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Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier

Author(s):Lockwood, Jeffrey A.
Reviewer(s):Amato, Anthony J.

Published for EH.NET (March 2005)

Jeffrey A. Lockwood, Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier. New York: Basic Books, 2004. xxiii + 294 pp. $25 (cloth), ISBN: 0-7382-0894-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Anthony J. Amato, Center for Rural and Regional Studies, Southwest Minnesota State University.

In Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier, Jeffrey A. Lockwood examines the locust swarms that devastated European-American agricultural operations in the Central North American Grassland and Rocky Mountains. In the second half of the nineteenth century, both regions suffered periodic locust plagues, the largest of which came in the middle of the 1870s and stripped the landscape of vegetation from Alberta to Arkansas. Despite all its power and significance in nineteenth-century North America, the Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus spretus) remains largely mystery. Lockwood, an entomologist who is a professor of Natural Sciences and Humanities at the University of Wyoming, chooses to tell of the story of these swarms and their sudden cessation as a “whodunit.” The crime is the mysterious end of the advances, and Lockwood as the detective poses the key questions that guide his investigation: why did the swarms (the victim) die, and, if they were killed off, who did it and how? For the detective, the mystery is compounded by the possibility that there might been no victim at all and hence no crime. (Until quite recently, scientists were unsure about what the Rocky Mountain locust was and whether it was actually a separate species.) Locust reopens the investigation into this unsolved case. Unconvinced by explanations ranging from livestock-versus-bison grazing to European-American fire suppression, Lockwood seeks an air-tight ecological explanation to two lingering questions: what specific events and conditions converged and gave rise to the massive swarms of insects, and what specific events and conditions caused their sudden disappearance in the first decade of the twentieth century. In the fourteen chapters of his book, he conducts his investigation and makes a case for insecticide, but an insecticide that was committed by different perpetrators in a different manner than previously alleged.

In chapters one though five, Lockwood sets the stage and outlines the scene of the crime. People have long struggled — and continue to struggle — with the hungry hordes. Their unstoppable advances have drawn different reactions. Medieval Europeans, for example, debated the proper response to locusts — were they a punishment from God and should they be accepted by a penitent people, or were they Satan’s minions and should they be fought? Drawing on another view present in the Christian tradition, mid-nineteenth-century Americans cast the plagues as divine tests and their first response was “to retaliate” (p. 49). They fought the insects by every means that they had their disposal, including converted reapers, voracious chickens, and arsenic compounds, and in their spare time they even dreamed up fanciful new ways such as the “horse-drawn flamethrower,” which never made it off paper and into the field (p. 51). When “Christian faith and Yankee ingenuity” failed to contain the plagues of the 1870s, farmers turned to a “surefire solution” — government (p. 63). At first, government intervention proved problematic. Politicians were loath to encourage demoralizing dependence and unsustainable land rushes, and the scope of the disasters exceeded anything that states could address. In the end, the federal government intervened, offering relief aid to the stricken and launching pest management initiatives. This limited intervention came about because a collapse of agriculture on frontier could reach beyond the confines of the region and threaten Eastern creditors, railroad barons, and the captains of manufacturing, all of whom had built their empires on the successful agricultural settlement of the West.

In chapters six though nine, Lockwood examines the locust’s quick exit and scientists’ efforts to understand the creature. A trio of scientists, Charles Valentine Riley, Norman Criddle, and Boris Petrovich Uvarov, formed the modern understanding of the locust. Riley, who “pioneered … integrated pest management” (p. 111), focused the fight on the insects’ eggs, searched for natural enemies, and stressed the need to diversify agriculture. Norman Criddle, who might have been “the last man to have seen a living Rocky Mountain locust” (p. 128), concocted and perfected powerful pesticides, while making extensive contributions to the classification and understanding of locusts and their meeker fraternal twins, grasshoppers. Uvarov, who did his work on Eurasian and African locusts, discovered that environmental conditions (population changes, crowding, and migration) could trigger a metamorphosis in locust species, making members of the same species appear as though they were an entirely different species. While twentieth-century scientists were making breakthroughs in taxonomy and ecology, few noticed that the hordes of locusts had vanished. By the mid-1930s, only a group of perplexed specialists wondered what had become of the Rocky Mountain locust (spretus): had it retreated to isolated valleys, had it lost its place to more successful grasshoppers, or had it changed in form to become or revert to sanguinipes, a more widespread meeker species? An analysis of the genitals of sanguinipes and spretus, however, revealed almost insurmountable differences between the two, and no experiment in breeding and environment succeeded in inducing a spretus-like state in sanguinipes.

In chapters ten through fifteen, Lockwood reviews others’ cases and makes his own case. Not content to rely on mere circumstantial evidence and to resolve the species question once and for all, Lockwood turns to DNA. In the beginning and at the end of his book, he recounts his treks to alpine glaciers in western Wyoming in order to obtain samples of insects from past centuries. On these treks, he collected frozen specimens and precisely dated their demise by using glacial layering, advances, and retreats. He then submitted the specimens for full DNA profiling, and the lab results that came back showed that his samples of spretus had a DNA profile completely different than that of the closest living species. Therefore, the Rocky Mountain locust was a distinct species that is now extinct.

Lockwood then turns to how and who. As early as the 1940s, many scientists accepted spretus was extinct. Faced with a missing insect, they began to put forward theories as to its rapid rise and hasty demise. The first scientists to address the issue insisted that settlers’ introduction of alfalfa did it in because the locust feasted on this junk food and the result was undernourished nymphs. Subsequent investigators, more informed by ecology, maintained that the bison’s demise brought about the locust population explosion but the spread of cattle-grazing ultimately destroyed the insect. Finding these theories inadequate and unsatisfactory, a third group of scientists focused on changes in climate or on the link between fire, Native Americans, and grasslands, with European-American fire suppression responsible for the destruction of the conditions and habitat best for the locust. After highlighting the gaping holes that he and others have found in all of these theories, Lockwood advances his own explanation. It was settlers’ activities in Rocky Mountain river valleys that killed the locust. In the 1880s and 1890s, settlers poured into mountain valleys, which formed the insect’s permanent zone, its home. This small zone served as a nursery critical for its early life stages as well as an area in which it could always thrive. Here there was just enough moisture needed to support a constant low-lying vegetative cover, and the insect found loose soils necessary for its eggs. Agriculture destroyed this home. Farmers flooded great stretches of land for alfalfa, their cattle and horses overgrazed and compacted the soil, and their plows destroyed and unearthed the eggs. Together, these acts created killer cold in the topsoil and extremely damp conditions that encouraged blight diseases in spretus. It was just a matter of time after farmers’ entry into the mountains before the locust was killed off. Case closed.

Lockwood concludes Locust by describing an encounter that he had with an insect that appeared to be spretus. Overjoyed at first, he decided to conceal the location of his find for fear that if this indeed was spretus, he would endanger it by disclosing its location. The locust, he points out, is seen as a pest and thus enjoys no protection under the Endangered Species Act. For him, the destruction of the species as a menace is a more likely prospect than its protection for biodiversity’s sake. He takes this moment to speculate about the fate of the locust, which is the antithesis of charismatic megafauna. He also contemplates people’s attitudes toward nature and their connections to the environment.

Lockwood has provided a fascinating and convincing account. He turns to a broad range of sources and studies to open up the past. In order to support his points about species, life stages, and ecology, he draws from the large body of taxonomic, ecological, and physiological studies of locusts and grasshoppers. Nevertheless, the reviewer would have liked to get a stronger sense that Lockwood has caught the perpetrators — the valley settlers — in the act. He too readily allows loose macro-level statistics and crude calculations to take the place of local facts and conditions. Documentation of agriculture in specific valleys does exist. Because they were prime real estate with fertile soils and water rights, valley parcels did not often escape documentation as nearby highland and plains areas often did. Commemorative county histories and land records offer ample detail about exactly who first cultivated which land when. A little more archival and printed evidence would allow him to make his case not just with a preponderance of the evidence, but it would dispel any reasonable doubt.

At points, Locust could benefit from a more thoughtful approach to style and presentation. The writing is clear and compelling. Nevertheless, some readers will be irritated by Lockwood’s humor, digressions, and his anachronistic and over-the-top references, which include comparing a medieval animal trial to the O.J. Simpson trial. The reviewer sees a need for a more firm editor who could have solved these problems, but the reviewer acknowledges trade-offs, especially in a world where too many academic books are dull and dry. Locust could also benefit from drawing on more works in environmental and economic history. Lockwood makes reference to the works of Stephen Pyne and Gilbert Fite, but other important works escape his attention. These works could aid him in his search for a smoking gun. They also could help him put his history in a broader context and appreciate the complex intersections of nature, humans, and economy. His last chapter rightly stresses present responsibilities and calls on readers to care, but its emphasis on “our agrarian ancestors” (p. 259), collective responsibility, and the singularity of past destruction distorts the very past he encourages readers to care about.

Locust is a major contribution to the history of North America and it has implications well beyond the boundaries of environmental studies. Without the regular disasters, the economic development of the American West from Iowa to Utah would have been far different, and the abrupt end of the regular swarms of devastation changed agriculture and settlement. It is in the field of environmental history where Lockwood makes his mark though. Prior studies of the locust plagues, such as Annette Atkins’s Harvest of Grief, did not focus on them as environmental events. For Lockwood, the locust’s rise and disappearance are first and foremost environmental events. Taking an ecological approach and recognizing that creatures are significant for what they are and for what they do, he concludes that the regular advances of swarms formed “an immense aperiodic energy flow that linked life processes on a continental scale” (p. 137). In light of many recent environmental studies in the humanities, it is refreshing to come across a piece written by a research scientist willing to test theory and find truth. Lockwood investigates real insects, not metaphors and rhetoric, and historians should seek inspiration in his treatment of a real creature in a real environment. The book speaks to scientists, too. Many of those working in the natural sciences will be taken by his ability to reach an audience, but they should not overlook his success in creating a living and relevant natural history. Locust, not just another piece toward the completion of the puzzle of the dead past, demonstrates the power of past investigations in solving the mysteries of the present. As the reviewer read the book, swarms of locusts threatened sites across northern Africa and even islands in the eastern Atlantic. As news of the hordes’ advances spread, Lockwood’s investigation of spretus suddenly became the present. A demonstration of great erudition and enthusiasm, Locust‘s blend of history, science, and storytelling appeals to casual pleasure readers, while challenging scholars in many fields. Beyond having great popular and scholarly appeal, Locust offers precious insights into the often mysterious connections between people and environment.

Anthony J. Amato is an associate professor at Southwest Minnesota State University’s Center for Rural and Regional Studies. He is the author of “The Flow of History: An Essay on Rivers, the Past, and the Present.”

Subject(s):Historical Geography
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century