Look Out—Locusts!

Even though my research for the forthcoming Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts covers aspects of history not focused on in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, one episode that I just cannot get out of my head is the plague of locusts that destroy the family’s crops in Minnesota. The family’s powerlessness to combat the locusts and the insects’ seemingly mysterious departure four years later have lodged themselves in my mind. And so I dig into research of the plague. William Watts Folwell’s 1926 A History of Minnesota , volume 3, devotes the entirety of Chapter 4 to “The Grasshopper invasion, 1873-77.” The locusts that descended on the people of Minnesota left a lasting impression on the state’s history. As Wilder described it, Rocky Mountain locusts swooped from the sky, “their wings a shiny white making a screen between us and the sun. They were dropping to the ground like hail in a hailstorm faster and faster.” (Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, p. 79) Folwell quoted another eyewitness as saying that seeing the locusts flying “‘may be likened to an immense snow-storm, extending from the ground to a height at which our visual organs perceive them only as minute, darting scintillations.’”(History of Minnesota, p. 95).

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The Ingalls and others were helpless when it came to protecting crops from Rocky Mountain locusts, c. 1870. Minnesota Historical Society

Imagine locusts as a hungry, eating, chomping snowstorm! Such devastation boggles the mind; yet, while scientists believe the Rocky Mountain locust is extinct, such plagues of locusts continue to devastate farms and crops in other parts of the world. In 2015, locusts destroyed crops in Russia, and in 2016, northern Argentina experienced their worst season of locusts in sixty years. In a quotation given to the New York Times, Juan Pablo Karnatz reported farmers seeing “locust clouds that were more than four miles long and nearly two miles high” (Jan. 26, 2016). The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations issued a report in November 2015 that unusually heavy rains in “northwest Africa, the Horn of Africa and Yemen could favor Desert Locust breeding” (www.fao.org). The increasing number of extreme weather events attributed to climate change could bring more frequent and more intense swarms of locusts to these regions.

In the 1870s, the Ingalls could do little to fend off the attacks. Charles Ingalls attempted to defend his wheat by setting fires near the crops, reasoning that the smoke might discourage the insects. It was a futile effort, and eventually he left the family homestead to find work farther east in order to send money back to help the family survive the winter.

Jacob Jurss

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