Washingtonians now in the throes of cicada mania might eagerly seize upon Jeffrey A. Lockwood's Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect That Shaped the American Frontier (Basic, $26) as a timely piece of popular science writing. The bad news is that the 17-year cycle of cicada eruptions doesn't play a role in Lockwood's saga of American locusts. But the good news is that Lockwood has produced an energetic, informative history of the Rocky Mountain locust, one regional New World strain of a bug long identified with biblical retribution.
Folklore, fable and bureaucratic files all bear testimony to the ways that hungry locusts -- trillions of them at a time -- can drive a society to desperation. Lockwood's book describes how the Rocky Mountain locust staggered such states as Kansas, Minnesota and Nebraska with physical and psychological damage as swarms descended on the Great Plains every few years in the second half of the 19th century. In piecing together this history, Lockwood marshals a wide range of sources -- from first-person accounts of those who braved bug storms far more destructive than tornadoes to the government's halting efforts to secure the American homeland against these severe attacks. Indeed, government and private forces had long tried to move heaven and Earth to protect the citizenry from the ravages of locust attacks, but their efforts were pathetically lame.
Lockwood, a professor of natural sciences and the humanities at the University of Wyoming, also supplies an engaging account of the "mysterious disappearance" heralded in his subtitle. So what killed off the locust, which simply stopped arriving in fearsome clouds before the turn of the 20th century? Was it a change in the weather? The demise of the bison? The planting of providentially poisonous crops? Lockwood turns to entomological archives and the rapidly receding glaciers of the Rockies for his answer: The plows and cows of homesteading farmers unwittingly destroyed the bugs' high-valley habitat just when the locust was at a vulnerable point in its boom-and-bust reproductive cycle.
Once he's done poking through the debris of this extinction, Lockwood reveals himself to be hopeful that there's a life after this death. His evidence that at least a few of these locusts still exist is less than conclusive, but it shows that a true nature lover wants every species to survive, even one that has caused so much havoc.
-- Tom Graham