Rarely does a book about insects come across as a great and interesting read, but Jeffrey Lockwoodís story of the Rocky Mountain Locust, which once terrorized the settlers of the American frontier then ceased to exist within a very short period of time, succeeds on all levels. As a scientific study of the rise and demise of a particular species, it is thoroughly documented and well-sourced. As an exciting adventure story, it is a page-turner indeed, even if you are like me and canít stand any member of the insect kingdom (with the exception of furry caterpillars and ladybugs).
According to Lockwood, Professor of Natural Sciences and Humanities at the University of Wyoming and author of Grasshopper Dreaming, the Rocky Mountain Locust played a crucial role in the ecological balance of the American frontier. Throughout the 19th century, massive swarms of these locusts moved across the continent like clockwork, devastating entire farm communities, destroying precious resources and terrorizing what human settlement had moved west enough to encounter these sky demons. The mass swarms, often including over ten billion individual locusts, caused widespread starvation for these early human settlers, and the federal government was forced to call in troops of scientists to help find ways to fight the locusts. Thus the field of entomology, the study of insects, began, as Congress in 1876 declared the locust as the single greatest impediment to settlement between the Mississippi and the Rockies.
But suddenly, over the course of a few decades, the Rocky Mountain Locust completely vanished. The swarms ended, although replaced in smaller versions by other insects, but the Rocky Mountain Locust was to be found no more. Why? What caused the great die-off of a species once so populous? How did the extinction affect the biology and ecology of the rest of the regionís environment? What part might the human settlers have played in killing off the locusts en masse?
Over a century later, Jeffrey Lockwood set out with a handful of other scientists and entomologists to try and answer these questions. Using historical accounts of what happened during the great locust die-off, scientific records of the region, and modern scientific techniques, Lockwood thinks he may have finally solved the mystery of the Rocky Mountain Locust, and the solution is a warning to the rest of us about the delicate and interconnected balance of nature and the creatures inhabiting it.
More than just the story of a bug, this is the story of frontier life and the struggles and hardships the new settlers faced, not just economically, but politically and spiritually as they struggled to do battle with the forces of nature that threatened to starve them out of house and home. One of the most intriguing chapters of Locust describes the amazing, and by todayís standards, silly, extent the religious leadership of the day went to in order to eradicate the locusts, including actual exorcism attempts! Many religious settlers believed the locust to be sent by Satan to punish them for their sins, but scientists understood the locust as a hearty and necessary species that caused havoc, but played an important role in the regional ecology.
Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier is one of those great books that when you finish, you canít wait to go tell others about what you learned. The fact that this particular mystery was real, and an extraordinary part of our national history to boot, makes it even more exciting.