Despicable Species: On Cowbirds, Kudzu, Hornworms, and Other Scourges

Janet Lembke, Author Lyons Press $25 (208p) ISBN 978-1-55821-635-8
The questions that begin this likable book are straightforward enough: ""How do we deal with the bad stuff? With all those disgusting, sickening, despicable, repellently alien lives that impinge on ours?"" As Lembke (Shake Them 'Simmons Down, etc.) shows in her portraits of species that many people find abhorrent, the answers are much more complex. Writing with wit and insight, and drawing on her background as a linguist specializing in Greek and Latin, Lembke discusses the roles that kudzu, centipedes, horseflies, opossums, hornworms and fruit flies play in both natural ecosystems and human affairs. Not surprisingly, many of our most despised species have redeeming qualities. Centipedes eat cockroaches, starch made from kudzu is a culinary delight and the moths into which hornworms transform themselves ""are not just beautiful but in some measure astonishing."" While ably demonstrating the ecological interconnectedness of living things, Lembke also makes it clear that it is unlikely that whole ecosystems will collapse if any one of these species were to be lost. In her final chapter, she makes the case that, given the destruction humans have wrought throughout the world, they ought to be on her list. Lembke's classificatory scheme is idiosyncratic and may surprise many. She declares that starlings, squirrels, cowbirds and fungi are despicable, but she ignores chiggers, leeches, mosquitoes and the retrovirus responsible for AIDS. Nonetheless, when taken as the piece of natural history writing it is intended to be rather than a definitive catalogue of repulsive creatures, her book is both enjoyable and edifying, itself quite the opposite of despicable. (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 08/30/1999
Release date: 09/01/1999
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 232 pages - 978-1-58574-199-1
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