by Teagan Hughes
[originally published June 2021]
They came last when I was 14, clawing themselves out of the dirt like demons up from hell — red eyes flashing, paper wings rustling. They covered every square inch of the sidewalk; they claimed every leaf on every tree. They screamed day and night, an unholy chorus no window could ever shut out.
If you haven’t figured out what I’m referring to yet, 17-year cicadas last came to Eastern Ohio in the summer of 2016. Broadly speaking, Ohio is dominated by two discrete 17-year cicada broods, each of which occupies a distinct geographical region. Eastern Ohio, from Columbus over to Pennsylvania, is terrorized every 17 years by Brood V, which emerged last in 2016 and will emerge next in 2033. Oberlin is in Brood V territory, as is my hometown of Athens, Ohio. Western Ohio is menaced every 17 years by Brood X, whose last appearance was in 2004. The western region of the state, from Columbus over to Indiana, has already welcomed Brood X for the summer.
So no, Oberlin will not face a cicada invasion this summer. I sincerely apologize if this has burst any bubbles; 17-year cicadas are a fascinating ecological case study. Personally, though, I’m just happy there won’t be any thumb-size bugs attempting to nest in my hair on my way to Decafe.
However, this doesn’t mean cicadas aren’t coming to other parts of the state — the cicada invasion is alive and well in Cincinnati and its surrounding areas (and to them I extend my deepest sympathies). Just because something is not happening in Oberlin doesn’t mean it’s not happening elsewhere in Ohio, and likewise, just because something is happening in Oberlin doesn’t mean it is happening across the state. Our vantage point from Oberlin is so narrow that we are often at risk of overlooking the nuance of life in Ohio, not only ecologically but also socially, economically, and politically.
Much of the discourse about Ohio that takes place at Oberlin, whether it’s political, social, economic, or even ecological, is reductive. Perhaps the most reductive statement commonly made is some sort of complaint about Ohio being mostly corn--first of all, there’s lots of Ohio that’s not; second of all, what’s wrong with that? The same logic can be applied to blanket statements about Ohio being mostly flat or mostly rural. Statements like these conflate every region of Ohio with one another while simultaneously undermining and devaluing regions of the state that are agricultural, flat, or rural, among other things.
I’m from Southeastern Ohio, former coal country situated in the Appalachian foothills. When I came here, many fellow Oberlin students I met didn’t seem to know such a region existed in Ohio, which is completely fine; I don’t expect anybody to know that off the bat. What does bother me, though, is a continued ignorance of the full scope of life in Ohio (not only in regions apart from Oberlin, but in and around Oberlin as well) that only seems to be amplified rather than rectified as time goes on.
When I tell other Oberlin students that I’m from Ohio, the most common response I get is “I’m sorry.” It’s always half-joking, half-genuine--it’s a sarcastic remark laced with real pity. That pity is based on a warped perception of the state, filtered through the kaleidoscope of having-only-seen-Oberlin-and-only-for-college-purposes. As a first year, I would often respond with as genuine a laugh as I could muster, feeling slighted for a reason I couldn’t quite name. I realized later that my discomfort came from the reductive and callous nature of such jokes.
Let me say this: nobody has to be sorry. This is my home. You can be sorry that I was attacked by cicadas at the tender age of 14 or that my public high school was underfunded, but nobody has to be sorry that I’m from Ohio in the first place, even as a joke. These jokes are rarely if ever made with malicious intent, and I don’t blame anyone for making them, but I still think it’s worth examining their motivations. Where do these attitudes and misconceptions come from, and how valid is that origin? Are they based on a narrow perspective of our surroundings, or a bigger and more accurate picture? Is it possible that they are rooted in deeper socioeconomic biases that may warrant further examination?
Obviously I’m not suggesting that everyone who lives in Ohio only speaks of it with rapturous praise; there are many, many legitimate criticisms of social, economic, and political structures in the state that can and should be made. I only ask that we as a student body no longer base our jokes and offhand comments about life in Ohio on biased and reductive attitudes towards the entire state. Ohio is not a monolith and I encourage everyone to absorb everything we can about its history, landscape, politics, and social conditions, and to keep the nuances in mind in our jokes and our conversations.