by Jamie Lutton
- The Capitol Hill Times -
“A cloud was over the sun. It was not like any could they had ever seen before. It was a cloud of something like snowflakes but they were larger than snowflakes, and thick and glittering. Light shone through each flickering particle. There was no wind. The grasses were still and the hot aid [d]id not stir, but the edge of the cloud came on across the sky faster than a wind. The hair stood up on Jack’s (the dog’s) neck; all at once he made a frightful sound up at the cloud, a growl and a whine.”
That’s from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book, “On The Banks of Plum Creek.” This little girl’s recollection is the best eyewitness account of a locust swarm descending from the sky in the 19th century. Locusts, like but not identical to grasshoppers, were the curse of the frontier farmer. The clouds of bugs, so large that they could cover half a state, arrived, seemingly from nowhere, and ate everything on the ground. They traveled west to east, sometimes flying over several states before alighting to feed.
But what happened to this insect? Why have 140 years past since locust swarms plagued the early American frontier farmer? That’s what the book “Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier,” by Jeffrey A. Lockwood, addresses.
I’m not a bug expert. I know the difference between an arachnid and an insect, and have read some about the evolution of insects, but I have always been more interested in big animals, like dinosaurs, extinct mammals, whales and birds. Planet Earth’s smaller life forms didn’t interest me. Then I read the book on locusts.
The book is both a history and science book. Dr. Lockwood paints a picture of swarms of insects appearing in a huge cloud in the sky every few summers, clouds that could be hundreds of miles wide, darkening the sky. They would descend and strip the land of anything green – the sound of their chewing loud. The locusts ate plants down to the stubble, as well as other bugs, clothes and human flesh in the frantic desire for calories and fat. The swarms stayed on the ground till all of the green was gone, then lay their eggs.
“Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier” has a detailed account of the 19th century relations between farmers and the American government, which farmers appealed to for help. It speaks of starvation coming in the winter of 1873, when the locusts ate a large percentage of crops, like wheat, in several western states (this shaped American agriculture, pushing farmers to raise cattle instead or diversify into fruit trees or ground crops like potatoes, which could better withstand a locust attack).
Many inventions were made to drive away or exterminate the locusts. And they did disappear in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, but not because of a battle between man and bug – it was the unintended consequence of something else that man was doing.
The author shares his path to figuring out where they went. He even climbed a glacier to find traces of these swarms from times past by sampling the ice for insect fragments. No samples of their bodies survived to the 20th century.
I recommend “Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier” to anyone fond of science or natural history books. By building the text around questions – How were these insects dealt with by the settlers and the government? Where did the swarms come from? What were they like? Where did the locusts go, and why do they seem to be extinct? – the book is saved from being dry or a tone aimed at students of insects and American history. The writing is also good and packed with dry wit.
The swarm that Laura wrote about in “On the Banks of Plum Creek” was one of the last huge ones. The farmers won, in the end. Now, North America is the only continent free of Locust swarms. Dr. Lockwood managed to find a few, though, in a national park. As he examined and described the living insect, you feel the author’s grave respect for this nearly extinct creature.