Friday, 30 May 2014

30/05/14 - Rocky Mountain Locusts

In 1873, the western United States of America and plains of Canada experienced something unprecedented and terrifying: the arrival of the Rocky Mountain locust. Or, more specifically, rather a lot of Rocky Mountain locusts. The swarms were massive – as they flew overhead, they blotted out the sun. The effects of their landing on pretty much anything at all was devastating; they stripped cropfields clean, ate laundry from lines and wool from the backs of sheep, gnawed through wooden buildings – it was an event as close to the apocalypse as anyone had ever experienced, making ear-shattering cacophony as they buzzed by. One swarm was estimated to be 1,800 miles long and 110 miles wide, taking a full five days to pass. Just have a think about that for a moment. That’s a hell of a lot of insects, and each one capable of – nay, seemingly intent upon – the absolute destruction of everything in its path.
It was the largest recorded gathering of living things that the world had ever seen, with one estimate putting the total number of locusts at twelve trillion. People were swatting at them with spades, dousing them with insecticide, blasting them with incendiary devices – nothing made any difference. They were unstoppable.
At a time of enormous migration of farmers to the western US and Canada, the entire area was reliant on crop yields, with every farmer indebted to brand new mortgages and shiny fleets of machinery. The locusts destroyed countless lives.

At the end of the summer, they disappeared.

Scores of folk had suffered greatly from the Rocky Mountain locust crisis, but it seemed to be just an inexplicable, unfortunate and random one-off. People started to rebuild their farms, communities and lives.

And then it happened the next year, with even larger numbers of locusts. And for the following two years, with numbers larger still. It was an entirely helpless situation, with so much investment having been poured into an area that was evidently inhospitable to human life for large periods of the year. Families moved to the Midwest and east in droves.

Then it all just stopped. In 1877, the swarms were smaller and seemed kind of knackered and sluggish; after that, it never happened again.
It turned out, in the end, that it was increased farming in the affected areas that was killing the locust pupae in the ground, although that wasn’t worked out until decades later. Farmers had accidentally solved the problem without even realising, simply by tenaciously sticking with what they were doing.

That’s the odd thing about life. Sometimes, shit just happens.

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