A Plague
Of Locusts
The insects were now full grown, and on a day they all began to move. Northeastward they went toward the desert --- slowly, very slowly, but steadily, hopping, hopping, rarely pausing, never turning to one side. A low rattle filled the air like the steady falling of fine sleet, and everywhere there was a faint, sickening odor. It was impossible to walk without stepping on the creatures.

On the morning when the grasshoppers began to move the writer was at work in a round native tent of felt, with the top, perhaps 30 inches in diameter, open to admit light and air. When the grasshoppers reached the tent not one of them turned aside. Straight up the wall they crawled, and straight across the top until they came to the opening. There they paused a few minutes and then jumped blindly.

One after another they landed on the table, which was necessarily placed under the opening for light. Tap, tap, tap, they fell at intervals of a few seconds until it soon became impossible to work. When they righted themselves after falling to the floor, they always turned in the original direction, hopping across the floor, climbed the wall and the inside of the roof of the tent until they reached the opening at the apex, and were able to continue their interrupted journey.

Near our tents flowed a brook about three feet wide, which was used for irrigation. When the grasshoppers reached it they paused a moment, and then, urged by the crowds coming up from behind, jumped into the water and struggled for the other bank. The majority reached it after being carried down a few hundred feet. On the bank they rested in swarms until their wings were dry, and then hopped steadily on.

Many of the weaker insects, however, never got across the stream alive. They were carried down to the point where the brook was distributed over the fields, and there were deposited in great heaps, which soon began to emit a most noisome odor.

The coming of the grasshoppers had a disastrous effect upon our work of excavation. The insects jumped into the diggings in hordes, falling over the perpendicular edges in a steady stream. Crossing the bottom of the excavations in their usual persistent manner, they tried again and again to climb the steep walls, only to grow weary before reaching the top, and so to fall back once more. Thus they piled up to a depth of a foot or two in every excavation.

At first we tried to have them shoveled out, but the accumulation of a single night could scarcely be removed in a day. As most of our work was finished, we merely shoveled earth into the pits to cover the loathsome, dying mass of insects. Once in the bottom of a deep, round well sunk in exploring the ruins, we found a large snake buried in a seething, squirming, ever-deepening mass of living death from which his writhing head alone protruded.

There was one excavation which we determined not to abandon at once. As quickly as possible, which was not till the end of the second day, we procured cheese-cloth and stretched it across the top of the excavation. The grasshoppers crossed by legions, their shadows darkening the cloth, and the sound of their hopping was like the patter of heavy rain on a roof....

The Turkoman laborers were clad in baggy white cotton trousers of the common full Turkish type, worn without underclothes. To stand in such garments amid the grasshoppers and shovel them into buckets or bags while the creatures crawled everywhere must have been almost unendurable. Every few minutes the men stopped to remove the clinging insects from inside their clothes. Nevertheless not only did those who were at work keep on faithfully, but scores of others, seeing that the grasshoppers had consumed their sustenance for the year, pleaded piteously for an opportunity to earn something to support their wives and children.

The visitation came to an end at length, and the grasshoppers passed on into the desert. The land was left reaped --- consumed, as it were, by fire. There was a strange stillness in the air, and though our tents were pitched in what had been the fruitful grain fields of an oasis, we seemed to be in the midst of the great desert.

--- "Life in the Great Desert of Central Asia"
August 1909
By Ellsworth Huntington
From World's to Explore
Mark Jenkins, Editor
(National Geographic Books)
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