Monday, May 19, 2008

Biblical plague strikes northwest Afghanistan

I’m not a Biblical scholar or an historian of antiquity, but I find it pretty easy to imagine a string of natural disasters that overtook the Egyptians thousands of years ago and which, over time, became such powerful collective memories for the Jewish people that the recollections became Myth and eventually documented in the Book of Exodus as evidence of the variety of products available to Yahweh when He went looking for a can of whoop-ass to open up on populations gone astray.

The peoples of northwest Afghanistan are mostly ethnic Persians and Turks and not descendents of the ancient Egyptians, but lately they must be feeling that a pharaoh of their ilk somewhere has done something terrible to raise the ire of God as they are withstanding yet another plague of Biblical fame and severity: locusts. This insect infestation is nature’s latest sucker punch into the gut of a region that just endured a brutally cold winter and continues to suffer from drought. Afghan health officials also fear that much of the wheat in one of the poorest provinces, Gulran, may be contaminated with the toxic weed charmac whose seeds get mixed with the grain and induce a toxic liver syndrome especially deadly to people already chronically malnourished (a group quite prevalent in northwest Afghanistan.)

The swarms of locusts, which can number in the millions or even billions, can quickly devastate and denude thousands of acres of crops. Afghan authorities describe the current swarm as “unprecedented,” and are offering 15 lbs of wheat for every kilogram of dead locusts. So far, Afghans have killed more than 300 metric tons of the insects.

Locusts are usually solitary creatures and researchers have long wondered what provokes the insects to suddenly swarm together. I was also curious why recent accounts of large locust swarms arose from regions chronically devoid of much arable land and growing grain (e.g. northwest Afghanistan and northeast Kenya). If I were a locust and looking to group with a billion of my own kind for a feeding frenzy, I would swarm where the land is rich in crops. Observant scientists have proposed some explanations that revolve around topics also relevant to the Old Testament: sexual arousal and fratricide.

Academics at Oxford propose that locusts have sensitive hairs on their legs that when stroked stimulate gregarious behavior. I’m not kidding when I write that the scientists call these hairs the locust G-spot. No scientific publication has yet confirmed enhanced locust orgasm with G-spot stimulation or that a locust swarm is simply a hovering, mobile insect orgy. The main activity of the swarm, I thought, was eating; and the Oxford group did not theorize if increased locust libido underwent sublimation into ravenous hunger. A human example of that, I suppose, would be a dinner party where all the guests engaged in such a fervid bout of under-the-table calf-rubbing and thigh-massaging that, instead of peeling off in pairs to copulate, they all got up and as a group rushed to devour sequentially the contents of every other neighborhood kitchen.

University of Sydney scientists posit a theory somewhat akin to the Cain and Able story that also explains why the locusts often swarm in barren lands. These researchers contend that the insects begin swarming after vicious abdominal biting due to the lack of other suitable sustenance. The locusts aren’t necessarily jealous of one another, just damn hungry. Hungry enough to turn cannibalistic. Then a vicious cycle begins where each individual locust simultaneously flees from another predator locust while pursuing more same-species prey, and the swarm is on. These scientists found that a locust can live and fly swarm with most of its abdomen eviscerated, an impressive finding but information I find confusing as it seems that the evisceration would be the equivalent of locust gastric bypass surgery and reduce the appetite so much that the insect would simply drop from the pack to find solitude once again – and pray that dumping syndrome doesn’t set in.


sandra said...

ron, do you actually get to see this? Being the true adventist that I was, grew up reading all about those plagues, or whoop-ass, as you so eloquently called it!

Malia said...

I didn't know you were a Leo....that explains a lot. I am going to pimp your blog out to my friends. I hope that isn't a problem. Vaya con dios Malia