Book Review of Jeffrey A. Lockwood’s “Locust”

Lockwood, Jeffrey A. Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect That Shaped the American Frontier. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

In his 2004 book titled Locust, Jeffrey A. Lockwood demonstrates that to gain a deeper understanding in addressing the topic of Rocky Mountain locust swarms and the devastation they brought on the American frontier, it is necessary to research the phenomenon using multiple fields of study that overlap in a unique way, such as religion and entomology. Through intently describing the vast literal and figurative fields that are affected by the immense swarms of locusts terrorizing the 19th century American frontier, Lockwood helps readers reach an understanding of the mysteriousness of their abrupt disappearance. Lockwood vividly depicts his research in a way that appeals to both professionals of those fields and anyone who may be interested in the academic unraveling of a fascinating true event.

Lockwood weaves together an experience for readers that seamlessly intertwines the scientific, biographical, religious, political, agricultural, and entomological aspects of his study of the Rocky Mountain locust swarms. The introduction of the book is a good example of how Lockwood transitions from capturing his audience in telling the dizzying and bewildering account of a frontier farmer’s first time witnessing the green fiends to then explaining how farmers who experienced the same hailstorm of hungry locusts looked to the church for answers, having felt abandoned or betrayed by God. Lockwood further shifts the topic of the introduction to include a modern account, moving the timeline over a century past the farmer in 1875. Narrating a personal memory, Jeffrey Lockwood incorporates the telling of his own scientific encounter when he and his colleagues at last discover intact locust specimens, who had been literally frozen in time having been encapsulated in ice.

Lockwood states that what became Locust was initially planned to be a record of his own entomological study of the creatures, but that it however expanded as he realized his dissatisfaction with the explanations offered about their abrupt disappearance. His response to this dissatisfaction was to conduct a broader study of the phenomenon, which brought Lockwood to research fields outside of his profession of entomology. This resulted in the addition of Locust to the literature of the study of the Rocky Mountain Locusts’ campaign of terror and sudden, and seemingly permanent, retreat. Lockwood admittedly states that because his research led him into professional fields of study outside of his own, it is likely that he may “simplify certain aspects of the story and perhaps even introduce blatant, if hopefully forgivable, errors” (Lockwood, xiii).

  In order to gain a more thorough understanding of how profoundly the locusts influenced different aspects of the societies they tormented and left lasting impressions on after their disappearance, Lockwood understood that he would have to broaden the lens with which he looked at these flying insects. As an entomologist, Jeffrey A. Lockwood holds an understanding grasp of the creature and its life cycles, though in Locust he invokes the works of other scientists from the period of the swarms like Isaac Cline, the leading meteorologist of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, to explain the details of the creature so small in size but great in numbers. Lockwood also includes an illustration that depicts the basic anatomy of the locust and its eggs after having been deposited in soil. This gives readers an insight of how the scientific minds of past and present understand and analyze the biology of the locusts. Knowing what type of beast the frontiersmen, women, and children were facing is helpful for readers to envision the fearsome creatures, but leads to a longing for further explanation of the kind of destruction they generated and the lasting effects of it.

Lockwood responds to perhaps his own longing for a more expansive detail of the effects on human life by the devasting swarms by including primary sources that recount firsthand experiences with the mini menaces. He uses sources that speak of the fearful and awestriking ways the swarms enraptured the senses of those who witness them. While attempting to make sense of its massive size, one scientific report by Albert Child, a medical doctor reporting on meteorology for the U.S. Signal Corps, compared the observation of the swarm to “piercing the milky-way of the heavens… They might have been a mile or more in depth” (Child, quoted in Lockwood, 20). The sounds of the fluttering wings and chittering mouths were most often related to the crackling of a blazing wildfire, which is reflective of the damage they would quickly deliver to crop fields. Perhaps the most invasive sensory experience brought about by the locusts was the putrid stench of their decaying carcasses. Lockwood includes the description of the smell of rotting locusts in water by Missouri’s state entomologist: “the stench… was at one time unendurable,” (Lockwood, 10).

After satisfactorily illuminating the nightmarish encounters of the Rocky Mountain locust, Lockwood additionally includes primary sources that describe societal responses to the destruction caused by the ravenous swarms. These sources range from letters from military officers describing the famine faced by farmers after visits from the hungry swarms, explanations of why locusts were targeting parishioners by prestigious religious leaders like Brigham Young, to recommendations found in newspapers on how to properly dig trenches that aid in destroying the flying foes. Much like the creature he is reporting on, Lockwood moves from field to field as he describes the resulting events and responses to the devastation brought by the locusts.

Just as it was the dissatisfaction with the theories available that prompted him to conduct the research that became Locust, Lockwood acknowledges that his work may cease to be the adequate response one day. Just as the swarms prompted changes and the changes ultimately prompted the end to the swarms, the inevitability of a response is what Lockwood hopes readers keep in mind for all actions, those small as a single locust or as immense as the swarm.

I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work. Ashleigh Eileen Liang Foster.

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