A Unitarian Universalist scientist from Wyoming finds common ground with Muslims in Central Asia in the battle against a common adversary: the locust. Lessons from the interdependent web of grain and grasshoppers
Grass unites humankind. In the most fundamental sense, the staple foods of the world are
The grasslands evoke a paradoxical sense of austere abundance. The tall-grass prairies and other grasslands with rich soils have virtually all disappeared under the plow. The grasslands that do remain are too poor to support farming. Like the barrios of Rio de Janeiro or the slums of Calcutta, these ecological ghettos stretch far beyond the wealthy high rises of corn and sugar cane. The short- and mixed-grass prairies of the Great Plains still sweep eastward from the rocky spine of North America. The Pampas of Argentina still evoke romance and high adventure, even as Charles Darwin fell under their spell during his voyage of discovery. Grasslands bristle along the edge of Australia's Outback like the continent's vast, day-old beard. It may be dwindling under the crush of human pressure, but Africa's savannah and the fabled Serengeti still host the most wondrous creatures to grace dry land: wildebeests, zebras, giraffes, and lions. The rare, chalk grasslands of the British Isles are one of the few native ecosystems surviving in Europe. But nowhere captures the impoverished riches of the grasslands as do the steppes of Asia.
I count among my most valued days the time that I've spent on these lands. They lay like a frigid and voluptuous goddess—indifferent to our feeble courting, but ever-tempting in their beauty. I've witnessed the grandeur of the Mongolian plain, breathed the thin air of the Tibetan plateau, wandered the immensity of Siberia's steppe, surveyed the rolling hills of the Uzbek grasslands, and probed the boundless interior of Kazakhstan.
Like the grasses' ebb and flow with the abundant rains and searing droughts that cycle across the years, the people of the Asian steppe have periodically flourished and declined. Genghis Khan united the Mongolian tribes and swept across the grasslands with the most disciplined and brutal warriors the world had ever seen. In a matter of fifty years, the empire of the Khans stretched from Beijing to Vienna, covering an area equal to seven million square miles and encompassing one-fifth of the inhabited world. But the Mongols, great at conquest, were not much for administration.
In the latter half of the fourteenth century, a Turkic prince, Timur-i-Leng (known in English as Tamerlane), conquered the Mongols in Central Asia and captured the Ottoman emperor Bayazid, thus protecting Europe from the Turks. The Europeans were so delighted that a statue was placed in Paris to honor their liberator—a chapter in history that, along with the statue, has been lost from Western culture. Timur's empire stretched from Russia to Persia and from present-day Turkey to India. (Central Asian architecture inspired the domes of the Taj Mahal.) Despite having eighteen wives, Timur had only four sons—it seems that being a ruler left little time for being a lover. His lands were divided among his sons, who proved less adept at ruling. In time, the Uzbek empire withered and dissolved, leaving a proud but fragmented collection of tribes.
The next conqueror to unify the region labeled the Uzbek ruler a “criminal” and wiped clean the legend. In the brutal reign of Joseph Stalin, there was no allowance for cultural or ethnic pride. The Soviet Union reunited the people of Central Asia, and by some estimates the Soviets brought the region into the modern world. After the breakup of the USSR, the “stans” (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) undertook a redefinition of their stories, history being rewritten by the victors. Now just fourteen years into independence, these people are engaged in an epic tug-of-war trying simultaneously to assert their cultural autonomies while forging new political alliances. Although a new charismatic ruler seems unlikely to emerge as a catalyst for regional unity, another native inhabitant of these lands already appears to be filling this role to an extraordinary extent.
The four locust species of C entral Asia have utter contempt for national boundaries, moving whimsically across borders to feed on grasslands and crops without regard to political claims. Tons of vegetation are moved from one country to another in the guts of locust swarms—perhaps the only import-export that avoids the scrutiny of the corrupt customs agents.
The most spectacular unification of nations via locusts comes rarely to this part of the world, but when it does there is no creature so completely overwhelming in power and scale. Outbreaks of the Desert locust can encompass all or part of sixty-two nations, comprising nearly a quarter of the earth's surface. The last such event to sweep across Central Asia was in 1962 , although this invasion was a mere shadow of the plague that developed in 1929 . Africa and the Middle East saw severe outbreaks of this species, and the human suffering was so extensive that the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization developed a program to battle Desert locusts in the 1960 s. Today, the fledgling nations of Central Asia focus their attention on less fantastic but more frequent incursions by other locust species.
An oddly named locust has recently forged links between Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia, with each country quite certain that the swarms originate in its neighbor's lands. This insectan emissary is the Italian locust, an egregiously misnamed creature with but a passing connection to Italy via a specimen from southern Europe that served as the basis for the scientific name of the species some two centuries ago.
Although the source of Italian locust outbreaks is a matter of some contention, everyone acknowledges the origin of Asia's most mobile (and appropriately named) locust species. Swarms of the Migratory locust can travel up to fifteen hundred miles, from the Black Sea to the British Isles. If these cigar-sized creatures were scaled-up to human size, this journey would be equal to circumnavigating the earth in less than two months. The sources of these swarms are the reed beds along the shores of lakes and river deltas in Kazakhstan, Russia, and Uzbekistan. These are, in effect, the tallest grasses in the world, reaching heights of thirty feet and providing immense quantities of food for the locusts' journeys.
Despite the Migratory locust's ability to link distant lands, the title of “insect ambassador of Central Asia” belongs to the Moroccan locust. This creature's outbreaks unite the farmers of Tajikistan with those of Kyrgyzstan as well as those of Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, with troublesome swarms occasionally emerging from Turkmenistan. This insect—like the Italian locust—is rather badly named. Morocco is the extreme western limit of its range. The locust's favored homeland is the rolling foothills of Central Asia, which is where I first met this remarkable creature.
Even before I left for a two-week trip to Central Asia in late March 2003 , I knew that Americans were not the most popular tourists in the world. With the war raging in Iraq, it was clear that we were at odds with most of the world's nations, and I'd heard of rather cold, if not nasty, receptions from colleagues traveling in Canada and Mexico. If our neighbors were that upset, then the Islamic countries of Central Asia would surely be even more explicit in their disapproval. I assured my family that I'd be safe, based on several thin lines of evidence. At least before I left, our State Department had not issued any warnings about travel to the region. I'd be traveling with Alex Latchininsky, my Russian co-worker who was familiar with this region from years of work in the area during Soviet times, and we'd be hosted by amiable colleagues in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Moreover, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations was confidently sticking with their plan to meet in Termez, Uzbekistan. I was the only U.S. citizen attending their locust management workshop, but presumably it would be very bad form to have an outside expert put in harm's way. Being an inveterate—but hopefully not terminal—idealist, I felt a strong pull to engage the people of the Islamic world during these difficult times.
In my mind, it was precisely the time for Americans who valued world peace and the integrity of the international community to travel abroad. Trusting the government and the media to represent me in these tense days seemed the worst of all ways to have a voice in the world. Although I was traveling under the auspices of science, I had no doubt that politics would enter into discussions between formal events. I wanted to explain for myself that many Americans were deeply disappointed in our government, that we respected other cultures, and that we valued nonviolent resolutions of conflict. The problem would be how to introduce these notions gracefully and diplomatically in the course of meetings in Termez and Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Having worked extensively in France, Kazakhstan, Russia, Uzbekistan, and the United States, Alex was a consummate diplomat and profoundly sensitive to cultural nuances. In the 1980 s, he spent months studying locusts in Central Asia and developing pest-management methods with local agencies and rural districts. He knew the people and their sensitivities.
Under his tutelage, my plan was to studiously avoid initiating direct references to politics and to rehearse tactful replies to questions. But the most viable strategy was to prepare veiled allusions to politics for use in private and public occasions, the American tendency for blunt and direct discourse being seen as tactless and offensive. The footings for the cross-cultural bridges that I prepared were based on a heartfelt commonality between our distant homes—the grasslands.
Our meeting in A lmaty was really more of a celebration. Alex had edited a remarkable book, Guide to Locusts and Grasshoppers of Kazakhstan, Central Asia, and Adjacent Territories, to which I'd contributed a chapter on pest management. His was the first book on this subject in fifty years, and it was clear that the people of the region were hungry, even famished, for reliable information on these insects. They were especially excited because the book was written in Russian, and we'd managed to provide two thousand copies free to the relevant countries. So, the National Agricultural Library of Kazakhstan pulled out all the stops in organizing a book launch, complete with fresh flowers, a spectacular spread of food, plenty of vodka, traditional music and dancing, speeches, and television crews.
In these last two contexts, my Americanism would be obvious through formal introductions and my lack of language skills. If there was no hiding that I was from a country at political odds with Kazakhstan, then the challenge was to earnestly convey that our people and lands had much in common.
The dignitaries were gathered around a thirty-foot conference table in a large hall, with an impressive crowd of onlookers packed into the far end of the room. Speakers from the government, scientific institutions, agricultural agencies, and foreign consulates all lauded the book. During my presentation, I had the odd advantage of requiring sequential translation. Delivering my ideas in discrete bursts allowed me to watch carefully and gauge the audience's response to my comments as they were interpreted. I began by thanking the organizers of the event, the sponsors of the project, and my co-authors. Then I thanked the grasshoppers and locusts. A wave of curious looks and furrowed eyebrows indicated that my unusual gratitude had been correctly translated. “Please allow me to explain,” I continued:
At this point, there were some affirming nods. Bolstered by a sense that my translator was doing a fine job of getting my ideas across and that I'd hit a resonant chord with the assembly, I ventured on:
Now, watching the people as they listened to my own words in Russian—a very strange experience indeed—I saw that they understood. Linking of people through the land and locusts made sense to them. Like most people in the world, they wanted to know that we had something in common. Maybe grasslands and grasshoppers aren't the typical tools of diplomacy, but I like to think that Wyoming and Kazakhstan aren't typical places.
I was interviewed by the anchor for the national news program, a bright woman with coal-black hair and dazzling eyes, who wasn't easily satisfied with canned answers to her questions. She wanted to know why an American had been interested in raising funds for, and working on, a book about Kazakhstan. I first suggested that scientific inquiry draws people to distant lands, but she dismissed this easy appeal to intellectual curiosity and repeated the question. Next, I offered that scientists are concerned about the well-being of people around the world, but she was clearly unconvinced by altruistic motives. Again her interpreter pressed for an answer, emphasizing, “But why were you so interested?” I explained that the steppes of Wyoming and Kazakhstan were both beautiful and vibrant grasslands with much in common, so that whatever scientists learned in either country about grasshoppers or locusts could be valuable for the other. Finally, she smiled and nodded. In her search for my motive, academic interest was hardly persuasive and altruism was highly suspect, but having lands and locusts in common made sense.
The State Department warning came to me at precisely the wrong time and place. On the fourth of April, 2003 , Americans were warned to defer travel to Uzbekistan and, in particular, to avoid places frequented by other foreigners in cities near the border zone with Afghanistan. All of this might have been useful information, except that I learned of the possible terrorist attacks on the ninth of April, while at the UN-sponsored workshop in Termez. This 2,500 -year-old city sits on the northern bank of the Amu Darya river. On the southern bank is Afghanistan. I received the travel advisory while at an internet café—a place where one might expect Americans and other foreigners to congregate. However, if terrorists had targeted every customer of internet cafés in Termez, exactly three people would have been at risk. That is the total number of public computer terminals in this city of 62,000 residents.
The meeting was a great success—at last people from the six Central Asian nations were able to civilly discuss the sources of locust problems and plausible solutions. The only relevant country missing from the event was Russia, which was not invited to the workshop because it is not currently a member of the Food and Agriculture Organization. Despite the intriguing nature of the structured discussions, after a couple days of having translations whispered in my ear in a stuffy meeting room, I was delighted to head into the hills to observe Moroccan locusts along with human efforts to suppress their infestations. A two-hour drive from Termez took us into the grasslands a few miles from the Tajikistan border. The temperature had dropped from the mid-nineties to the eighties. The intense emerald green of the rolling hills would be baked to a straw-yellow within a few weeks, but in spring the grasslands were sumptuous. With a light breeze whispering over the verdant knolls, I felt transported in time and space to a typical June day on the prairie back home.
The locusts were hatching in droves. On south-facing hillsides the bean-sized nymphs sprinkled the ground, and on exposed rocks they were packed into a solid blanket of bodies basking in the morning sun. Walking through a nursery of these tiny creatures stirred up a riot, as the nymphs peppered my legs from the knees down. Their wildly ricocheting bodies tumbled into the gaps around the tops of my shoes, and despite their desperate efforts to squirm free, squashed insects soon plastered my socks. In an area the size of a living room, there were 20,000 infant locusts, each a nearly perfect, coffee-brown copy of the others.
Young men dressed in protective suits with gloves, masks, and goggles looked miserably hot as they sprayed a fog of insecticide from devices that were essentially re-engineered leaf blowers. The locusts boiled from under the men's feet. In an hour, the ground would be littered with tiny bodies. And the war with Iraq, like the battle with locusts, was never far from our minds or discussions. As much as the latter clash promised to bring us together around a common enemy, the former hostility threatened to divide us into opposing camps.
Returning from the grasslands to Termez, we stopped in the small town of Denau to visit the bazaar. As Alex and I were standing in front of a vendor selling dried apricots, raisins, and almonds, we were approached by a woman in traditional dress. In surprisingly good English, she asked if we were from England. I smiled and said, “No,” not eager to volunteer my nationality in a most unfamiliar setting. But she looked at us with such expectancy that the silence was unbearable.
“I'm from the United States,” I admitted, not wanting to speak for Alex who has permanent residency but is still a citizen of Russia.
Her face lit up. “America! That is wonderful. I teach English at the school here. Now I tell . . . I told . . . no . . . I will tell,” she affirmed, proud of her grammatical resolution, “my children that I meet someone from America. It is so exciting for them to hear that.”
As she was talking, an old man approached, his face weathered to creased leather. Leaning on a gnarled cane but looking remarkably animated for his apparent age, he interrupted, “America?”
“Yes,” I replied, thinking that surely he was going to lambaste me for my country's aggression. The teacher quickly directed her conversation to Alex, respectfully yielding to the old man and seemingly pleased to share her newly discovered visitors.
“You know Los Angeles?” he asked me.
“Well, yes,” I replied. His question seemed like a non sequitur, but at least it wasn't a diatribe about imperialism. Hoping that we were somehow connecting, I didn't want to explain that Los Angeles might have less in common with Laramie than Denau does.
“I know Los Angeles,” he said proudly, “so we're friends.”
“Have you been to Los Angeles?” I asked.
“Oh no,” he replied gravely. “But I know of it.” A grin spread across his face and his eyes twinkled. “So we're friends!”
Knowing the same place was all it took for this wise man to assert that he could be a friend. To share one thing with another person when you're 10,000 miles from home seems to be a fine condition for making friends. I might have chosen the grasslands rather than Los Angeles as a foundation for our newfound relationship, but I was delighted to acknowledge the City of Angels.
The people of Uzbekistan are quite adept at separating their outrage with U.S. policies from their reception of U.S. citizens. I initially believed that this ability, often lacking in North America and Europe, arose from the political history of Central Asia. That is, these people were used to living under a nonrepresentative government. For centuries, their leaders hadn't followed the will of the people, so why should they expect that I was in cahoots with the U.S. president? But perhaps there was something deeper involved. Maybe ancient cultures of the grasslands understand that leaders flourish and die like the annual grasses and that politics blow with the wind. In the end, one must rely on sustaining good land and making good friends.