Lembke: Despicable Species

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Janet Lembke, Despicable Species : On Cowbirds, Kudzu, Hornworms, and Other Scourges. New York : The Lyons Press, 1999. xi + 216 pages, illustrations by Joe Nutt; appendix : "The Despicable Ratings"; notes, "For the Bookworm : A Reading Guide"; no index.

I have only ever committed one poem to memory. It's by Ogden Nash and, if memory serves correctly, goes like this:

The Lord in his wisdom
Made the fly,
Then forgot
To tell us why.

There is no dearth of creatures despised by humans as Janet Lembke found out when she asked friends and acquaintances to name their favorite worst species. She decided to compile a list (see the appendix in the book) and then write about the most despicable, doing her best to answer Nash's implied question.

Her introduction, called "Living Together Like it or Not" discusses the realities of coexistence between humans and all other species. It's a useful look at symbiosis. She reminds us that symbiosis merely means that one species depends on another species for its continued survival, but neither species has to like the situation. She handily classifies possible situations (win-win, win-lose, win-doesn't-matter, and the like), and the idea becomes the anchor for the essays that follow.

Although she valiantly tries to find the good in every despicable species, it is sometimes an exercise in futility although no less interesting to read for the effort. So, not all of the essays actually justify the existence of the individually despicable, but she does give them a bit of rare attention by writing about them with a great deal of curiosity and interest.

For instance, tobacco hornworms are one of her despicable lot with so little redeeming value that it's laughable, but she evokes it in its full, squishy horror that nevertheless shows a grudging respect—perhaps even a smidgen of appreciation.

But ugly though I find hornworms, I can hardly deny my fascination with the colors and patters on their bodies. And if I were still smoking, I might even envy the tobacco hornworm's gift for remaining unaffected by nicotine, which turns many human beings into raving addicts and kills most bugs when it's used as an insecticide. All the nicotine ingested by the tobacco glutton is simply, quickly excreted. But, oh, the bodies and habits of all hornworms are repulsive—the squishy obesity, the incessantly moving jaws. Their only challengers in the race for the most despicable larvae among North America members of the order Lepidoptera might be the native tent caterpillars that year-in, year-out infest wild cherry trees—but these larvae provide food for titmice and yellow-billed cuckoos, and their cocoons, with some persuasion, yield usable silk. Another contestant might be the larva of the gypsy moth, imported from Europe in the late 1860s as a silk moth; these caterpillars, polka-dotted with red and blue, wearing tufts of golden hair, produce no silk for commercial harvest—produce no good at all that I can see—but rather leave defoliated forests in their wake. As for hornworms, what good are they? Apart from the Hippocratic remedy, I know of only two benefits that they confer on humankind. The first involves only a single spike-tailed species, Ceratomia catalpae, the "hornworm of the catalpa tree." It is intentionally gathered up by anglers, turned inside out, and threaded onto a fishing hook as bait. The second is that entomologists find hornworms useful for research into matters like insect hormones and behavior; the caterpillars are large and easy to raise under laboratory conditions (nor has anyone ever complained about their maltreatment). But in the fashion of all successful creatures, hornworms care not a whit about being useful to anything other than themselves. No matter what the family, genus, and species, they and their creeping, crawling ilk are living proof of a primordial law: Whatever can be eaten, shall be. And yet, and yet—in the case of hornworms, ugliness and insatiability lead to something else, something that I gladly perceive as beauty. Metamorphosis works wonders in the hideous worm. [pp. 112—113]

Altogether she finds quite a bit more affection for the generally reviled starling, whose study reveals some interesting evolutionary tricks.

In the warmer months, S. vulgaris dines mainly on a grand cafeteria of insects, along with other invertebrates like snails, earthworms, and spiders. When cold weather sets in and insect life huddles quiescently in winter quarters, plants provide the bird's primary diet; the list of preferred items includes both wild and domesticated fruits—plums, cherries, holly and sumac berries, hackberries, the applelike fruit of hawthorns, the small blue-black drupes of the black gum. But vegetables are harder than meat for a bird to digest. Since aboriginal times, however, the starling's gut has taken that inconvenience into account. During the frigid months, not only does the gizzard grow larger, but the gut also lengthens, and so do the villi—the tiny, hairlike intestinal protuberances that help absorb nutriments. And vegetables speed through the bird's gut at a clip far faster than that of meat. [p. 56]

The chapter on kudzu is one of only two on plants--or one of three non-animal essays, since fungi are no longer considered plants. The story of its purposeful introduction and practical utility, followed by its slowly becoming a pest, is fascinating. Hers certainly is not the blind, uncritical admiration of all things living (except, perhaps, humans in this stereotype), but an evaluation of attractive qualities, if such exist. Imagine being assigned the pro side of this debate: "Resolved, that there are useful and beneficial characteristics of Kudzu". It's a challenge! She ends the essay, called "Heritage", this way, reminding us that symbiosis isn't necessarily win-win:

Good, bad, or indifferent: no matter how we see it, kudzu has settled in and won't be budged. Roots in the earth, leaves to the sun, it will persist until the last trump. I've thought of comparing it to phenomena I find obnoxious, like the wild proliferation of pounding boom boxes or the unchecked spread of concrete lawn geese and decorative nylon banners, but no, there's nothing faddish about the plant. It's a force of nature, more on the order of azaleas and tobacco, country music, coon hunts, NASCAR races, and good old boys. It just plain is. Certainly, nothing obliges us to like it, but because we must live with it, the least painful way to come to terms with the doggone stuff may indeed be to see it as a heritage. [pp. 153—154]

Examination need not equal justification, of course. Lembke helps gets us past our "ick" responses to creatures that are slimy, or crawly, or that have a super-abundance of legs. That is the challenge one takes on in writing about Despicable Species, but it's a noteworthy achievement nevertheless. Her curiosity and sense of wonder make me think of children who delight in bugs and worms before their parents teach them otherwise.

The presentation of the book could erroneously lead one to think this might be a genteel collection of dainty essays by a lady nature-lover, but these essays are really more substantial and informed than they let on, high in scienticity but unlikely to cause indigestion in any reader.

Indeed, there is a good deal of humor. The author has a taste for explaining the etymology of taxonomic names, which is usually enlightening and frequently amusing. She also meanders most placidly from the personal to the impersonal; her own observations mingle with more rigorous scientific results without confusion but reinforcing her themes in symbiotic goodness. Her writing had the intimacy of good conversation.

In short: good writing and good science with good humor and a restrained sense of irony. The subjects may be horrid but the results are most appealing.

-- Notes by JNS

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