Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Friday, February 24, 2006


I first saw it on the sage steppes of eastern Utah, a distant chocolate band strung from one horizon to the other. Once I reached this stain on the landscape, I found a long, snaking army of Mormon Crickets (Anabrus simplex) several yards wide. Actually a plump terrestrial katydid, the Mormon Cricket exceeds two inches in length, the females bearing an almost equally long, swordlike ovipositor. There are two different forms of this insect: a lighter colored solitary one, and the well known dark gregarious morph. Populations of the latter category tend to rise rather quickly over time, until they reach a density that forces an exodus, and the formation of one of these great bands. The Mormon Cricket was named for the famous incident in 1848 when a large migration threatened the crops of the newly settled Mormon pioneers. The story Utah fourth-graders are taught asserts that vast flocks of California Gulls (Larus californicus) descended from the heavens to gorge themselves on the insects and save the harvest. It’s actually more likely that the crickets disappeared because they simply moved out of the neighborhood, but the gulls still received the undying gratitude of the settlers, and today Utah is the only American state with a state bird named for another state. It also surely has the state bird with the best story behind it. Without a doubt, there were lots of gulls exploiting that food source in 1848. I’ve witnessed several of these cricket plagues in my life, and part of the great pleasure of the experience is watching all of the wildlife drawn to the buffet--not just gulls, but other birds as well, ranging from flycatchers and Meadowlarks to Sage Grouse and sated Swainson’s Hawks, staggering about chicken-like on the ground, crops bulging. Wasps and other predatory insects abound, and mammals like ground squirrels that normally subsist on plants temporarily shift their dietary preference.

Several grasshopper species exhibit population dynamics similar to those of the Mormon Cricket. Especially during one of these population explosions, they are known as “locusts”. This rather vague category includes one of the most important early agricultural pests of the American Great Plains. Until the latter part of the 19th century, the Rocky Mountain Grasshopper (Melanoplus spretus) formed huge migratory swarms billions strong to the east of the Continental Divide. One 1875 aggregation is considered by many to be the most massive insect swarm on record. Eighteen hundred miles long by two hundred miles wide, it blocked the sunlight over most of Colorado and Wyoming. Surprisingly enough, within thirty years the insect was extinct. Today the species only persists in the form of the several centuries old masses frozen into “Grasshopper Glacier,” near Cooke, Montana. The precise mechanics of this extinction are unclear; surely the huge ecological changes of that age, when Midwestern prairie metamorphosed into the American grain belt, were involved. It is often asserted that the grasshoppers bred in riparian areas, which were the most prized land for agriculture, and hence the first to be degraded. One interesting theory holds that they were dependent on the wallows of bison for egg laying sites.

In parts of Africa the Desert Locust (Schistocerca gregaria) undergoes periodic booms of a comparable scale. This is the species of the biblical plagues in Exodus. In 1954 a Kenyan swarm containing an estimated ten billion individuals covered some 200 square kilometers, decimating much of the country’s agricultural yield, and the year before last, the species wreaked havoc on agriculture in the western Sahel.

Although modern Americans and Europeans tend to find the eating of insects abhorrent, it’s not hard to imagine our African ancestors joining the storks, kestrels, lizards and others to feast on such a proteinaceous bounty. S. gregaria has surely been an important food source for as long as humans have dwelt in Africa. In the fourth century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus told of Libyan Berbers eating a mixture of dried grasshoppers and milk. In Herodotus’ own land, grasshoppers were sold in the markets as “four-winged fowl,” but were relegated to the dining tables of the poorer classes; the aristocracy preferred cicadas. Neither entree was without controversy, however. Some three hundred years after Herodotus, Plutarch deemed cicadas sacred, and considered it impious and odious to eat them. The fourth century Greek poet Aristophanes declared the eating of grasshoppers an abomination. With time this sentiment has held sway in Europe, and with the introduction of European agricultural philosophies to colonial Africa, it crossed the Mediterranean. Today blooms of African desert locusts are all too often seen as nutritional disasters rather than opportunities, and are greeted with chemical pesticides instead of cooking utensils.I discovered the pleasant taste of Melanoplus grasshoppers when I was about five, and still enjoy them roasted on a campfire. Like most insects, they are a nutritious food, high in protein, unsaturated fatty acids, and many important minerals and vitamins. During plague years of Rocky Mountain Grasshoppers, the Plains Indians took full dietary advantage of them. Early white explorers told of huge platforms designed for the roasting of locusts. The Shoshones would build a large fire, then drive locusts into it, to later harvest broiled snacks from the coals. As the region was appropriated by white settlers, attitudes toward entomophagy changed accordingly. In 1875, the year of the great Melanoplus spretus swarm, newspapers across the Midwest told of families starving to death because highly nutritious hoppers had destroyed their crops. So jarred was the populace, that in 1877 the Kansas legislature passed the “Grasshopper Army Act,” requiring all able bodied men to assemble into locust-fighting platoons whenever ordered to do so. This law remained on the books until 1923, more than two decades after the extinction of the grasshopper.

The Paiute Indians from my area used to eat Mormon Crickets, using a herding technique similar to that of the Shoshones to persuade the flightless insects into trenches. Their predecessors, the Fremonts, plucked them from the ground in early morning before they became very active. The Utes ground them into a meal, which they mixed with serviceberries to make a cake which was, by all accounts, delicious. By the time these people were replaced by the Mormons, crickets had become a feared nemesis that could only be confronted by prayer and gulls.
upper: SMOKE-JUMPER--APLOMADO FALCON-detail (1994) acrylic 19" x 30"
center: OIL-PALM LOCUST (1997) acrylic 3" x 4"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ick! ...yet utterly fascinating. I encountered the Mormon crickets while driving to California last summer with my mother and son. We were puzzled about the "red stuff" on the road, and pulled over to the side. As we started to open the door, we got a nice close-up look, and decided to drive on instead. I thought it might have been my squeamishness that made them seem so prolific, until we saw a snowplow run by, clearing the road.

I'd never heard of the Rocky Mountain Grasshopper. Living on the Front Range, I'm both relieved and disappointed to hear they went extinct... especially after that drive through Utah.

Your artwork is enchanting, as usual... I can't help but root for that falcon.

10:42 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

I always root for the falcon. I've yet to see a municipality dust off the snowplow in August to wipe crickets off of the highway, but it makes sense!

3:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your work is really stunningly beautiful. I'm glad I've had a chance to see it, even if only on a webpage.

7:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is an insect banquet annually in Lanesboro Minnesota. I forget who hosts it, but the intent is to increase understanding of the nutrition value they have.

I've just had the chocolate covered ones myself. You have shared so much fascinating information in this post!

7:42 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

HZ: Thank you for coming by. I enjoyed our interesting conversation on your site.
Gwyn:Thanks for telling me about the MN bug banquet. I actually have good friends in Lanesboro, so I'll have to look into it. ur-r-rp.

12:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow....what a painting! "Smoke Jumper" is a real stunner, Carel.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Thanks very much, Hungry! You can see the whole painting by clicking here. Hey I enjoyed reading your scrawled.org interview. You and I really see things in a similar way.


2:32 PM  
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11:09 PM  

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