For David Heithaus '99, director of green initiatives, the cicada invasion evoked old delights, memories of natural wonder and an abiding sense of place.
Last May, like so many Mays before, Kenyon celebrated the successful germination of a fresh crop of alumni. Mortarboards flew, smiles spread, arms opened to hug after hug. Those of us who would remain behind shared memories with those whom we would efficiently remove from the residence halls by dusk.
A week later, we welcomed back alumni for Reunion Weekend — and, with them, a horde of 17-year cicadas. The departing seniors, the arriving alums and the re-emerging cicadas all got me thinking about Kenyon’s remarkable ability to inspire grand returns.
For the cicadas, it’s a matter of nature: They’ve got an internal alarm clock set to the time it takes for an infant to become a sullen teen, then triggered when the soil temperature around eight inches deep warms to 64 degrees. For the rest of us, returns hinge on individual emotion. We form our Kenyon visions through the lens of our particular four-year stints on campus.
But we, too, respond to nature. Kenyon has always imparted a core sense of place — a feeling rooted in the way we and our classmates, close and together, explore what it means to be human on this remote, enveloping Hill.
My strongest memories spring from the College’s natural surroundings — the quiet flow of the Kokosing, the forests and fields that have been preserved in the Brown Family Environmental Center. Those images, in turn, are linked to my membership in a dubiously exclusive club made up of locals, faculty brats and legacy students. My father, Ray Heithaus ’68, teaches environmental science and biology at the College. I grew up on the Hill. You might say that, for me, sense of place — and a fine-tuned appreciation for Kenyon’s natural wonders — is an inherited trait.
I can vividly remember when I was 5 years old and a swarm of 17-year cicadas descended on the outdoor Commencement ceremony. A deafening thrum and ascending drone filled the warm air, reverberating between Ascension Hall and the Mathers. I was blissfully unaware of the discomfort among the black-robed grads and their families as the creatures scurried at their feet.
I danced and twirled past pile after pile of shed exuviae. I captured the red-eyed beasties by the handful. Everything was right where it belonged. It was a delight — for me, at least. (The progeny of those cicadas would hatch the year of my own graduation from Kenyon, instantly rendering me 5 years old again.)
As boys, my brother and I would trundle up from Wiggin Street School and head down Middle Path and, while waiting for Dad to finish up with his advisees, or Mom to tuck away the last of the formalin-soaked, painstakingly dissected lab cats, we’d prowl beneath the trees in the underbrush.
I was always the better at hiding. I can still feel the sensation of tucking myself behind a log: the soft, damp wood and moss, the rich smell of earth and decaying leaf litter. I can remember an almost agonizing desire to sink into that ground, to become a part of the forest. I’d close my eyes and picture myself in a primordial version of Gambier, alone with nothing but those smells and sensations, free from the constraints of time.
When I was 13, I joined my father and some others atop a field across from campus. We looked down at an old farmhouse shaded by a line of silver maples. Beyond, we could see the Kokosing, the valley’s far slope, and, veiled by branches and new buds, the spire of old Kenyon. With the help of a planter towed behind an old John Deere, we dug in a thousand white pine saplings — one of the first restoration projects at what was then known as the Kenyon Center for Environmental Studies.
Later, following my first year as a student at Kenyon, I spent an endless summer tending to those trees and the woodlot that covers the steep hill to the south of the river and the Kokosing Gap.
My travels after graduation took me to some exotic landscapes. But I could never forget the subtle beauty of the places around the Hill. And, in time, I returned — not like the May alumni, but like my father. I settled here, taking a job managing the environmental center.
Now I have a son of my own. And, interestingly enough, this past spring, when the seniors marched off the Hill and the cicadas emerged from the ground, he turned 5. Watching him skip around with his cousins, wearing shed cicada exoskeletons in his hair and waving the insects themselves at anyone who showed discomfort, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going through his mind — and what seed might be nestling there, to germinate later.
I want to instill in him three things before the cicadas come back around. A sense of kindness. A sense of usefulness. And a sense of this place that is our home — whether we are physically here or not.