Friday, January 18, 2008

For USFR viewers wondering about locusts...

The following was my TP review of the book that solved the riddle of ...

By Jeffery Lockwood

Inside many big books is small book trying to get out. Inside Jeffery Lockwood’s Locust, an account of the insect “that shaped the American frontier” is a term paper trying to escape. Your first clue should be the jacket blurb that proclaims it to be an “entomological thriller” – how long is that shelf at Barnes and Noble?

Still, after listening to stories about chinch bugs from my Dad and enjoying soybean aphids myself, I thought this might be an interesting story. Especially since mystery hung over the whole story: Where did they come from? Where did they go? Why? Will they return? Will there be a DVD version?

It starts with promise. The stories of unbelievable swarms of grasshoppers (locusts) documented from the pioneers homesteading the Great Plains are gripping and full of enough gory details to satisfy a fifth-grader: “The Great Salt Lake pickled them in its briny waters by the hundreds of thousands of tons then cast their carcasses ashore until a great wall of these inanimate pests was formed for miles along the lake’s shore”


Indeed, the Rocky Mountain locust was a menace of apocalyptic proportions. Billions of insects would blot the sun before descending to devour every scrap of plant material on the ground. Repeated invasions in the 1870’s abruptly declined to erratic outbursts until, by the turn of the century, the locust hordes disappeared altogether.

Lockwood goes on the fill in enough background information on the Rocky Mountain locust to satisfy the most trivial questions. Historical information about the government’s response, gadgets and tactics futilely employed by the besieged farmers, religious implications thundered by church leaders – all are chronicled with precision.

The author saves his most detailed prose, however, for the entomologists involved. With respect bordering on reverence, he fills readers in on more details than we really need to know about the men who studied the problem. At the same time, he insinuates two tedious references: 1) nobody funds bug studies (such as this one) nearly enough, making it hard for noble researchers like himself, and 2) “You won’t believe why the Rocky Mountain locust suddenly disappeared!!”

While attempting to extract some drama from the historical research into why the locust came and went so suddenly, Lockwood overplays his hand. When the jaded reader finally slogs through to the answer, it is hard not to respond, “That’s IT? You gotta be kidding me!” And no, I’m not telling. Read it yourself. [Or check this book review on]

Along the way we have learned more than enough about trekking through glacial valleys identifying Rocky Mountain locust remains by examining the male locust sex organs. (Even I couldn’t make that up). Readers have mumbled through arguments about how to spell the scientific name. On top of everything, we get a sense of the intensity of the entomological researcher in-fighting and social structure. Zzzzzzzzz…

Nonetheless, I’m glad I read the book, if for no other reason than to stun dinner companions with statements like, “The Rocky Mountain locust would eat the handles off pitchforks”.

FUI (Farmer Usefulness Index 1= low, 10= high) 6
Buy or borrow? Borrow

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