By all accounts, the visitation began on Sunday afternoon, gadzillions of them, a cloud.
At about three when the tea cups were on the table and everyone was in a festive mood, the sunlight dimmed and shimmered somewhat as if a cloud had passed over it.. . .We saw the strange spectacle. . .arise in the west, as of a March snow flurry on the green landscape.The. . .flakes came as if wafted on by by the east wind, and the rays of the afternoon sun shining through the thickly swirling flakes caused strange shimmering light. We soon discovered that the flakes were grasshoppers.. . .That's how Charles Dyke remember them in The History of Sioux County, summer of 1873, no one out here back then but the earliest of pioneers living in shacks and mud huts riding the vast ocean of grass.
They attacked everything green in sight, but preferred our garden and the wheat and oats. We fought for the garden and tried to scare them away. We killed thousands with dead thickly branched willows, but where one was killed a hundred to its place and the garden was soon gone. . . .The prairie grass was not to their liking; they came for the cultivated crops as if with a vengeance.. . .They had a fierce and determined appearance. . .long military collars, plumed helmets, breastplates of war. On their breasts they had a mark like the letter "W," which the superstitious translated into "woe."It was, to some, a signal of the end times. "Mother regarded them primarily as the avenging host of Almighty God to punish the land thieves and perjurers," Dyke says. "But she also held that we, for our own sins, abundantly merited this punishment."
Not far east, the Roman Catholics looked up at the hordes and saw similar heavenly doom. Thomas Barry remembered that day in a memoir his daughter published in 1923 in the Iowa Palimpest. He and two others, German immigrants, were off to church, he says, when "a black cloud suddenly appeared high in the west from which came an ominous sound" so deep, he says, "we thought a cyclone was upon us. The oxen stopped and we all stared at each other, mystified."
"Der jungste Tag,"one man shouted and began to pray"--Judgment Day.
And it was a kind of judgment day because the grasshoppers that year--and the next and the next and the next--determined who among the county's new residents was stubborn enough to stay in a frontier God seemed either to forget or to punish.
In her 1930 Sioux County novel, Black Soil, Josephine Donovan, the daughter of Thomas Barry, describes what her father remembered through the eyes of a character named Johan, a German immigrant.
The horde decended. He tried to defend his field. . .his corn was a mass of shining bodies sucking, sucking the tender juices. He worked feverishly, knocking off feeders only to give place to others. He himself was covered with grasshoppers. They crawled over his face, his eyes, and invaded his clothes. The limitless stretch of prairie was not vast enough to hold them all.And then, she writes, "He surrendered to them. . .as he walked, his boots became slimy with crushed bodies."
"Johan could not be resigned to the caprices of a new country," Donovan says. "He saw only its unfairness.. . .It perturbed him not at all that movers were headed East. Too, many of the neighbors were leaving. . .loading their household goods into the wagons."
A Dutch family who'd lost a child, Benny, when he froze to death walking home from school in a blizzard, a family who'd come to Sioux County from New Jersey, picked up and left. "I don't ever want to set my eyes on the godforsaken country again," Mr. Hurd says from the wagon as he's leaving. "It's taken my wife's health, all our inheritance, our best years, and Benny."
Sure, Johan can have his granary and move out of his mud hut, he says. "Take the buildings. I wouldn't give you five dollars for the whole township. I'll never come back."
Eventually, Johan himself can't make it and hangs himself.
Others stayed, of course. Today, Sioux County leads the state in almost every agricultural genre.
On Monday, New Mexico meterologists thought their radar had gone haywire when a cloud showed up where they seemed to be none. Maybe you heard the story. What the National Weather Service finally concluded was that a new infestation of grasshoppers were in the air--as high as a thousand feet. They were thick they registered on the radar as rain.
It's a gorgeous morning outside my window right now. The eastern sky is shimmering in peachy summer's gladness. But the storytellers remembered another summer, the summer of 1873, a Sabbath morning, in fact, when Calvinist and Catholic alike believed the end was near. They hadn't been warned. No one spotted the swarm on radar. The hoppers simply descended and, as if they were themselves the kings of heaven and earth, separated the sheep from the goats. Many left, cursing the land.
Scientists believe they were Rocky Mountain Locusts, a species now, oddly enough, extinct. Rocky Mountain Locusts once composed the largest recorded locust swarm in the history of humankind, says the Bozeman Magpie, 1,800 miles long and 110 miles wide.
This gorgeous morning, all of that is really hard to believe, hard even to imagine, but it's true. And it happened right here outside my window.