas are a choir, welcoming me into freedom. The noise expands and dims, waxing and waning across the twilight. It is an escape from the quiet house. The perfection. The lack of room for mistakes. The days spent with the blinds turned.
Colorado. Soon, I will fly south to visit my father. He is recovering. An attack of the heart. It is August.
I have denied this loneliness. I have loved it, nurtured it, depended upon it—and not known it is even there until I miss the sound of the cicadas, their unison rising and falling into the night. I carry this yearning for the cicadas. Their music invites me back.
In the Rocky Mountains, winter is forever. But, the May breeze fills the bedroom where I write. Warmth, finally. Flowers come up in the sunny places, and spring passes in a blur. Summer is nearly here, and in the silence of midday sun, I understand, again, I am listening for something missing.
Over the wind in the pines, I hear the river’s current. A raven caws. Three elk shift as they graze on the neighbor’s lawn. And, yet, the cicadas are not here.
I am built upon summer days spent on the front porch, watching the light swoon, listening as cicadas start up their choir. Sitting there, as afternoon wanes into dusk and the lightning bugs – or fireflies – start up their starry echoes. Light here, light here. Light there, light there.
This is about being away and looking back.
I am in Tennessee, visiting alone. I step from the plane, into the humid room that is the South, and the cicadas build again the walls, the ceiling, the floor—a whole dwelling of sound. In this room I am twelve again, in the backyard, my book flayed open on my chest as I stare up at the clouds passing overhead. It is a breezeless day.
Colorado. Early summer. I park in the evening by Sheep Lakes and listen to the frogs croak life into the night air as dusk folds heavy into the space between mountains. It is not the same as cicada song, but the rhythm is similar, lulling, despite my yearning to remember something I’m not sure has happened yet.
I am coming to the end of this, and still, I don’t know what the story is. It is simply the sound of everything that built me. My parents, my brother, the song of my origin. And, every year at this time, when the cicadas don’t start up, I go camping on the shore of Willow Creek Reservoir, across the mountains from here.
What can I make of the white cliffs at the Reservoir where the beauty and silence makes me remember the way the cicada song swells and recedes like waves in the Pacific, battering a rocky coast? What can I make of an osprey, circling overhead? The long dry road? The hill where I sit and listen to nothing?
What do I want to salvage from my past?
What do I want to keep from things gone by, from the sound of the cicadas and dry grass between my bare toes? And the firefly light aching into the darkness?
The cicadas make a thin wailing. Low pitched, suggestive. This is the way I remember it.
This is the shape of the room the song makes. How cicadas conjure for me days gone by. Like how it is to step from the cold river and lay covered in a blanket in the sun, warming the brittleness from my bones. And still, I remember the shape, the stiffness of the cold current a long time afterward.
Colorado. I hear a woodpecker on a telephone pole by the neighbor’s shed, and there is a bright wind whirring in the trees. The birds start up as the sun rises. Here, I am home. These are the sounds filling my children’s ears, the noises that will build them. The sound-rooms they will re-enter as adults to find their childhood selves staring back at them.
In the night, an owl shrieks from a hole in the hollow tree up the street. There is a soft pat of bobcat paws on pine needles in the yard, midday. Pinecone falls, thumping the roof. Frogs strike up by the river as afternoon light turns to evening. And, there is a sense of having come full circle. Only, I don’t know the beginning point.
These songs were written well before I came to be.
The cicadas never start up, no matter how hot the morning is, until the grass is dry. Crispy dry in late summer, early autumn. But, even early in the season, they don’t begin until the quality of light is just so, and the dew is gone from the grass. Or, perhaps, that is just when I begin to notice them.
Colorado. Silence is solace in the winter woods. Only, it is not true silence—the feathery sound of falling snow and dark ravens calling, asking only that the white world answer. And, silence, isn’t always the thing I’ve craved, but peace. Calm, lying undisturbed in the background. In that wide space the cicadas occupy. They hold in their song a sense of betweenness, between the dim and the dark, and of being held in the long, long notes between silences.
For now I sit listening to the water, remembering what it was like to hear the cicadas sing in the background as afternoon slipped to evening.