First an eerie cloud would darken the sky, then the roaring crackle of a million wings, sounding much like a horrific prairie fire, heralded the dreaded invasion of gigantic swarms of locusts, which swept through farmlands, leaving destruction in their wake. Fields of crops were decimated, and trains were stopped by slippery rails resulting from a myriad of crushed locust bodies, despite the brave efforts of pioneers, who used every imaginable method to fight back, including firing guns, clanging pots, burning sulfur, flooding the fields, burning smudge pots, and even setting chickens out to gorge themselves. Numerous mechanical devices were devised, but none were very successful.
These devastating attacks by the Rocky Mountain Locust were commonplace in the 1870's, and were considered a major hazard of life in the Midwest and Western frontier. Yet for no apparent reason, these seemingly unstoppable swarms started disappearing toward the end of the century. While several explanations were offered, such as the effect of overgrazing bison, none gained wide acceptance.
Professor Jeffrey A. Lockwood, an entomologist at the University of Wyoming, undertook what became a fifteen-year quest to determine the cause of the Rocky Mountain Locust's extinction. He skillfully draws the reader into what might be a rather dry scientific account, by casting the story in terms of a criminal investigation, citing evidence, clues, and suspects along the way. A good storyteller, he livens up the narrative by filling in everyday details about his expeditions to mountain glaciers to collect locust specimens, such as what they had for lunch (dried applies, beef jerky, crackers, and M&Ms,) and a celebration of a hard day's work with “twenty-year-old scotch and thousand-year-old water” (melted from the glacier.)
Without giving away the fascinating conclusion of Professor Lockwood's investigation, suffice it to say that his “habitat destruction theory” has become the working hypothesis to explain this unusual puzzle of nature. Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier is a thoroughly engrossing scientific tale, filled with that excitement for the subject which a talented teacher can convey.