At the height of his scientific career, Jeffrey Lockwood walked away to teach in the humanities and write.
“The flame had gone out, in terms of science,” said the entomologist. “I really felt like I was turning a crank.”
For 15 years, Lockwood was a star in the University of Wyoming’s Department of Plant, Soil and Insect Sciences (renamed in the mid-1990s the Department of Renewable Resources). He conducted groundbreaking research on grasshoppers, insecticides and biological controls. He developed 10 courses, raised over $1.3 million in grants, and received tenure at 33. He solved a 100-year-old science mystery: why the Rocky Mountain locust, which plagued American settlers in the 1800s, disappeared in the early 1900s.
“He really established himself in the field,” said Scott Schell, a research scientist in the Department of Renewable Resources, who studied grasshoppers under Lockwood. “He was high up in Orthopterists’ [those who study grasshoppers, crickets and the like] Society, traveled around the world. He was widely respected in his field — all at a relatively young age.”
But in 2000, Lockwood gave it up to pursue a vague dream of writing.
Today, at 51, Lockwood has published a small shelf of books, is a revered professor in UW’s Creative Writing Master of Fine Arts program, and teaches in UW’s philosophy department.
What might have been a suicidal career move has panned out.
Lockwood’s book “Locust: the Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier” (Basic Books, 2004) has received high praise, including from Pulitzer Prize-winning Wyoming author Annie Proulx, who called it: “Gripping… fascinating… An entomological thriller.” In 2002, Lockwood was awarded the Pushcart Prize, which honors the best work from small presses, for an essay on grasshoppers in his collection “Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving” (Skinner House, 2002). The following year, he won the John Burroughs Medal, for outstanding writing in natural history, for a piece about locusts in Orion magazine.
“I’ve come to discover,” said Lockwood, “the things we regret are the things we don’t try. You almost never regret the things you try but fail.”
Burnout and change
Over cups of coffee in Ross Hall Café on UW’s campus, Lockwood, who is tall and lanky with a warm personality, talked about his burnout as an academic scientist.
“When you’re really successful in the sciences and academia, what they really want you to do is be in your office writing grants,” he said. “You turn into a sort of laboratory manager or a program manager. You spend less and less time in the field because, look, a day in the field doesn’t generate any overhead dollars.
“So the whole reason of getting into science, if you get really good at it — and I think it’s true in a whole lot of fields — is lost. You get removed from the thing that was really your passion.”
Lockwood also felt a burgeoning desire to write. He had published extensively in academic journals and textbooks, with nearly 100 academic papers to his name and more than a dozen book chapters. But he wanted to write for a popular audience. Schell recalls Lockwood taking far more care than anyone else in the department when critiquing scientific papers. He cared about style, and marked up pages with notes about grammar.
In 2000, Lockwood took a sabbatical.
“I’m going over in my head, ‘What do I want to do?’” Lockwood recalled. “God, I want to do something in writing. But I don’t know anyone in writing. I don’t know any writing programs. Writing ‘retreat’? I don’t even know the word.”
As he was ruminating over what to do with his sabbatical year, he walked into his department’s office. On a secretary’s desk was a brochure for the Wildbranch Writing Workshop.
Wildbranch is a well-regarded nature-writing workshop founded by Annie Proulx at tiny (125 students) Sterling College in Vermont.
“I don’t think there are accidents,” said Lockwood, a member of Laramie’s Unitarian church, where he has served on the board. “Or there are accidents, but you’re ready to see.”
Lockwood wrote “out of the blue” to Wildbranch.
Organizers accepted him into the workshop, set him up in a temporary teaching post at Sterling, and provided housing for him, his wife Nan, and their two then-elementary school-aged children, Ethan and Erin
The year in Vermont changed Lockwood’s life. He set a goal: Write 10 essays, for a popular audience. Submit them to magazines and publishers. Don’t stop until you’ve accumulated 100 rejections.
“That was my rule,” he said.
The rejection-slips hardly mounted up. At Sterling, Lockwood met an editor for Orion, a popular science magazine that sponsors the Wildbranch Workshop. His essay on grasshoppers and insecticides was accepted for publication. He also met the publisher for Skinner House Books, a small press affiliated with the Unitarian Church, based in Boston. They published his first collection of essays, “Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving,” in 2002.
“A scientist friend from India who was Hindu stayed with me for six months,” said Lockwood. “He had this expression that’s stuck with me: ‘When the student is ready, the teacher will come.’”
Lockwood was hired by UW in 1986 to teach entomology and conduct research on one of the state’s major pest-management issues: grasshoppers. Lockwood had just received his PhD in entomology from Louisiana State University, where he had studied the southern green stink bug (Nezara viridula). Despite a lack of expertise on Acrididae, the grasshopper, Lockwood plunged in, quickly establishing himself in the field.
He spent hours in scratchy grass on Wyoming rangeland, studying clacking grasshoppers — counting them, testing various insecticides and biological controls, figuring out ways to reduce hoppers’ numbers and ease the burden for ranchers, while not wreaking havoc with his poisons. Lockwood developed a form of strip-spraying insecticides for rangeland grasshoppers — in which chemicals are sprayed in discreet strips rather than indiscriminately applied — that dramatically reduced the amount of chemicals required, saved the federal and state governments money ($13 million last year), and lessened the environmental impact.
Lockwood traveled to Australia, China, Kazakhstan and elsewhere with his work. He was elected executive director of the Orthopterists’ Society.
He also became intrigued by a leading mystery among grasshopper researchers: what happened to the Rocky Mountain locust? Locusts are species related to grasshoppers. In the late 1800s, the Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus spretus) — North America’s only locust species — was an infamous menace to American settlers on the Midwestern prairie. Their swarms were so dense, farmers recorded seeing sun-blackening clouds descend and strip their fields in hours. Guinness World Records lists the Rocky Mountain locust as the largest swarm ever recorded: an estimated 198,000 square miles (greater than the size of California), consisting of some 12.5 trillion insects. (It was Lockwood who submitted the necessary documentation for the Guinness publication).
But in the early 1900s, the Rocky Mountain locust disappeared. The last known living specimen was collected in Canada in 1902; its carcass is now pinned in a museum display.
What happened? Locusts continue to thrive elsewhere in the world, including the desert locust in North Africa and the Middle East.
“If you’re in the grasshopper field, eventually you run into that mystery,” said Lockwood. “It was sort of laying out there, unresolved.”
Lockwood raised grant money to travel with a small team into the Wind River Mountains to hack away at the glaciers in search of frozen locust carcasses, in case their DNA held answers.
“I did a lot of work in the prairies. Wow, grasshopper glaciers? [The research] was somewhat motivated by curiosity and this unsolved mystery. It was fairly motivated by a sense of adventure and the chance to go to weird places with interesting treasures, fossil-hunting. This wasn’t quite Bigfoot, but there was still this element of excitement.”
Lockwood’s breakthrough came not high up on the mountains or even in a research lab, but driving in a “peeling, rattle-trap” Chevy truck on a Wyoming highway with colleague Larry DeBrey. They were talking to keep themselves awake as much as to pass the time. The conversation meandered to their joint obsession: the extinct locust. DeBrey had joined Lockwood on all his glacier hunts.
What if, Lockwood pondered off-handedly, the locust disappeared not while in its outbreak mode, spread across the Midwestern prairie, but while wintering in relatively small clusters along the river valleys in the Rockies? He happened on this idea as their conversation touched upon the monarch butterfly. The monarch winters in a relatively small, forested area in Mexico and southern California. The butterfly’s vulnerability during dormancy has raised alarms among environmentalists who warn that a few wayward loggers could wipe out the entire population in a single winter.
Lockwood and DeBrey decided to poke around the theory when they returned to UW, looking into what early settlers did around the river valleys. “Sometimes a revelation comes with a flash of heavenly light and a booming voice — and sometimes it is jotted in a sun-bleached spiral notebook,” Lockwood wrote in Locust, his book about his sleuth work on the locust.
The theory bore out. Lockwood and DeBrey discovered evidence of massive change along the mountain river valleys of the Rockies at the turn of the 19th century. Farmers took up residence on the fertile ground, plowing fields, flooding the ground, changing the vegetation. They were answering the call for food from miners heading into the mountains for treasure. Enough change took place in a short period, Lockwood discovered, to utterly wipe out the wintering locusts —without man even realizing it.
In Locust, Lockwood writes elegantly and menacingly about this startling conclusion — and what it said about man’s footprint on earth.
“The Rocky Mountain locust was inadvertently driven to extinction. The most spectacular ‘success’ in the history of economic entomology — the only complete elimination of an agriculture pest species — was the result of unplanned, uncoordinated, and unintentional human activity. The agriculturalists who arrived in the river valleys of the West managed to drive their most severe competitor to extinction in a matter of a few years, leaving North America the only inhabited continent without a locust species.”
“When,” he ponders, “can we no longer appeal to being big, dumb, clumsy beasts bulling our way through yet another display of fine, living porcelain in nature’s china shop?”
Writing about bugs
Lockwood’s book Locust, perhaps his finest literary success to date, combines his in-depth knowledge of insects and his story-telling talent. He probes deep into the history of late-19th century settlers, the political climate, the history of entomologists, and the habits of the pesky locust. The book reads like an insect geek’s “thriller,” as Proulx said.
It’s not an easy book to follow up, since Lockwood gave up his science post and may never again apply his research skills in the same way. He spent 10 years (off and on) studying the locust.
But he did come up with a fascinating new book: Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War (Oxford University Press, 2008). Exhaustively researched — in the library, not the laboratory — Lockwood writes about how often, and in how many ways, insects have been used in war, from beehives and scorpions hurled at enemies in antiquity to today’s threat of biological terrorism. He also explores the dark history around claims from foreign countries like North Korea and Cuba that the U.S. dropped plague-bearing insects on their populations.
The book has received some glowing reviews, but one critic, writing in The Times of London, said, “As history, his work seems unsatisfactory. I am amazed by the willingness of Oxford, a university publisher, to lend its imprimatur to a book devoid of rigour, and notably carelessly written. A chapter heading such as All’s Lousy on the Eastern Front is scarcely an incentive to take its content seriously.”
Lockwood’s next book, slated to be completed next year, is about “entomophobia,” or the fear of bugs. It will cover everything from bed bugs to psychological disorders when people believe insects are creeping all over their bodies. The book is tentatively titled: The Infested Mind.
Between the big books, Lockwood has written dozens of essays, collected in three books, all put out by Skinner House: Grasshopper Dreaming;, Prairie Soul: Finding Grace in the Earth Beneath My Feet (2004); and A Guest of the World: Meditations.
Lockwood writes with grace and humor in several essays about his days as an entomologist at UW who had fallen in love with his subject (“[grasshoppers] are rather endearing when you give them a chance… beautiful animals”) yet was tasked with killing them by the millions with insecticides (“I am an assassin… This year I will direct the killing of no fewer than 200 million grasshoppers.”)
“Each summer after a spray,” he writes in his Pushcart-winning essay To Be Honest, in Prairie Soul, “I walk the prairie to see the gruesome results of a control program so that I never forget what I have made possible…. This is a time when I experience the fullness of the prairie, when I seek what lies at the core of my intentions as a scientist, and when I release the guilt and shame. The thought-words are different each time, but the question I ask myself persists: Why do I continue to develop the means of killing these creatures?”
Like father, like son — sort of
Lockwood grew up in the deserts of New Mexico. His older brother and he spent countless unfettered hours exploring the harsh, arid mesa behind their home, capturing lizards, putting them in jars and selling them to local pet stores.
His father was a physicist who worked on the nuclear bomb program at Sandia National Labs and at Nevada test sites. Later, Lockwood compared his own work on insecticides and grasshoppers to his father’s work.
“In the final analysis, maybe he made a mistake in working with nuclear weapons, and perhaps I am wrong to be working with pesticides,” he writes in Like Father, Like Son, in Grasshopper Dreaming. “Our critics would perhaps legitimately claim that he perpetuated a potentially deadly strategy that has not yet been fully vindicated and that I sustain a lethal strategy that is ultimately doomed.”
He postulates that each Lockwood strived to do the least amount of harm (reducing the number of nuclear warheads, reducing the amount of insecticides used) in their loathsome fields. “I don’t know if doing less evil is the same as doing good, but it’s better than doing nothing.”
His father died two years ago in a car accident, while driving home from a graduation ceremony for a granddaughter who had received a degree in physics. The Lockwood family is chock full of scientists. Lockwood’s older brother, his partner in lizard hunts, is a chemist; his younger brother has a PhD in ecology; and his sister is a former pediatric nurse, now a photographer.
The idea of becoming a writer was heretical in the household.
“The idea was that writing was an appropriate thing to do as an avocation, but no young man should seriously take up writing as a vocation,” said Lockwood. “Boys do science.”
No more. Lockwood’s only concrete scientific responsibilities today are serving on graduate review committees for science students. (He’s on about a dozen now.)
His days are filled with writing and a small teaching load. He taught one course, Natural Resource Ethics, for the philosophy department this spring. In the fall, he will lead one graduate workshop on non-fiction writing.
The new routine has given Lockwood the time to follow another dream: writing fiction. He just completed a crime noir novel set in 1970s San Francisco. The sleuth? An exterminator who uses insect clues to track down the villain. His name is also a nod to Lockwood’s locust work: C.V. Riley, the same name as the leading entomologist who battled the locust menace in the late 1800s.
CLICK HERE to read an excerpt from Dose Unto Others, Lockwood’s crime novel.
“It’s my first venture into fiction,” said Lockwood. “And my first venture into fiction was like going to Sterling College, right? I don’t know if this is going to work. This could just flop. But on the other hand, I’d regret not having tried it.”
So far, he hasn’t found an agent for Dose Unto Others. “A couple nibbles, but nobody has really latched onto it.”
Lockwood and his wife Nan, a social worker, are empty-nesters, with their son Ethan a rising sophomore at California State Polytechnic University and their daughter Erin a new graduate from American University. Lockwood has been happy in Laramie with roots set in the community. He and his wife attend church most Sundays, are avid gardeners, and enjoy hiking and cross-country skiing nearby trails. But without kids in school, the possibility of a move away to a different campus is not out of the question.
“We certainly have roots here. We’re happy here. But I think it’s crazy to close doors.”
Susan Gray Gose is a freelance writer who lives in Lander with her husband Ben and two children, Lily and Gage. She has been managing editor of the Lander Journal, a correspondent for People magazine, an assistant editor for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and a reporter for The News & Observer (N.C.) She also writes fiction.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was modified on June 14 to correct references to Sandia National Labs and the southern green stink bug (Nezara viridula).