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Posts Tagged ‘Laura_Ingalls_Wilder’

The Perfect Swarm

April 30th, 2011 No comments

Have you ever heard of the Rocky Mountain Locust (Melanoplus spretus)? Mid-western farmers in the 19th Century sure knew of it. Every 7 to 12 years, this normally benign grasshopper entered a gregarious (swarming) phase and became a locust, and what swarms they made! The largest recorded concentration of animals ever, according to The Guinness Book of Records, was a swarm of Rocky Mountain Locusts. [1]

Rocky Mountain Locust

Rocky Mountain Locust

The swarm was observed by Dr. Albert Child of the U.S. Signal Corps in 1875, remembered by midwest farmers as the Year of the Locust. From timing the swarm as it passed overhead for five days, and telegraphing associates in other towns, Dr. Child estimated the size of the swarm as 1,800 miles long and at least 110 miles wide: 198,000 square miles containing 3.5 trillion grasshoppers! [2] Swarms of locusts, though not usually this size, descended on farming communities from Texas to Minnesota like a Biblical plague, eating every green thing in sight. When the plants were gone, the hungry insects ate leather, cotton and wool (still on the sheep). Housewives vainly placed blankets over their gardens. The pests ate the blankets, then the gardens.

Brief extracts from contemporary accounts will suggest the nature of the locust plague: “They came like a driving snow in winter, filling the air, covering the earth, the buildings, the shocks of grain and everything.” “Their alighting sounded like a continuous hailstorm. The noise was like suppressed distant thunder or a train in motion.” “They were four to six inches deep on the ground and continued to alight for hours. Their weight broke off large tree limbs.” “By dark there wasn’t a stalk of field corn over a foot high. Onions were eaten down to the very roots. They gnawed the handles of farm tools and the harness on horses or hanging in the barn, the bark of trees, clothing and curtains of homes and dead animals — including dead locusts.” [3]

A swarm of locusts devastates the family farm in Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s book On the Banks of Plum Creek. After this biological tsunami passed through, the crops were devastated and the settlers faced starvation, forcing the Federal and state governments to supply the stricken pioneers with food, clothing and seed for replanting crops.

Persons in the East have often smiled incredulously at our statements that the locusts often impeded the trains on the western railroads. Yet such was by no means an infrequent occurrence in 1874 and 1875-the insects pawing over the track or basking thereon so numerously that the oil from their crushed bodies reduced the traction so as to actually stop the train, especially on an up-grade. – Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture For The Year 1877. Washington, DC 1878. [7]

So why don’t you hear about these critters now? Because, in the space of 27 years, the Rocky Mountain Locust population went from an estimated 15 trillion to… zero. Nada. Extinct. The last known pair was collected in 1902, and is now at the Smithsonian Institution. The species was declared extinct in the 1950′s. How can such a thing happen? Just as “being smart is no guarantee against being dead wrong” – Carl Sagan, it turns out that large numbers are no guarantee against a spectacular decline.

Locust-Killing Machine

Locust-Killing Machine

During the settlement period of the midwest, farmers tried many contraptions to try to eradicate the grasshoppers. It was like trying to empty the ocean with a teacup. However, the species had an Achilles heel, and that was: like Monarch Butterflies, after the swarming phase the population naturally declined and retreated to its breeding grounds. In the case of the Rocky Mountain Locust this was the fertile mountain river valleys. The whole population of these grasshoppers in this phase of their life cycle could fit into a 20-mile diameter circle. [2] It just so happened that the farmers who were so chastised by the locust were plowing up these same river valleys, and in the process, inadvertently decimating the locust’s breeding grounds. Farm records from the late 19th Century tell of plowing up egg sacs by the thousands during the spring planting. And so the grasshoppers died. It is one of the few agricultural “pest” species to have been eradicated, and it was done by accident.
Vox’s Take: Accidental demise or not, the story of the Rocky Mountain Locust is a cautionary tale we should heed. Life on this third rock from the Sun can be more fragile than is commonly supposed.

Sources:

[1] Rocky Mountain Locust, Wikipedia
[2] Six-Legged Teachers: Lessons from Locusts and Beetles, by Jeffrey A. Lockwood, WyoFile
[3] A Plague of Locusts, by Gerry Rising, August 1, 2004 issue of The Buffalo Sunday News
[4] Albert’s swarm, Wikipedia
[5] Looking Back at the Days of the Locust, By Carol Kaesuk Yoon, April 23, 2002 issue of The New York Times
[6] The death of the Super Hopper, by Jeffrey Lockwood, High Country News
[7] When The Skies Turned To Black: The Locust Plaque of 1875, Hearthstone Legacy Publications

Those Old, Cold Winters

March 6th, 2011 No comments

In December 1972, during my Senior year at Thomas Jefferson High School, we had a cold snap that froze and burst the schools’ water pipes. Consequently we enjoyed an extended Christmas vacation. (Unfortunately, we had to recoup those days in June – no free lunch, you know). At any rate, I remember it being cold enough, -18 °F or so, that in the early mornings the snow actually looked blue. And we’ve had some great blizzards to remember, such as the Christmas Eve Blizzard of 1982, when I was working in Oklahoma City and we had driven back to Denver to spend Christmas, and were stranded at my in-law’s house for several days. It was actually great fun for us! Another great, memorable blizzard occurred in March, 2003, dumping around 40″ of snow in parts of the Metro area and stranding my wife in Kansas for a week. (That was NOT fun!)
But how do these modern storms and cold spells compare to some of those in the past? Climate is notoriously variable and hard to summarize: “Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.” – Mark Twain. However, there have been some exceptional winters in the past that make our recent winters look pretty mild indeed. Have you heard of The Little Ice Age? This was a period of relatively colder weather between about 1300 and 1870, with particularly cold spells beginning around 1650, another starting in 1770 and another beginning around 1850. [2] Let’s take a look at each.

The Frozen Thames 1677

The Frozen Thames 1677

17th Century: The River Thames used to freeze over regularly, and between 1608 and 1814 Londoners held a Frost Fair on the frozen estuary. During the Great Frost of 1683-84, the river was frozen solid for two months. The Frost Fair of 1814 turned out to be the last one, as the winters became a little milder and changes in the river flow made it less likely to freeze. [3] In North America, the severe, river-freezing winter of 1609-10 and a feud with the Powhatan Indians contributed to an 80% mortality rate among the settlers of the Jamestown Colony, a winter they called “The Starving Time”. Some colonists resorted to cannibalism to survive.

Army Cabins, Jockey Hollow

Army Cabins, Jockey Hollow

18th Century: In American History, students are taught about the severe winter and deplorable conditions that George Washington’s army suffered at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania during the harsh winter of 1777-78. That winter was rough on the Continental Army, and gets all the press in the history books. It was, however, not nearly as severe as the winter of 1779-80, the worst during the Revolutionary Period. During this winter Washington established a winter camp in an area called Jockey Hollow near Morristown, New Jersey. From here the Continental Army could keep an eye on the British occupying New York but still be relatively safe from attack. In January 1780 the temperature fell to -16 °F, and remained cold so long that every harbor from North Carolina to New England froze over, including New York Harbor and the Hudson and East Rivers. [6] It was now possible to simply walk from Staten Island to Manhattan, and even port heavy cannon over the ice, which had frozen eight feet thick in places. The British were apprehensive of a winter attack by the Patriot forces, since their natural defenses of river and harbor were temporarily ineffective. The Patriots, however, were in no position to mount an attack – they were fully occupied in simply trying to survive the winter. [7] The Colonists had learned important lessons at Valley Forge, and the survival rate was better at Jockey Hollow due to improvements in camp construction and hygiene. The cold and lack of food was still exceptionally trying for the enlisted men, and desertions were common. The men were close to mutiny, and one of the miracles of the Revolution is that the army held together. [8]

Train Stuck in Snow, Minnesota 1881

Train Stuck in Snow, Minnesota 1881

19th Century: There were a number of harsh winters during the 1800s. In Mark Twain’s Autobiography, Volume 1, p. 353, he tells how, as a boy in 1849, he went ice skating at night (without permission, of course) on the Mississippi, which had frozen over from shore to shore. The story becomes really interesting when the ice starts breaking up when he and his friend are a half-mile out from shore! [9] Another harsh winter, that of 1880-81, is documented by Laura Ingalls Wilder in The Long Winter, the sixth of her Little House book series. On the Great Plains, this seven-month winter was ushered in with a three-day blizzard in October, followed by so many snowstorms and so little thawing weather that some towns were without railroad service until May. People in the rough, rural conditions froze in the fierce blizzards or starved because the trains could not get through the frozen drifts to deliver food. A rancher in Nebraska tells of losing all but 800 of his 3,000 head of cattle to the harsh winter, with cattle starving in sight of the hay that the rancher put out but unable to move through the frozen snow. In the towns, the snow accumulated to the roofs, and people resorted to tunneling to move about the place. In open areas, the snow was often up to the level of the telegraph wires. [10]
Wall Street, Blizzard of 1888

Wall Street, Blizzard of 1888

Of the many accounts of fierce storms and blizzards during the latter half of the 19th Century the deadly storms of 1888 stand out. In the West, January 12, 1888 saw the Children’s Blizzard of 1888. It’s called the Children’s Blizzard because it ambushed so many rural children walking home from school, and as many as 400 people died. [11] Two months later, from March 10 to 13, 1888 the Great White Hurricane hit the East Coast, where another 400 people died amid cold temperatures around 6 °F and high winds up to 80 MPH which drifted the snow to 52 feet in places. New York was paralyzed with the snow drifts, and people unaccustomed to the dangers of going outdoors in blizzard conditions became lost and froze to death. The web of overhead electrical and telephone wires presented an unexpected new hazard when the wind and the weight of the snow brought many of them down.
Vox’s Take: It’s a little hard to compare the severity of a winter 123 years ago with one today, since we have so much better technology now to deal with the cold and snow. I can go from my centrally-heated house to my heated four-wheel-drive truck to my heated office building in relative comfort – not exactly like having to hitch the team to the sleigh in the blowing snow. However, the historical record gives credence to the idea that winters really used to be harder, (how many times recently have we heard of New York Harbor freezing over, or 52-foot snow drifts?) and all the more so given people’s ability to cope with them.

Sources:
[1] The Little Ice Age, Environmental Resources
[2] Little Ice Age, Wikipedia
[3] River Thames Frost Fairs, Wikipedia
[4] The Jamestown “Starving Time”, Colonial Williamsburg
[5] Morristown, Where America Survived, NJN Public Television and Radio
[6] Winter of 1779-80 In New Jersey, Sons of the American Revolution
[7] Soldiers face starvation at Jockey Hollow, The Star-Ledger
[8] Morristown: Worse than Valley Forge, Washington Association of New Jersey
[9] Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, (see page 353), The Mark Twain Project
[10] The Hard Winter of 1880-81, History of South Dakota by Doane Robinson
[11] Winter: Blizzard of 1888 puts winter in perspective, Rocky Mountain News
[12] Homesteading, Eliza Jane Wilder, Prologue Magazine, National Archives
[13] Blizzard of 1888 makes our winter woes look like tempests in a teapot, The Star-Ledger
[14] Blizzard of 1888, Celebrate Boston
[15] Great White New York, The New Yorker
[16] America’s Worst Winter Ever, American History Magazine, April 2010