While the entire rest of the country is settling into David Sedaris' Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, I spent my weekend completely immersed in locusts. Not literally, mind you - that would be gross. But Jeffrey Lockwood's Locust is one of those rare discoveries you find by accident in the bookstore that nevertheless goes on to consume both your imagination and every waking hour until it's finished.
In the latter half of the 19th century, the great plains were regularly besieged by humungous swarms of Melanoplus spretus, or Rocky Mountain locusts. Like tornadoes and blizzards, an incoming infestation would spread across the entire horizon, blocking out the midday sun and sending a dark shadow across modest homesteads and hard-won farm plots. A family's entire livelihood could be wiped out in a day; locusts devoured not only every kernel of wheat and blade of grass in the fields but also wooden tool handles and even the pioneers' clothing (if they didn't make it inside fast enough). Dead locusts infected water supplies and raised a nightmarish stench that writers of the day belabored in long, revoltingly descriptive passages. Relief trains couldn't come through because the tracks were made too slick by "grasshopper grease" and the locusts - as a final biological middle finger - left millions of their eggs in the fields they'd chomped bare. The problem was so bad that in 1876 Congress marked the locust as "the single greatest impediment to the settlement of the country" while many farmers - their only previous experiences with locusts being of a more Biblical, metaphorical variety - wondered if they were experiencing some sort of divine retribution.
Locust reads like a highly engaging suspense novel, a primer of life on the American frontier and a natural history "storm" thriller along the lines of Isaac's Storm and The Perfect Storm. (In fact, Lockwood notes that the Isaac Cline of Isaac's Storm was initially recruited to study how meteorological conditions affected locust swarms). Throughout, Lockwood builds up the premise of a mystery - how did this particular insect become so formidable, and furthermore, how did it pass into extinction just a few decades later? - while exercising his considerable wit and voracious scientific curiosity. This is one to be read outdoors, with a gentle breeze blowing in and the amicable chatter of the crickets heard off in the near distance.
Publication date: 07/08/04