From inside the car, I could hear the snap, snap, snap of blue bug lights hung around the motel’s perimeter, a rapid-fire sound I first mistook for small firecrackers. These weren’t the ordinary bugs of a sultry summer night. They were grasshoppers — thousands of them. They swarmed around the entrance to my room, hopping in front of me as I tried to maneuver inside.
This was, I can only assume from news reports, a minor encounter compared to the swarms that have hit some parts of the West in recent weeks.
In Las Vegas, grasshoppers were so thick last week that weather radar made them appear as storm clouds. The ubiquitous lights of the Las Vegas Strip served as magnets to the critters, turning many a long-awaited vacation into something out of the Old Testament.
In St. George, Utah, little green stink bugs covered the sides of buildings, creating the illusion that sidewalks were coated by grass and flocking to lights in such numbers that, as some have documented on social media, people were afraid to leave their cars to pump gas.
I suppose you could look at this two ways. The first would be to decide that the Great Basin, and the American interior wilderness in general, is an inhospitable and sometimes disgusting place.
That would not be entirely inaccurate, although it would ignore the area’s many advantages. This year’s swarms apparently resulted from unusually high spring rainfall and likely won’t be repeated for a while, but they are by no means unusual.
However, I prefer to look at it the second way, which is that these periodic unpleasantries are important reminders of the faith, determination and perseverance that was needed to settle the West, and even the Midwest, in the first place.
Today, these swarms generally don’t threaten food supplies or state economies. To the first settlers, however, they did. Those people couldn’t hop on an airplane to get away, or even close windows in the stifling heat to keep the pests out.
Utah has its own lore concerning pests, memorialized by a statue on Temple Square and the designation of the California Gull as the state bird. The gull regularly devours a voracious type of katydid commonly known as “Mormon crickets.”
It also may be instructive, however, to consider the vivid accounts people in Kansas gave of an 1874 invasion of Rocky Mountain locusts that darkened the sky and literally ate everything some people owned, from the paint off their wagons to the wool off sheep and the harnesses off horses. They “ate everything but the mortgage,” farmers are quoted as saying in a fascinating account by Chuck Lyons on historynet.com.
But when they were gone, the mortgages were much more difficult to pay. The bugs invaded houses and ate everything in cupboards. They were so numerous their combined weight broke limbs off trees. Farmers had to shake their blankets several times a night after being crawled upon. Some people gave up and left, but most didn’t, even though the locusts came after a hard winter, an economic panic and a drought. Kansas continued to grow.
It’s worth asking why, just as it’s worth asking why people stayed to turn an inhospitable Utah desert into a thriving state where today, jobs are as plentiful as food.
A small newspaper account signed by H.T. Vose from Otoe, Nebraska, after a similar invasion in 1874, may give a clue:
“Hoping that our trees will put forth the leaf again and revive, and that someone may discover the certain cure, even unto death, of these pests from the days of Pharaoh down, I rest my pen — not nibbled, though hay fork handles, fence posts and other things have been.”
That hope and faith should be instructive to 21st century people who have many comforts but, as mortals, face different sets of problems. We can see the fruits of those earlier efforts. We can follow their examples as we face our own figurative swarms. We can learn from how they kept their sights on bigger things.
That’s what I thought of, anyway, as I fell asleep to the rhythmic zapping of grasshoppers in Battle Mountain, Nevada.