When you find yourself bitter that no one seems to care, when you’ve tricked yourself that you’re all alone, when you’ve fought longer than you thought you could and the war has just begun, look for the little ones, the creatures underfoot and overhead, our tiny allies humans too often ignore.
When I was bitter, feeling sorry for myself, and exhausted, Thacker Pass showed me Mormon crickets. They came alive in late April. I went to sleep one night, forgetting that Mormon crickets even existed, and the next morning the dusty road leading into camp was covered with them. Cars couldn’t drive up the road without killing hundreds of them. Walkers couldn’t walk up the road without squashing dozens of them.
Mormon crickets are one of the most hated species in the Great Basin. But, I fell in love with them. Fascinated by their sudden appearance in Thacker Pass, I wanted to learn more. I learned that Mormon crickets aren’t even crickets – they’re shieldbacked katydids. From a distance, they look uniformly brown. But, on closer inspection, a swarm of Mormon crickets becomes a rainbow of hazel browns, rich scarlets, royal purples, iridescent greens, and obsidian blacks. When they hatch, they are tiny – maybe a third of an inch long. After a few days of feeding on sage brush and grasses, they become noticeably longer. Some Mormon crickets can eat and grow their way to being three inches long.
Most importantly, Mormon crickets are warriors. They earned their name in their first campaign. In the late summer of 1847, members of a new Christian sect, the Mormons, invaded the Salt Lake Valley in Utah and brought humanity’s oldest war against the natural world with them: agriculture. Immediately upon arrival in the arid Utah terrain, Mormons dammed and diverted streams for irrigation systems, stripped land for farms, ripped stone from the earth for churches, and cut living forests for houses and other buildings.
The Mormon crickets who hatched in the spring of 1848 found the first Mormon settlers’ newly-planted crops. Because there had been rumors from their grasshopper relatives on the Great Plains of a new kind of pale-skinned human who had recently arrived only to immediately begin destroying grasslands for crops, these young Mormon crickets recognized the declaration of war. In fact, historians still call this The Cricket War of 1848. The Mormon crickets knew that the best way to win a war is to destroy your enemy’s capacity to wage war. They knew their Mormon enemies would be hard-pressed to wage war if they were starving.
So, the Mormon crickets marshaled their strength and ambushed beans and peas, first. Mormon diarist Mrs. Lorenzo Dow Young wrote on May 27, 1847:
“…the crickets came by millions, sweeping everything before them. They first attacked a patch of beans for us and in twenty minutes there was not a vestige of them to be seen. They next swept over peas, then came into our garden; took everything clean. We went out with brush and undertook to drive them, but they were too strong for us.”
Then, they assaulted cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, and squash. Finally, they attacked corn and grains. Mrs. Young wrote on May 28, 1847: “Today the crickets have commenced on our corn and small grain. They have eaten off 12 acres for Brother Rosacrants, 7 for Charles and are now taking Edmunds.” The next day, Mrs. Young wrote: “Today they have destroyed ¾ of an acre of squashes, our flax, two acres of millet and our rye, and are now to work in our wheat. What will be the result we know not.”
If it wasn’t for the seagulls and the frost, the Mormon Crickets of 1848 might have succeeded in driving the Mormons from the Salt Lake Valley. Seagulls arrived just in time to feast on the crickets, frost froze many crickets to death, and the Mormons were able to salvage enough of their crops to survive. Though Mormon crickets have failed to push European invaders and their agriculture from the land, they renew their battle every year. And, to this day, Mormon crickets cause significant damage to crops in the Great Basin.
Mormon crickets have bravely battled another destructive culture for decades: car culture. Some years, when the crickets have seen too many of their winged kin massacred on windshields, heard too much of the smack and crunch of gopher, rabbit, and deer bones under speeding tires, and choked too long on roadside exhaust, they have taken matters into their own hands. In what has become an almost-yearly phenomenon in the Great Basin, Mormon crickets have sacrificed themselves in such numbers that some winding, hilly roads become so slick with cricket blood that cars run off the road. These suicide missions sometimes even succeed in making roads impassable.
After learning about the bravery Mormon crickets have shown, I went looking for them. It was a cloudless April day. The sun poured down unfiltered. Wind stirred up dust and reminded me of the drought. The green slopes of the Montana Mountains were already giving way to brown – weeks too early. The land and I longed for rain.
I found the crickets. As I approached them, I noticed that my footsteps caused splashes of hopping crickets on the dirt and sage brush branches. I paused and listened. “Dance with us,” the crickets said.
Many of the crickets seemed to hop around to face me, beady eyes looking up at me, antennae reaching towards me. There was a tempo in the way those antennae twitched. It was a music I felt more than heard.
I picked up my left foot and stomped on the road. The crickets leapt and their tiny feet jingled the sage brush. I stomped my right foot. The crickets jumped and their tiny feet jangled the grass. As I found the rhythm, my feet were the bass line and cricket feet were the treble. My feet became thunder and cricket feet became rain. Boom. Patter. Boom. Patter. Boom. Patter. We brought a storm song to Thacker Pass.
I don’t know how long we danced like this. Eventually, I was soaked in sweat, out of breath, and my throat was coated in dust. I stopped for a breather. It took a few beats for the crickets to notice. As they settled, I thanked them for their courage, for their service in the war against the natural world, and for dancing with me. Then, I asked them what they needed from me.
“Fight with us,” is all they said before scattering back into the sage brush. And, I knew if these tiny creatures could be so brave, I could, too.