MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF THE INSECT THAT SHAPED THE AMERICAN FRONTIER
BY JEFFREY A. LOCKWOOD
BASIC, 304 PAGES, $25
IN THE summer of 1875, on the heels of a terrible two-year drought, the largest insect outbreak in history took place in the western United States. A swarm of locusts estimated to be three-and-a-half trillion strong covered an area of 198,000 square miles in a cloud ranging from a quarter- to a half-mile deep. By way of lending some perspective on this image to the parochial New York mindset, the swarm would have covered the eastern states of Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. They turned the sky black. The whirring of their wings filled the air. They struck like hail. They ate the crops. They ate the laundry hanging on the washing lines and the clothing off the bodies of settlers who flailed at them in vain. They ate the wool off the backs of frenzied sheep. They ate window blinds, fence posts, wooden siding and demonstrated a particular fondness for the wooden handles of tools such as shovels, rakes, axes and hoes.
Twenty-five years later, the Rocky Mountain locust was extinct. The mystery of precisely how this devastating scourge vanished from the American landscape persisted right up to the end of the 20th century. The case was finally cracked by an intrepid entomologist with an appetite for physically challenging field work and a fondness for television detective shows.
Jeffrey A. Lockwood is Professor of Natural Sciences and Humanities at the University of Wyoming. He's also the author of Grasshopper Dreaming and a recipient of the Pushcart Prize as well as the 2003 John Burroughs Award. His latest work, Locust, is a prime example of excellent scientific research presented in a clear and straightforward way that makes the subject accessible to any reader.
He opens with a staggering first-hand account of the damage wrought by the swarms. From Kansas: "At our place they commenced coming down about 1 o'clock in the afternoon, at first only one at a time, here and there, looking a little like flakes of snow, but acting more like the advance skirmishers of an advancing army; soon they commenced coming thicker and faster, and they again were followed by vast columns, or bodies looking almost like clouds in the atmosphere. They came rattling and pattering on the houses, and against the windows, falling in the fields, on the prairies and in the waters? By about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, every tree and bush, buildings, fences, fields, roads, and everything, except animated beings, was completely covered with grasshoppers."
The noise the swarm made was the stuff of sheer horror. As Lockwood puts it:
"Perhaps even more unforgettable than the sight of a swarm was the sound of the locusts as they arrived. A whirring buzz compared to 'a distant threshing machine' initially heralded their coming, but this smothering hum soon gave way to the sound of their feeding and seething in the fields. The settlers struggled for words to adequately describe this sensation, most often drawing a parallel to a grass fire. A scientist who witnessed many swarms described the sound in vivid terms: 'The noise their myriad jaws make when engaged in their work of destruction can be realized by anyone who has fought a prairie fire, or heard the flames passing along before a brisk wind: the low crackling and rasping-the general effect of the two sounds, are very similar.'"
Lockwood quotes the U.S. Entomological Society as placing the economic cost in damage to agriculture west of the Mississippi during the outbreaks of 1874-77 at $200 million, stating "this is equivalent to $116 billion in today's money, with annual agricultural production in the United States being valued at $217 billion."
The book proceeds through a thorough accounting of the efforts of the states and the nascent federal bureaucracy to cope with the socio-economic havoc being wrought by these pests and on to a comprehensive and succinct introduction to the brilliant and often eccentric characters attracted to the study and possible containment of this plague. The flamboyant Charles Valentine Riley is a figure out of American myth, with his convoluted family background and wildly peripatetic career path.
The last third of the book is dedicated to Lockwood's own efforts and eventual success in his quest to uncover the truth behind the sudden disappearance of the species. His eloquence hits its full stride as he describes the processes leading to his epiphany, itself described as more of an unfolding than a leaping flash of insight. His expeditions in the field attempting to recover specimens from melting glaciers are not in any way overblown or exaggerated. There's an endearing humility in his tone as he recounts what amounts to a forensic Indiana Jones adventure. A quote in the bridge to this section stuck with me, as it gives the reader an excellent insight into the workings of Lockwood's fabulous reasoning, and a disturbing (probably unintended) implication regarding our own destiny:
"In recent years, the emerging field of complexity is finding that sudden catastrophic changes may be inherent in some systems, including populations. My own work in the field of catastrophe theory suggests that modern grasshopper outbreaks may be precisely such systems. Their erratic dynamics are entirely normal, although we can exacerbate the outbreaks by mismanagement of the rangeland. We've even found evidence that grasshopper populations exhibit a phenomenon called self-organizing criticality, in which they naturally develop to the point where outbreaks and crashes are triggered by their own biology."
"Self-organizing criticality" is a disturbing concept when applied to human populations. Fortunately, Lockwood doesn't go there, but he does indulge himself in a Jeremiad at the conclusion that goes on just long enough to indicate a certain charming naivete as regards the relation of people to entropy in ecological systems. He closes on a disarmingly perverse note, suggesting that the Rocky Mountain locust may not, in fact, be truly extinct at all. The great plague of the Golden West may simply be biding its time, lying dormant in the last pristine habitat left to it: Yellowstone National Park.
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