Little House on the Locust Swarm
December 5, 2017 9:09 AM   Subscribe

Charles Ingalls must have heard of the grasshoppers; newspaper columns were full of them. Yet when the Ingallses settled on Plum Creek in 1874, the land was cloaked in spring green. They may have believed, as others did, that the grasshoppers had moved on. In fact, the previous year’s swarm had laid their eggs before departing. While Charles Ingalls plowed his fields, grasshoppers flew and marched in columns again, leaving destitute farmers in their wake with no seed to plant the next season.
posted by ChuraChura (47 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
 
Great article! Any time I read anything that reinforces the "realness" of what's captured in the Little House books, it's like finding proof that Biblical events actually occurred. Thanks for posting!
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 9:20 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]


Yep, because Pa's a complete fuck-up who needlessly and repeatedly endangers the lives of his family.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:20 AM on December 5 [30 favorites]


I have eaten
the seeds
you planted
at plum creek
posted by paper chromatographologist at 9:24 AM on December 5 [32 favorites]


I'm a huge LIW fan, and I hadn't heard this book was coming out until I saw reviews. I eagerly told my husband about it, and he said he already knew in a tone that gave away that he had already bought the book for me as a Christmas present. Laura Ingalls managed to ruin one of her Christmas book surprises once (Little Town on the Prairie, I think?). I feel a kinship.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:35 AM on December 5 [7 favorites]


There's a tweetstorm of Ana Mardoll reading from this which I found fascinating reading. She is not a fan of Charles.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 9:38 AM on December 5 [10 favorites]


Yes - she finds a book of Tennyson poems Ma and Pa brought back from Mary's college for her.

"Courage!" he said, and pointed toward the land,
"This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon."

posted by ChuraChura at 9:39 AM on December 5


Yup, but instead of finding the book in a drawer in Ma's bedroom, I found it in a tweetstorm.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:42 AM on December 5 [3 favorites]


I read these in elementary school, and at the time I really wondered why they left what seemed to be a pretty sweet life in the Big Woods, but I figured it must be some grownup thing I didn't understand.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:43 AM on December 5 [4 favorites]


From the article:
Charles Ingalls was once again chasing a wheat crop that, he hoped, would put him in the black. Wheat was selling high at the moment, $102 a bushel.

I think maybe $1.02 a bushel, but $102 a bushel seems unlikely. It's about $4.30 a bushel right now, for reference, and was around 25 cents a bushel in the 1890s.
posted by Slinga at 9:48 AM on December 5 [4 favorites]


She is not a fan of Charles.

She is even less a fan of Rose. Charles was feckless, Rose was verging on evil.
posted by tavella at 9:55 AM on December 5 [7 favorites]


While we're on this topic did anyone else think it was a little unethical to basically take someone else's whole book and tweet it out line by line?
posted by bleep at 9:59 AM on December 5


No.

It's a 629 page book. A handful of twitter threads is not "tweet it out line by line".
posted by tavella at 10:11 AM on December 5 [6 favorites]


I have a sainted bear who is good at getting rid of grasshoppers. for sale. by owner.
posted by infini at 10:12 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]


That January, the so-called Grasshopper Legislature appropriated a mere $20,000 in aid for the stricken, extending the deadline for property taxes but balking at doing more for those perceived as shirkers.

How in the name of bleeding Jesus can these poor bastards, victims of a legitimate Biblical plague, be in any way considered "shirkers"? Christ, what an asshole (legislature).
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 10:12 AM on December 5 [5 favorites]


Semi-related: fans of the 70s TV show might be interested in Little House on the Podcast [Twitter link], in which former Television Without Pity mod Kim Reed does a hilarious recap of each episode. (So far she's up to season 2, episode 14.)
posted by Atom Eyes at 10:24 AM on December 5 [7 favorites]


The links above led me to trawl the archives of Coffee and Sangria, and the post on Amy March made me actualfax choke with laughter and clap my hand over my mouth while eating office lunch.
posted by joyceanmachine at 10:26 AM on December 5 [2 favorites]


I had heard about this locust swarm before - in fact I remember seeing it early in the run of the TV series, which freaked me the hell out.

I got curious as to what stopped these swarms from happening. Wikipedia says the species involved went extinct by around 1902, but that farming practices after the 1874 swarm helped control them over time.
posted by dnash at 10:27 AM on December 5 [7 favorites]


Fascinating, thanks for the wiki link dnash. I had not even known that locusts were indistinguishable from solitary grasshoppers most of the time. They are little time-bombs that only swarm in the right conditions. Thus the Rocky Mountain locusts could conceivably still be out there, but the wiki article says that experiments on related species have failed to produce swarming behavior.
posted by TreeRooster at 10:41 AM on December 5


I just started reading the 2004 book Locust, by Jeffrey Lockwood. The last sentence of the first chapter, about the Wilders, says "But what they did not know while watching their farm disappear under a blanket of locusts that summer of 1875 was that no people on earth, not even a pharaoh, had ever witnessed a swam of such immensity."
posted by LeLiLo at 10:42 AM on December 5 [5 favorites]


More about the Rocky Mountain locust plagues at history.net. Includes the bit mentioned in the wiki, and briefly in the original post, about the option of eating locusts: "Riley thus proposed “entomophagy”—simply put, eating the bugs—as a way to reduce their numbers while nourishing hungry settlers. The insects, he insisted, yielded an agreeable nutty flavor when one removed their legs and wings and fried their bodies in butter. "

A big downside is that it is hard to get up any appetite for something (even fresh) whose counterparts are decaying all around you. In the recent cicada emergence I shoveled them up and burned them to decrease the smell.
posted by TreeRooster at 10:49 AM on December 5


That Ana Mardoll tweetstorm is entirely worth it for Charmian London's Capslock of Righteousness.
posted by ultranos at 10:49 AM on December 5 [5 favorites]


"But what they did not know while watching their farm disappear under a blanket of locusts that summer of 1875 was that no people on earth, not even a pharaoh, had ever witnessed a swam of such immensity."

I wonder if there'd have been so many locusts if we hadn't killed all the billions of passenger pigeons. While primarily a seed-eater, "it also ate worms, caterpillars, snails, and other invertebrates, particularly while breeding".
posted by leotrotsky at 11:01 AM on December 5 [7 favorites]


Always think of Quatermass when I read about locusts.
posted by lagomorphius at 11:01 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]


Of course, the flocks of passenger pigeons might have been so large due to the death of 95% of human hunters and foragers due to disease.

"human immigration from Europe may have artificially swelled the ranks of the passenger pigeon by eliminating their Native American hunters and foragers, who competed with the birds for nuts and other forest foods. This population growth, the story goes, would have been temporary, because large flocks would have damaged the forests that provided food to the pigeons. "I suspected that the huge flocks of passenger pigeons that were observed when Europeans first arrived in North America were something ephemeral," notes paleogenomicist Beth Shapiro of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who was not involved in this work but is also working on sequencing the passenger pigeon genome. "It is hard to imagine how these birds could sustain such enormous populations over the long term. They were so incredibly destructive to the forests!"
posted by leotrotsky at 11:11 AM on December 5 [4 favorites]


More about the Rocky Mountain locust plagues at history.net. Includes the bit mentioned in the wiki, and briefly in the original post, about the option of eating locusts: "Riley thus proposed “entomophagy”—simply put, eating the bugs—as a way to reduce their numbers while nourishing hungry settlers. The insects, he insisted, yielded an agreeable nutty flavor when one removed their legs and wings and fried their bodies in butter. "

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is a favorite book of mine. It portrays a locust swarm that the people of Nigeria treat as an exciting opportunity to feast. The first time I read it as a young woman who had been formerly obsessed with the Little House books, I thought, "Whoa. That is sure different from how they felt about it in Plum Creek."
posted by Orlop at 11:50 AM on December 5 [6 favorites]


showbiz_liz: I read these in elementary school, and at the time I really wondered why they left what seemed to be a pretty sweet life in the Big Woods, but I figured it must be some grownup thing I didn't understand.

Social anxiety is a helluva drug (he kept moving west because he wanted more space from people -- a co-worker who grew up near The Big Woods and she said it has never been busy, and can't imagine why Pa took the family from the area.

Then again, I have a friend with family in rural Montana, where one of their neighbors thought that turning on your porch light meant you wanted someone to come over and talk (it doesn't, at least for my friend's mom). Personal space in rural areas can be weird.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:08 PM on December 5 [5 favorites]


The locust plague constituted the worst and most widespread natural disaster the country had ever seen, causing an estimated $200 million in damage to western agriculture (the equivalent of $116 billion today).

Holy Toledo. That's more than Katrina!
posted by stinkfoot at 12:46 PM on December 5


She is even less a fan of Rose. Charles was feckless, Rose was verging on evil.

Today is Rose's birthday! She edited the LH books, sensing, quite rightly, that her parents had lived amazing lives. /Rose geek
posted by Melismata at 2:35 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]


Rose diagnosed herself as being manic depressive (bipolar) in mid-life, and I think she was probably right. She was incredibly reckless with money, almost all her relationships seem to have been volatile ones, she was such a liar and self-aggrandizer, and she doesn't seem to have had much impulse control or conscience.
posted by orange swan at 3:12 PM on December 5 [3 favorites]


I just spent hours reading through those Ana Mardoll live-read tweetstorms and now my family will be getting a copy of Prairie Fires for Christmas, although I doubt my card-carrying Libertarian father will necessarily read it in the same way.

But I was that LIW nerd growing up who read everything I could get my hands on by and about her, so I'm ready for my mind to be even more blown about all the things Mardoll wasn't able to entertainingly sum up.
posted by paisley sheep at 3:13 PM on December 5


Charles was an overbearing asshole with some kind of mental disorder. His wife had no say whatsoever in their movements and it was clearly upsetting to her, reading between the lines, that her children were being mostly homeschooled without much in the way of teaching resources. By the time Laura was witnessing domestic abuse while sleeping behind a curtain and wondering if she was going to physically survive her first teaching job, I was completely unable to buy into the fantasy of prairie settler life. It didn't help that I was also aware that prairie farming practices made the Dust Bowl possible.

Anyway. The plague of locusts is one of the most memorable features of the series and I think it is one of the most successful literary depictions of helplessness and disappointment I've ever read because it is done so sparely. It must have been something to see. According to a telegrapher who did some research during the 1875 swarm, he estimated that the swarm was 1800 miles long and 110 miles wide. (Link is to a page with a long series of mostly contemporaneous accounts.)
posted by xyzzy at 3:30 PM on December 5 [6 favorites]


Ana Mardoll’s tweetstorms are things to treasure. She has given me completely different and valuable perspectives on the Ingalls/Wilder family and on StephenKing, both his most recent release and his oeuvre as a whole.
posted by epj at 4:05 PM on December 5 [2 favorites]


His wife had no say whatsoever in their movements

At one point either in Little Town on the Prairie or These Happy Golden Years, Charles raised the topic of moving west again, and Caroline objected, saying she "was so tired of being dragged from pillar to post". There are also a few references to Charles promising Caroline that their move to Dakota would be their last move, and he kept that promise. The Ingalls stayed in DeSmet for the rest of their lives. Then there's the glorious episode in The Long Winter in which Charles muses aloud about going to hunt for the possibly mythical settler with wheat: Caroline quashes the idea immediately, and in bolded all caps.

Caroline certainly did have say in her family's movements and considerable influence over her husband, though she may have deferred to him more than wives tend to do now. Even in By the Shores of Silver Lake, their move to Dakota is only set in motion after Caroline, who objects to the idea at first, yields by telling Charles to do as he thinks best.
posted by orange swan at 4:20 PM on December 5 [4 favorites]


What was the abuse Laura heard while behind the curtain? I read the books but so long ago that the details are lost.
posted by JenMarie at 6:43 PM on December 5


My wonderful husband got me Prairie Fires last week, and I’m about 130 pages in now (Laura and Almanzo just got married).

The book has a ton of amazing historical details, about the locusts (sooo gross), the influence of the railroads, and Charles’ various financial dealings.

At one point either in Little Town on the Prairie or These Happy Golden Years, Charles raised the topic of moving west again, and Caroline objected, saying she "was so tired of being dragged from pillar to post". There are also a few references to Charles promising Caroline that their move to Dakota would be their last move, and he kept that promise.

Having just read that section in Fraser’s book last night, my impression was more that Caroline put her foot firmly down rather than that Charles really kept his promise. He apparently wanted to pick up and move to Oregon after not too long in De Smet, but Caroline was having none of that.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 7:02 PM on December 5 [2 favorites]


What was the abuse Laura heard while behind the curtain? I read the books but so long ago that the details are lost.

I think this is largely elided in the actual Little House books, but it took place between the husband and wife with whom she lived during her first teaching job.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 7:06 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]


I don't think it was that elided, as I have vivid memories of Mrs. Brewster wielding a knife (silhouetted behind the curtain) to protect herself from her abusive husband in These Happy Golden Years (one of the reasons she ended up riding home with Manly every week was to get away from the Brewsters and the Brewster School). But I also grew up in a home with DV so I might be projecting...
posted by elsietheeel at 7:17 PM on December 5 [2 favorites]


You mean when she was with the Brewsters? That was one of the creepiest things I encountered as a child. It's no wonder Laura was so desperate to go home on the weekends so she wouldn't have to be face-to-face all day with a psychotic potential murderer. And Pa is just like, "Well, Teenage Daughter, back you go to the Knife-Wielding Landlady!"

[on preview: what elsietheeel said.]
posted by basalganglia at 7:26 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]


The irl Mr. Brewster was Mr. Boast's cousin.

Laura refused to obey Almanzo as part of her wedding vows.
posted by brujita at 7:41 PM on December 5 [2 favorites]


In the book, Mr. Brewster was not abusive. His wife was going mad, possibly from the isolation and privations of frontier life, which she seemed to hate. Here's the incident from the book: one night Laura was woken by a scream. Looking out around the curtain that screened the narrow sofa where she slept, she saw that Mrs. Brewster was standing at the foot of the Brewsters' bed in her nightgown, wielding a knife. Mrs. Brewster said that "if she couldn't go back home one way, she could go another", meaning she was threatening to kill her husband. Mr. Brewster remained in bed, but was tensed to spring if necessary, and he told her that he had her and their son to support and nothing but their claim to do it with, and to put that knife away and come back to bed before she caught her death. Even if he had wanted to take his wife back east as she wished, I don't think he had the resources to do so.

Charles and Caroline Ingalls did not know about this incident. The book specifically comments that Laura can't tell them because if she did, they would never let her return to live with them, and as there is nowhere else she can live in the Brewster settlement, she would not be able to finish teaching her first term of school, and would subsequently never be able to get another school. She sticks it out and finishes the school term, fortunately sans stabbings, though she slept poorly because she was quite reasonably afraid that she'd wake to find Mrs. Brewster standing over her with a knife.
posted by orange swan at 8:18 PM on December 5 [5 favorites]


While we're on this topic did anyone else think it was a little unethical to basically take someone else's whole book and tweet it out line by line?
posted by bleep at 9:59 AM on December 5 [+] [!]


No.

It's a 629 page book. A handful of twitter threads is not "tweet it out line by line".
posted by tavella at 10:11 AM on December 5 [5 favorites +] [!]



And the author, Caroline Fraser, started following her about halfway through, so...
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 1:32 AM on December 6


That legislature would feel right at home today
posted by thelonius at 4:19 AM on December 6


I've been doing some genealogical work, and while a lot of my family are immigrants in the last century, we've traced one line all the way back to the Pilgrim invasion in the 1630s. It has been fascinating to see how the family mirrored the American tradition of heading west, as they started in coastal Mass, then each new generation to a new location: Western Mass, then upstate New York, Ohio, Kansas, and finally Colorado (one cousin then went all the way to Oregon).
I'm looking forward to rereading LIW's books and the new histories of her life, as it can provide a historical anchor to some of the lives of my ancestors. I don't think they were in Kansas by the 1870s, but maybe they were also affected by the locusts.
...
I'm also keeping track of the names of the local Native American as each generation moved, as I think it's important to recognize that my ancestors were actively pushing out existing communities. I've already skimmed one autobiography which talked about the conflicts with the local tribes, which is obviously one-sided. >_>
posted by Hermeowne Grangepurr at 8:58 AM on December 6


While we're on this topic did anyone else think it was a little unethical to basically take someone else's whole book and tweet it out line by line?
posted by bleep at 9:59 AM on December 5 [+] [!]


No. She commented on what she was reading. She didn't copy/paste the whole book into Twitter. It has made me and many others who have read through the thread want to buy the book to get to the finer details.
posted by Catbunny at 9:49 AM on December 6 [3 favorites]


I just finished rereading Little House in the Big Woods, and I realized Ma Ingalls was making hoop cheese!

Also, it came flooding back to me how important it had been to have Laura to identify with, when I was growing up in the shadow of an older sister every bit as perfect as Mary.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:30 PM on December 8


Mary is insufferable....in LHotP the girls find enough beads in the deserted Osage camp to make bracelets for each of them. Toddler Carrie is too young for that kind of necklace.
posted by brujita at 9:31 AM on December 9


Right, I was definitely projecting re: Mrs. Brewster.

I bought Prairie Fires today and even though I had intended to save it for the next time the internet and/or power goes out, I find myself reading it right now.

The Ingalls family history stuff is fascinating, especially since I'm also descended from the Sabbath breaking, fence wood stealing Puritan Edmund Ingalls.
posted by elsietheeel at 9:09 PM on December 11


« Older 'Games are weird. Let's roll with that.'   |   100 Finns in 100 Years Newer »


You are not currently logged in. Log in or create a new account to post comments.