Storm Song: Why I Love Mormon Crickets

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.

Can the Resilience Movement Learn from Thacker Pass?

Thacker Pass from a viewpoint in the Montana Mountains to the North. Nearly 6,000 acres of the old-growth sagebrush habitat shown in this image would be destroyed by the proposed project, and since lithium is found throughout this area, future expansions are likely to destroy the entire visible landscape (more than 15,000 acres). Photo by Paul Feather.

By Paul Feather, originally published by Resilience.org

April 27, 2021

For over 100 days now, protestors have occupied Thacker Pass, NV in opposition to plans for the largest lithium mine in the United States. I joined this occupation for two weeks in early April, and I think the story of Thacker Pass could help us understand what it would take to become more resilient on the national and global scale. We could think of Thacker Pass as testing the depth of our vision for a resilient future. That is, when we say that a resilient system can “absorb disturbance and re-organize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks” it might be that Thacker Pass asks us which ‘essential identities and structures’ are we trying to maintain?—and which are ‘undergoing change?’

The Way We Work

Are billionaire multinationals that profit by violating human rights and destroying nature part of our ‘essential identity’ or is this something we’d expect to be ‘undergoing change’ in our movement toward a resilient future? This is a thorny question, because our entire economic system is based on the assumption that corporations have rights while the natural world doesn’t, and that assumption shapes nearly everything we do. I think this is the question that Thacker Pass asks of the resilience movement.

Resilience is a systems concept, and so we have to be resilient on different levels; a deeply resilient system must be resilient at every meaningful scale. This means we need to 1. Maintain our health; 2. Prepare within extended family units; 3. Foster community resilience in neighborhoods, cities, and states; and 4. Navigate massive amounts of confusing information about national and global politics and ecology—all while not stressing out about it too much (see 1). Certainly we have experts to guide us and distill the important points at all these levels, but it’s still a lot to ask!

It’s quite reasonable to respond to this complexity by specializing and focusing our resilience work on the local level where we feel more effective, but the way we work at the local level denotes an implicit understanding of what is or should be happening on the other levels. So we’re not completely off the hook. Our local efforts imply certain assumptions about which structures will remain ‘essential’ to the national and global scale, and which structures should go away.

For instance not so long ago, I was involved in a local initiative to install large numbers of rooftop solar panels in my community. This obviously builds some community resilience, because solar infrastructure doesn’t rely as heavily on large and fragile systems for its operation. But this action materially supports (and hence implies) global economic systems that produce solar infrastructure (everything from lithium and cobalt to trucks and roads). So we’re implying a certain analysis of resilience at all levels when we act at any level; each level is interdependent with the others.

If we view the occupation of Thacker Pass as a resilience project undertaken at the national/global level—and my experience there tells me that it is—I think it probably calls into question a great deal of the action currently taken in the name of resilience at local levels. The Thacker Pass lithium reserve is quite important—projected to provide 25% of the world’s demand—and this occupation might be the largest and longest protest against environmental destruction caused by the solar, wind, and electric car industry. The project has compelling human rights dimensions as well: indigenous people are organizing themselves to protect Thacker Pass in part because their sacred and cultural sites are threatened, but also because mining inevitably results in pollution and depletion of groundwater, loss of wildlife and range that they depend on, and missing and murdered indigenous women.

What does it mean when we promote projects like the one I described earlier (to build resilience through coordinated solar installs) if this kind of work requires global structures that violate human rights and destroy nature? Aren’t we just maintaining these violent aspects of our system as ‘essential identities’ that remain unchanged and produce fragility in spite of our resilience work?—and does that mean we aren’t doing resilience work after all?

Interdependence

Resilience at any level requires the basic functioning of many interdependent parts. Most of us recognize that families who hoard canned goods, bottled water, guns, and toilet paper aren’t actually very resilient. Preparation on the family scale is obviously important, but it isn’t sufficient, because community resilience would be necessary to sustain even the most prepared families for a meaningful length of time.

Likewise, as our social structures continue to collapse, a single neighborhood in an increasingly chaotic city is unlikely to hold up—although a truly resilient neighborhood might maintain itself for longer than a single family. The resilience of any system is much like that of an organism with interdependent organs and different levels of organization. Each level has to hold together.

It’s clear that billionaires who profit by destroying the natural world and violating the rights of marginalized people create fragility at all levels and shouldn’t be regarded as part of our ‘essential identities and structures’; and as long as we base our actions on this implicit relationship between corporations who have rights and a natural world that doesn’t, our efforts toward resilience are doomed to failure. It eventually won’t matter how much toilet paper you have or if your whole street is off the grid. Local systems simply can’t withstand continued corporate destruction of the natural world and exploitation of marginalized people on such a grand scale.

I think that Thacker Pass is a compelling project that asks important questions about our national/global identities and structures: if protecting corporate rights to destroy nature is an ‘essential aspect’ of our legal system, what does that say about our approach to the legal system in building a resilient future? These broad questions ripple down into the way we must work on the local level. Of course, there is great danger that a powerful multinational like Lithium Americas Corporation will successfully crush the resistance at Thacker Pass before it is able to meaningfully impact resilience work as a whole. (There are multiple lawsuits, but at this writing it appears that construction on the mine could begin as soon as May or June). If there were a time to allocate some of your resilience work toward the global and national scene, that time might be now, and the place might be Thacker Pass.

Will Thacker Pass, At Last, Be Still?

On a late April morning in Thacker Pass, where some Paiute ancestors have been buried and some massacred, where some people want to dig out the dead to dig out lithium, I woke to a strange, wet snow that fell overnight a day before temperatures in the 70s were forecast. It seemed a bad omen.

Paiute elders teach that very bad things happen when the dead are disturbed. I knew this must be true. So many industrial projects in so many places have destroyed so many burial sites. The cracked bones of the slain have been cracked again and again in the frantic search for coal. Old, spilled blood turned to soil has been mixed with new, spilled blood by those who murder for oil. Now, in Nevada, if the lithium miners have their way, those brave Paiute who died resisting American soldiers will finally be forced onto the reservation when machinery agitates the dust formed by those Paiute bodies and the wind blows that dust to coat the homes of Paiute descendants at Fort McDermitt.

Either these desecrations have caused the world to go to hell or the dead, disturbed, have brought hell to Earth.

I pondered this while pondering the surreality of the spring snow. As heavy as it was, the snow didn’t weigh the ghosts down. Fingers that once clawed with shock at bullet holes, clawed through mud made by their own blood. The ghosts climbed through the sage brush roots and volcanic rocks, to drift over the snow and confront the living with the reality of history. Moans moved with heavy clouds. Screams, sometimes, did too. Raven wings stirred the death hanging on the air. The wind blew with their last words in a language I never knew.

Though the language was strange to me, the meaning was clear enough: each generation’s missing and murdered grieve for the next. A meadowlark, landed on the tip of a nearby sagebrush, and began to sing. He sang: “While there’s still time for some, there’s no time for grief.” He told me to let them grieve.

I threw some cedar on the fire and watched my prayers rise with the smoke. I wondered what the wind will do when there are no more dying words to deliver, what the dead will do when they are confident they will not be disturbed, what the ghosts will do when their lessons are remembered. I wondered: Will Thacker Pass, at last, be still?

#protectthackerpass