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Jan. 03, 2014

A Grasshopper Storm, a Mental Shift

by Jeffrey Lockwood

Click to enlarge images
I stared warily across the barbed-wire fence as the dust kicked up by my truck hung over the road. The view across Mr. Martin’s sun-baked pasture was eerie. The sagebrush, normally gray-green with leathery leaves, were skeletons. The yuccas were shredded, as if they had been attacked by a demented rancher armed with a lawn trimmer. Even the Canadian thistles looked like refugees from a devastating hailstorm, except it hadn’t rained in nearly a month. The grass was baked to a golden crisp and cropped to a height of a couple of inches, as if that crazed rancher had also owned a riding mower.
 
Grasshoppers were clinging to the skeletons of the sagebrush and blanketing the shady sides of the fence posts to avoid the searing heat of the soil. When I took a few steps into the field, they exploded from the sparse vegetation. The density of life was dizzying. Incredulous, I continued into the field, heading toward a gully that promised an encounter beyond anything I had experienced in a decade of work on the Wyoming prairies.
 
* * *
 
Until that day, Whalen Canyon had never been a disturbing place. This humble feature of the southeastern Wyoming steppe does not have the vertiginous quality of the Grand Canyon or the bear-driven anxiety that comes with hiking in Glacier National Park. Whalen Canyon is not Sedona, Ayers Rock, or Lhasa, where people’s lives are transformed. So I wasn’t looking for horror, epiphany, or change of any kind. I was there to gather ecological data and was utterly unprepared for what happened on that sere expanse of grassland.
 
Whalen Canyon is not much of a canyon, at least where I had my encounter. Rather, it is more like a mile-wide expanse of native grasses sloping gently from rocky hills down to the Platte River. The canyon—more of a cleft between rocky hills—is the natural feature closest to our research plots, so that’s what we called the study site. The road out of Guernsey, a rural community of a thousand or so windblown souls known for its National Guard camp and the Oregon Trail wheel ruts, leads to the canyon. But what normally brought people to the town was not what attracted me and my research team from the University of Wyoming. Rather, we were drawn to some of the most dependably prolific grasshoppers in the West.
 
For an entomologist dedicated to understanding the ecology of rangeland grasshoppers and developing better ways of suppressing their outbreaks, Whalen Canyon is a godsend. Even in “lean years” (meaning few grasshoppers but plenty of grass for ranchers’ cattle), we could usually count on populations of at least ten grasshoppers per square yard in this area. Such a density typically would not justify the cost of an insecticide treatment, but the numbers were sufficient for testing various insecticides. In “good years,” Whalen Canyon could produce phenomenal numbers. And 1998 was producing a bumper crop.
 
So it was that on a bone-dry day in early July, I stopped by some small plots in which we were testing a new insecticide. I had made the trip by myself, as my research crew was working on another project. Within the plots, the grasshopper numbers were running just five or six per square yard, down nearly 80 percent in the two weeks since we had treated the plots with an experimental compound. Taking on industry contracts to test products was one of my least favorite endeavors, but these ventures paid handsomely and provided funds that I could parlay into less lucrative but far more interesting ecological research.
 
When the guys had checked the plots a week earlier, they had told me that to the north, where the road swung toward the mouth of the canyon and deep draws were etched into the prairie, the grasshoppers were reaching biblical proportions. I had encountered some high densities before. Working with forty or fifty grasshoppers per square yard was oddly thrilling, and I wanted to see this infestation for myself. I have to wonder now how my life might have been different if I had decided instead to head back to Laramie and take care of the backlog of mail that had accumulated during the field season. But it was like coming across a horrible accident along the highway—once you’ve stopped to see, there’s no erasing the memory.
 
The earthen banks rose above my head as I descended into a draw. In the gulch, where only a hint of green vegetation remained, the grasshoppers had amassed into a bristling carpet of wings and legs. My arrival incited a riot, the carpet irrupting into seething chaos. Rather than waves of movement parting in my path, there was sheer pandemonium. Grasshoppers boiled in every direction, ricocheting off my face and chest. Some latched onto my bare arms and a few tangled their spiny legs into my hair. Others began to crawl into my clothing—beneath my shorts, under my collar. They worked their way into the gaps between shirt buttons, prickling my chest, sliding down my sweaty torso. For the first time in my life as an entomologist, I panicked.
 
* * *
 
I was a child the last time I felt the rising terror of losing myself, engulfed within a suffocating amorphous presence. In my youthful nightmare, a visceral panic rooted in a primal horror would sweep through me. Like a swelling globule of mucus or fat, the protean mass was utterly indifferent to me as it inexorably filled the room. The inescapable, bloating presence became a recurring visitor, and I’d wake up twisted in my sheets with my heart pounding. I dreaded falling asleep again following one of its smothering visits.
 
The dread lasted until I found a method to control these episodes, not by suppressing the feeling of oppressive enormity but by inducing it on my own terms. In adolescence, I could use lucid dreaming to gradually evoke a vivid felt-sense of being an infinitesimal mote in infinite space. Experiencing the disappearance of myself in this manner was enchanting—and terrifying.
 
As an adult, I either lost or forgot this strange practice. The only echoes were a vague discomfort in crowds, an intense reaction to Hitchcock’s The Birds, and an irrational fascination with the concept of infinity. Most childhood nightmares fade with time. Mine metamorphosed on the Wyoming prairie.
 
I remember moments: frantically sweeping the grasshoppers from my clothing, shaking them from my hair, and somehow making it back to the truck. I can clearly recall only the blind, irrational, unaccountable terror. Shaking, I climbed inside the truck and slowed my breathing. Then I began the two-hour drive home. The smallest shift of every grass seed lodged in my clothing and each barely detectable tickle from a drop of sweat evoked an anxious slap or hurried brush, as if the grasshoppers were still clinging to me. As these sensations faded over the miles, I tried to forget what had happened. But I couldn’t.
 
I was, after all, an entomologist. I had encountered insects in all sorts of contexts for many years. And this experience was like being an established surgeon who one day fainted at the sight of blood. Only worse. A surgeon is supposed to be empathetic. It was more like being a riveter on a skyscraper who suddenly experiences a heart-pounding dread of heights. I had lost my nerve. As days passed, I began to wonder if the panic would return unexpectedly, when I could not so easily hide my humiliating reaction.
 
I had lost my ability to engage insects dispassionately. They had worked their way into my psyche, and to a troubling extent my research became personal. It’s not that I sought to destroy the source of my anxiety; I did not begin to take pleasure in killing grasshoppers as if they were now my nemeses. If anything, quite the opposite. These creatures became deeply affecting to me—they were able to enchant my imagination, not merely engage my cognition. A scientist ought to be objective—and I no longer was.
 
* * *
 
The experience of being buried alive by life in that rangeland draw challenged my sense of psychological well-being. Let’s just call it what it is—my mental health. It changed me in ways that would haunt me for years, and in retrospect it may have catalyzed my eventual move from the sciences to the arts and humanities (I now teach in the university’s department of philosophy and creative writing program). Ironically, the memory loosened its grip when I returned to science, this time psychology rather than entomology. I needed to make sense of that day and the network of experiences that led up to and followed from it.
 
This book was initially motivated by my need to understand myself, to reassert control. The results of my exploration might have been therapeutic but not terribly interesting to others, except in providing a view into the mind of a disturbed scientist. However, my experience—or some version of it—is common in contemporary human society. About one person in ten develops a phobia in the course of his or her life*. Fears of animals and heights are most common, but nearly fifty million people experience anxiety involving animals, and eleven million people wrestle with entomophobia**.
 
Recent stories of how people perceive the bed bug explosion and the irrational responses to these interlopers cast a bright light on this shared anxiety about insects. But our emotional response to insects on our bodies and in our homes is not merely a modern, socially constructed phenomenon. Rather, it is a vital part of being human. Our perception of insects is deeply rooted in our species’ evolutionary past. And so if insects and their kin evoke in you a moment’s hesitation, a persistent shudder, or even a curious enchantment, then I invite you to join this expedition into the infested mind.
 
NOTES
* Aaron T. Beck, Gary Emery, and Ruth L. Greenberg, Anxiety Disorders and Phobias: A Cognitive Perspective (New York: Basic Books , 2005), chap. 6; David H. Barlow, Anxiety and Its Disorders: The Nature and Treatment of Anxiety and Panic, 2nd ed. (New York: Guilford Press, 2002), chap. 1.
** Martin M. Antony and David H. Barlow, “Specific Phobias,” in Barlow, Anxiety and Its Disorders; William W. Eaton, Amy Dryman, and Myrna M. Weissman, “Panic and Phobia,” in Psychiatric Disorders in America: The Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study, ed. Lee N. Robins and Darrel A. Regier (New York: Free Press, 1991).
 

Reprinted from The Infested Mind by Jeffrey A. Lockwood with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright 2013 Oxford University Press USA and published by Oxford University Press USA. All rights reserved.

 
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About Jeffrey Lockwood

Jeffrey Lockwood is Professor of Natural Sciences & Humanities at the University of Wyoming and author of The Infested Mind: Why Humans Fear, Loathe, and Love Insects and Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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