COMMENTARY:

A Letter to Samuel: Open in 2021, When the Cicadas Return

by Andrew Wingfield

The most unfounded fears prove most paralyzing-and also most infectious. In a fearful season, my first-born, you have offered me all sorts of lessons about fear. Your teachings on this most primal emotion couldn't be better timed.
I can't sleep, Sam.

It's late, but I'm not going to rest tonight until I track these troubled feelings to their source. Strange, this urgency, since seventeen years will pass between the time I write these words and the time you read them--seventeen years that span your fourth birthday, which we celebrated in the backyard today, and your twenty-first. Before long the cicadas that emerged a few weeks back will have left their progeny behind, closing one chapter of the Great Cicada Story as they open another. While the nymphs lie low, sucking roots in sheltering soil, you will steer a course from the eager springs of boyhood to the braided delta of manhood and majority. I have such fond hopes for the person who will unfold these pages when the cicadas venture above-ground again. And such grave misgivings about the world they will find.

The cicadas sang steadily through your party today, as if in thanks for the many kindnesses you have shown them. Tender and gallant, you've rescued these hapless insects from all sorts of scrapes and misadventures. You are forever plucking them from between the boards of the deck. None of your plans is ever so urgent it prevents you from pausing to right the unfortunates you find lying wings-down on the sidewalk or in a puddle, all six legs churning air. Often, you arrive on the scene too late to offer succor. Yet you treat each carcass with dignity. You have devoted your swelling powers of observation to a series of careful post-mortems, taking account of body parts missing, wondering aloud about the causes of death, developing a store of data that, in time, has led you to the conclusion that the transparent orange-veined wings, left behind by every cicada slayer, must not be very tasty.

Always circumspect when faced with new people and situations, for the cicadas you've overcome your bashfulness with alacrity. Within days of their emergence you devised a humane and nifty way of holding individuals aloft for examination or transport, securing the stout thorax between your forefinger and thumb. "Be kind to strangers," you counseled me one day this spring, "and they will be kind to you." True to your maxim, you have encouraged these orange-eyed strangers to wander freely along your fingers and up your arms.

Instinct guides me in protecting you from physical danger, but who will teach me to shield you from the crippling weight of worry?

Some people, however, have not been so hospitable. Milena, your sweet Bulgarian sitter, gasps in terror at the mere sight of one of these misguided sparrow-treats chugging at eye-level through the air above the lawn. I will be ever satisfied with the memory of standing unseen at the kitchen window, watching you work with Milena on the patio below, my son the ambassador, the charmer, the teacher, flourishing his cicada-covered fingers, showing a frightened young woman that she had nothing at all to fear.

You see, fear is catching in 2004. As with Milena, so it goes with the population at large: the most unfounded fears prove most paralyzing-also most infectious. In a fearful season, my first-born, you have offered me all sorts of lessons about fear. Your teachings on this most primal emotion couldn't be better timed.

One feature of this phase in your becoming is that anxiety will rise up from time to time and sweep over you like a tidal wave, your misgivings about external threats triggered always by fresh tremors of aggression rumbling within. Evenings, as I stand washing dishes, I overhear battles raging in the playroom next door, red knights arrayed against black knights, your urgent voice narrating the violent deaths of archers and swordsmen, then shifting into character--first a brave king mustering the troops for an attack, then a gloating warrior heaping insults on his fallen rivals. Later, a nightlight dilutes the darkness as I sit on the edge of your bed. You wait until I finish reminding you of all the people who love you, then ask me once again to remind you why our house is built of brick.

"So no big bad wolves can blow it down," I answer.

"And no storms?"

"No storms, either."

Earthling, storms have always spelled trouble in our species' associating mind. I know this from my own childhood. You remind me of it often. A couple of weeks back, at the tail end of a warm and heavy afternoon, you and I hurried to gather toys and clothes from the yard as trees tossed and the first drops of a summer tempest pelted our heads and backs.

"Daddy," you said, warily eying the heavens, "why are there bad guys?"

"Nobody's all bad," I replied. "There's some bad in everyone, and some good."

An unsatisfying answer, I know, but I was sowing seeds I hoped would sprout later.

Bad guys are much on your mind these days. Every time we leave the house, you make sure I lock the door and then insist to know if I've locked it to keep bad guys out. The simple-and honest-answer is yes. But if I confirm your suspicion, won't you take that to mean we're constantly surrounded by a throng of faceless bad guys bent on breaching our security? Rather than answer, I tempt you with fresh news about the mockingbird nest we've discovered in one of our juniper trees, or bet you that you can't buckle your own car seat. Sometimes my tactics work. More often, you pursue your line of questioning with the craft and diligence of a seasoned litigator, forcing me to fess up.

The juniper that houses the mockingbird family is one of six trees I planted the year you were born. Maybe when you open this letter, an adult yourself, you will be able to imagine the pleasure I've taken transforming the barren plot behind our place into a lively habitat. You were on hand during much of the early work, but not until this cicada year have you and I really gardened together. Every few days we examine the heirloom tomatoes we picked out at the farmers' market and got into the ground on a drizzly afternoon in May. I never tire of reading you the whimsical names written on the sticks: Arkansas Traveler, Cherokee Purple, Old German, Mountain Princess, Black Krim.

Since last November, you've been practicing the difficult art of kindness toward your baby brother. Maybe that's why you manage to show such tender regard for the welfare of our outdoor seedlings. Most other kids would callously ignore a row of pea sprouts that came up within a few feet of their basketball hoop. Not you. Before shooting baskets, you always prop your boogie board against the fence to shelter the young shoots. One day in early April, retrieving the soccer ball, you trampled a small bleedingheart in the back bed. All these weeks later you still speak of that plant as the one you stepped on.

You like digging for worms in the compost, and turning over rocks to see centipedes and sow bugs and gray spiders guarding their egg sacs; you like fiddling with sprinklers, and watering the patio pots, and spraying the bird poops off the outdoor furniture; you crush the leaves of spearmint and tarragon and close your eyes dreamily as you hold them to your nose; you excel at picking peas and you relish gathering bouquets for your mother. But nothing in the garden captivates you as completely as weeds.

We were standing side by side one afternoon when a great spring gust brought a whirling shower of seeds pouring down from the giant silver maple in the neighbor's yard. We had fun gathering handfuls of nature's noiseless helicopter and climbing the stairs to drop them off the second-story deck. Still, you listened keenly as I explained that every one of these feathery envelopes carries a seed that aspires to grow as tall as that green monster across the street, and that our job this summer will be to uproot the little invaders every time we find one trying to gain a foothold in our domain.

Silver maples head up a teeming rogues' gallery of interlopers that require discerning eyes and constant vigilance. Crabgrass, clover, and Virginia copperleaf; mugwort, purslane, dandelion, dock; field violet and butter cup; wild strawberry, wild garlic and wild grape-by now, you could pick any one of them out of a line-up. This analogy with law enforcement, by the way, comes courtesy of you. As we weeded the lettuce patch one day recently, you took satisfaction in likening us to a pair of police getting rid of bad guys. And why not? Here in the garden are the kind of bad guys a kid can handle. Instead of the shadowy villains you imagine lurking about the house, spoiling for a chance to slip through an unlocked door, these little plants stand around in broad daylight, waiting to be identified and removed. "Hey," you always say as you bend to pluck a weed from the soil, "you have no business being here." The disdain in your voice is always mixed with fondness.

Forgive me, then, if I persist in delivering my speech to you, the one about weeds not being bad plants, just plants growing in the wrong place. To reinforce this notion, we have potted a couple of silver maple seeds, lavished those tiny trees with water and light. The weed speech is meant to work in tandem with the one about people--how none of them is all bad or all good, while all of them have some bad and good inside, mixed together. Their parents' job, I tell you, is to help make the good parts grow.

Such speeches carry a heavy subtext in 2004, when the people running our country seem so keen to cultivate what is worst in the national character. While you and I patrol the garden, channeling raw aggression toward fruitful passion, our leader and his loyal knights work in the big white house across the river, doing their level best to funnel people's inner furies out toward imagined threats that come to seem more real, the more deeply one's judgment sinks beneath the paralyzing muck of shady words.

While we turn soil and sow seeds, while we water and tend, our fluency in the language of nurturing grows, along with our capacity for care. Meanwhile, the words issuing from that white house, the fearful spells they seek to weave, keep reminding me of another storm, one that occurred long ago. I must have been eight or nine, twice the age you are as I write, the night I was awoken by flashes of bright light and the noise of violent explosions. I instantly understood. Here was the end I had been warned about, the long-threatened, all-out nuclear attack unleashed by my nation's mortal Enemy, a menacing cabal of far-off bad guys, evil strangers who simply couldn't tolerate the existence of people as good and free as Us. I was stoic, even strangely relieved, in the face of my imminent demise: if the bombs were going to end my life, at least the worries would cease to wrack me as well.

Looking back, I consider it a colossal failure of national security that a boy my age would mistake a thunderstorm for a rain of warheads. A mistake I can live with: our kind has always read its own meanings into natural events. But that mistake? It was far too easy for me to make a nuclear nightmare out of mere weather. My trusted sources of information had helped prime me for such a production. The teachers who showed me how to duck and cover beneath my desk also supplied me with books bearing pictures of fantastic mushroom clouds and images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki reshaped by America's atomic wrath. News programs featured maps that marked all the Enemy silos storing missiles aimed at our Sweet Land of Liberty. Sacramento, my region's city, was said to rank among the nation's ten richest targets. Our two air bases, our munitions depot and inland port made us a top priority for a foe intent on crippling the country's capacities. When I raised this matter with my father, he pointed out that we would be among the lucky ones, vaporized in an instant instead of enduring the horrors of fallout.

Would the Enemy really wipe us out, just like that? How could you doubt it, after seeing the way They connived and cheated in sports? In that bygone millennium, athletics still stood squarely within the scope of our national self-righteousness. We Americans were fiercely proud that many of our athletes earned no money from their physical talents. They trained hard and sacrificed material comforts in exchange for the supreme challenge of elite international competition. But the Enemy, along with the rest of its Iron Curtain ilk, stained the purity of this system and won unfair advantages by making all athletes employees of the State. The people who competed against our wholesome men and women weren't exactly people, we were told, but chemically enhanced automatons hand-picked as children and developed in sports factories as part of their leaders' overall bid for world domination. Such perverse tactics cheapened every medal they won and forced us to believe in their basic depravity. Their victories never earned our respect, but did an excellent job of sharpening our anxiety and animus.

Oh, I see that I am succumbing to irony, the salty mental treat that helped me quit sucking the root of fearful rhetoric as I struggled to emerge from the torpor of a Cold War childhood. What will it take for you, my child, to keep your head clear of the figures that facilitate this dubious War on Terror? If we stay so close to the nation's capital, committed to the neighborhood where we've sunk strong roots already, you will face routine reminders that your native habitat is a prime target for those who would strike at the Homeland's very heart. Instinct guides me in protecting you from physical danger, but who will teach me to shield you from the crippling weight of worry? Will I answer your anxious queries better than my father answered mine? Will I save the spectrum's warmest colors from becoming mere rungs to you on the ladder of alarm?

The cicadas conceived this year, those that escape future pavings and excavations, will be safe underground through the sixteen summers that follow this one. But not you. You will range farther and farther beyond your parents' reach, open to so many other influences. As you read this, 21 years old, I wonder how you have come to define security. What has the world offered to replace the household bricks that stood for safety in your child-mind? What does the word "intelligence" mean to you? Have you preserved the powers of discernment that began to flourish in the family garden? Can you still tell a silver maple seedling from a bean sprout? Do you know the difference between real bad guys and the bogies leaders use to try and hoax your liberties away?

And what, I wonder, has become of your marvelous knack for caring, your willingness to trust? Be kind to strangers, you told me in 2004, and they will be kind to you.


Andrew Wingfield is a writer and university teacher working with his artist-wife "to make a nourishing home for two young sons in a recovering neighborhood in Alexandria, VA." He says, "The brood of 17-year cicadas that emerged earlier this summer utterly charmed my four-year-old while helping me think concretely about our future here, crystallizing my concerns about how it will be to come of age in this region, and this country in general, in the years that will pass before these cicadas venture above ground again."

His first novel, which deals with human-mountain lion interactions in the northern California region where he was raised, is forthcoming. He is writer-in-residence at New Century College, the integrative studies program at George Mason University.


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This story was published on July 09, 2004.