Start Date: 24 April, 2020
Finish Date: 26 April, 2020
Source: Amazon India Kindle edition
In 1876, the U.S. Congress declared the locust “the single greatest impediment to the settlement of the country between Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains.” Throughout the nineteenth century, swarms of locusts regularly swept across the American continent, turning noon into dusk, devastating farm communities, and bringing trains to a halt. The outbreaks subsided in the 1890s, and then, suddenly—and mysteriously—the Rocky Mountain locust vanished. A century later, entomologist Jeffrey Lockwood vowed to discover why.
Locust is the story of how one insect shaped the history of the western United States. A compelling personal narrative drawing on historical accounts and modern science, this beautifully written book brings to life the cultural, economic, and political forces at work in America in the late nineteenth century, even as it solves one of the greatest extinction mysteries of our time.
Let’s start with how I came to read this book. It showed up in either a Goodreads newsletter, or Goodreads trending books in February, probably thanks to the news about locust swarms in East Africa and Pakistan. Ah, those innocent days before coronavirus. So it was topical, but here’s where I shamefacedly admit that it made it on to my to-be-read pile because of an old injoke. In the second year of B-school, the new incoming class size increased by about 15%. And they had classes offset from our classes by about fifteen minutes. Which meant that when we got back to the mess from class, we would find that the juniors had finished all the food in the past fifteen minutes and we’d have to wait for the kitchen to refresh. We dubbed them locusts, and to this day the mention of locusts makes me snigger. Enough to make me read this book, and how that old injoke has paid off. This is a fantastic book, one I’ll recommend to everybody regardless of whether they have any previous interest in locusts or not. And now for a rough, chapter by chapter annotation.
- Chapter 1 introduces us to the phenomenon of white settlement beyond the Mississipi river, thanks to a combination of things – the Homestead act, financial crisis making homesteading a viable alternative to industrial labour, suppression of the Native Americans, and the Mormons fleeing to Utah. It moves on to how these settlers faced locusts swarms that would eat away their crops, their horror at the scale of these swarms, and the even greater horror when people estimated the number of insects, and came up with a figure of 30 million insects hatching in a single four acre farm.
- Also body horror – hungry locusts which had run out of crops to devour would be attracted to wooden tools by the sweat left on their handles and eat the handles. And once they had run out of wood, clothes, and crops, they would eat each other.
- Chapter 2 moves on to how people tried to deal with the locust swarms. A guy called Albert Child, a military weatherman, estimated that the swarm would be at least a quarter mile deep, 1800 miles long, and 110 miles wide. This would make it 2000 times the size of the largest swarm recorded outside North America, in Kenya in 1954.
- We also learn that droughts made vegetation even more valuable to locusts, because the dry weather concentrated sugars in the leaves.
- Locus comes from “locus ustus,” or burnt place.
- The Rocky Mountain locust’s genus name is Melanoplus, or “dark armoured.” Lockwood draws a comparison to Darth Vader.
- Chapter 3 is a bit of a diversion, talking about the religious response to the locusts, and in a diversion to the diversion, talks about the history of the Church excommunicating, sentencing, or cursing animals (or trees). The diversion gets interesting when we find that the Mormon religion commanded them to take a Sabbath every seven years, not just every seven days. And that Sabbath included leaving the land fallow for that seventh year and having stocked up for the six years prior for that Sabbath. The Mormons and Utah survived the locust swarms much better than the other states.
- The Church extensively discussed (not just in 1970s USA, all through history) whether the locusts were messengers of God punishing sinning societies that should now repent (which additionally meant that the locusts could not be condemned by the church), or if they were the devices of the devil (in which case excommunicating or cursing them was fine). The Mormon church firmly decided that they were the tools of God, and in a fascinating footnote we find that a justification they give is that unlike birds, which have turned their arms into wings, insects have wings which are not modified limbs – just like angels.
- The conflict between locusts being the devil’s torment or God’s punishment reminds me of the theological dispute about whether hope is a virtue or not, because hope contradicts faith.
- Missouri’s government declared a day of prayer to combat the locusts. Kansas was not as interested.
- Chapter 4 takes us to the first ways in which the farmers attempted to tackle the locust infestations – fire, crushing the locusts under heavy rollers, and poison. A hopperdozer was invented – but as a footnote helpfully explains, the name isn’t derived from bulldozer because bulldozers hadn’t yet been invented. The dozing came from the effect of the poisonous fumes which the crushing wheel gave off as it rolled across the fields.
- The most effective method, though, was apparently to leave deep furrows in between rows of crops – the immature locust nymphs were flightless and couldn’t climb up the vertical ditch, and would starve in the ditches, never to breed.
- Along with this switching out from wheat to peas and cattle was suggested.
- Chapters 5 to 7 discuss the three entomologists who were instrumental in setting up the United States entomological commission, their power struggles with each other, their early lives, and so forth. The upshot is that they wanted to have independence from the existing Department of the Agriculture, and lobbied to have themselves placed under the Department of the Interior. A General Ord, who tried to have army surplus material used for famine relief, is also mentioned.
- The discussion of the entomologists’ childhood, and how they grew up looking at insects in the countryside and sketching them, reminds me of my eighteen month old nephew’s fascination with insects – he comes to my study and demands to flip through the children’s encyclopedia volume on insects.
- Chapter 6 briefly mentions the fascinating in its own right story of phylloxera.
- Riley advocated eating the locusts, and made a strong case of the benefits during a locust-induced famine. It never caught on, though, and we are now in the 21st century, waiting for a hopeful new Brown Revolution.
- Chapter 8 explains that by the early twentieth century, the locust swarms had vanished – but hardly anybody noticed. This is partly because of “good news is no news.”
- The description of Criddle ordering a telescope from London for delivery to the Canadian prairie diverted my train of thought to “Poor guy wouldn’t even have been able to track shipping.” But, seriously, with the combination of shipping times between London and Canada, the difficulty of getting from a port to that rural farmhouse, the poor guy must have waited ages.
- In a sense, Chapter 8 is where a whodunit is set up, and the next few chapters are an exciting but frustrating procedural in which competing theories are offered, only to be knocked down. I’m reminded of what Simon Major did in the Our Fake History episode about the Pied Piper.
- In Chapter 9, we’re introduced to Boris Petrovic Uvarov, an 1889 born Russian who grows up on the Kazakhstan steppe, and takes the first available opportunity to get out of the USSR and into the UK, where he uses the British’ image of him as a Russian with no English-speaking skills to be as direct and blunt as he likes. Parallels to how Hercule Poirot becomes excessively French / Belgian / mountebank to disarm his suspects, and also to Otto Chriek emphasising his Uberwaldean accent.
- As cool as the biography in Chapter 9 is, it’s the science which is more fascinating. Uvarov in the UK / Caucasus; and a guy called Faure in South Africa are researching over a few years, and semi-independently, semi-from-reading-each-other, are coming to the same conclusion – that a locust is not a different species from a grasshopper. Instead, it’s a different part of the lifecycle, one that is triggerred every few generations instead of once a generation.
- Uvarov called this the “Theory of Phases,” and that locust was a phase of life. The explanation is that beyond a certain threshold population density of grasshoppers, the grasshoppers pick up on the chemicals present in each other, and each other’s feces – and these chemicals trigger morphological changes – longer wings – and behaviour changes – swarming and migration. I read this with my jaw dropped, especially when Lockwood linked it to phase changes and chaos theory.
- I spent a semester in engineering having to study phase changes in either material science or chemistry or thermodynamics, and I’ve retained practically nothing of it, but this chapter of Locust brought the memories of phase diagrams flooding back. The Wikipedia entry on phase transitions doesn’t even address the biological phases of life brought up here, and just on its own, doesn’t even begin to confer understanding – but at least it is a good place to start.
- Invoking chaos theory to explain how something innocuous will turn into a catastrophe also brings memories of Jurassic Park (the book, not the movie) flooding back.
- And more pop-culturally, the idea of not-that-bad solitary insects suddenly transforming into a terrifying swarm has one very appropriate phrase to describe it – Hulking out!
- At this point, Lockwood sets up an expectation that the Rocky Mountain locust’s non-swarming phase is an identified grasshopper, and that the whodunit will be to identify which one it is. And the rest of the chapter is a gotcha, showing that no other well known grasshopper species in North America matches the Rocky Mountain locust.
- “The naming of things is a powerful act, given the fundamental importance of language to humanity. Most taxonomists might give some sort of rational explanation for their exactitude, but within Western culture, the Judeo-Christian emphasis placed on the Word plays into the sense that theirs is important, even sacred, work. Taxonomists half-jokingly refer to themselves as the only scientists with a divine mandate. God’s first assignment to Adam was to name the creatures, a task that is probably no more than 10 percent completed today.”
- Ha, but even Sanskrit literature is kind of obsessed with categorising and listing things. Kama Sutra, Arthashastra, and a whole bunch of Mahabharata segments are all obsessively trying to build “Collectively Exhaustive” lists.
- After a diversion into how spelling mistakes in taxonomy end up sticking, we get to how the grasshoppers are ruled out – by their penises, or to be precise, their aedeaguses. Reproductive organ shape is amazingly consistent within a species and diverse in a set of species – Lockwood points out that this is kind of self-fulfilling, as the definition of a species is something that can propagate itself, and if your sexual organs don’t fit inside your mate, that pretty much rules out successful mating. Marlene Zuk’s Sex on Six Legs is possibly worth a reread at this point, plus of course the point of how ducks have corkscrew penises. And as it’s easier to observe the shape of a male sexual organ than a female one, which will require incredibly fine dissection when it comes to insects, male grasshopper and locust specimens are crucial to this search.
- Since Chapter 9 and the aedeagus study rules out the Rocky Mountain Locust being a phase of any other grasshopper species, the conclusion is that it’s extinct. Chapter 10 discusses three theories for the cause of extinction, only to trollishly lay out the evidence that they’re wrong:
- Settlers planted alfalfa, which was poisonous to grasshoppers. Unfortunately, it’s not that poisonous, and besides, they had plenty else to eat.
- The bison theory – in some way the locust lifecycle depended on the huge herds of bison that nearly went extinct in North America – and now that the bison was nearly extinct, the locust went actually extinct. Lockwood makes some caustic remarks about how exterminating bison was done with the unwritten objective of also exterminating the Native Americans who depended on them, but also points out that the evidence for this theory is too weak – all mechanisms by which the locusts might depend on bison were also fulfilled by the cattle which the settlers brought along. There are also caustic remarks about the Greek / European intellectual tradition being obsessed with golden means and moderation and thinking that any sudden discontinuity is a catastrophe.
- Climate change – but again, the evidence doesn’t hold up considering the Native American oral record that the locusts had existed for hundreds of years earlier.
- The collapse in Native American population meant that they were no longer managing the prairie by setting fires, so the locusts’ food source collapsed. Again, not borne out by the time scale.
- Chapters 11 and 12 are autobiographical and write about Lockwood’s expeditions to Montana glaciers to find preserved locust specimens. He describes how expedition after expedition doesn’t turn up enough, but along the way, he finds just enough locust jaws to show that mandibles are a way to differentiate between locust species, and reproductive organs are not the only method.
- Chapter 13 finally solves the whodunit – it turns out that the weak link in the lifecycle of the locust is the time when the population is in its cradle, the river valleys of the Rocky Mountain. The area suitable for laying eggs here is very limited – only the river valleys have soil at the right level of looseness and moisture for the nymphs to be able to crawl to the surface. And when settlers reached these river valleys and started irrigating them, the locust population collapsed – the next generation of locusts was not even being born at all.
- Lockwood draws a comparison to Medea killing infants in the cradle, but I was thinking more of Kansa when it comes to that analogy. And, hey, let’s throw in a Doctor Who reference too: Listen, if someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?
- I and Lockwood draw that analogy a bit because the fodder and cattle farmers who irrigated the river valleys of Colorado and Idaho had no idea that their agricultural practices would kill the locust, and ended up causing an unintentional extinction. It was good for the farmers of the great plains, but it may have knocked out a keystone species and the possible consequences are that bird life in North America is declining every year. And Lockwood points out that the thirsty agriculture in the West is also causing floods downriver as it changes the silting patterns – very reminiscent of The Water Knife, and all the longform articles I was reading at the peak of the California drought.
- Chapter 14 has this awesome snark about lessons from the locust’s extinction: “But, one might legitimately contend, humans are not like locusts. We are far more clever and adaptable. Homo sapiens is the ultimate generalist, capable of rapidly adapting to an immense range of environmental challenges and occupying new habitats. However, the Rocky Mountain locust might quietly remind us that it consumed no fewer than fifty kinds of plants from more than a dozen families (as well as leather, fabric, paper, and wool when hunger demanded), whereas the overwhelming proportion of our diet is derived from just three species—corn, wheat, and rice—found in a single family of plants.” It reminds me irresistably of the line from the Book of Thoth comic series – “We think ourselves masters of the world, but we are only prey!”