Cover image for Despicable species : on cowbirds, kudzu, hornworms, and other scourges
Despicable species : on cowbirds, kudzu, hornworms, and other scourges
Lembke, Janet.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Lyons Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
216 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Subject Term:

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QH548 .L46 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In fourteen revealing essays, Lembke ponders some of the most loathsome creatures with which we share the planet. But for every creature's nasty reputation, there is a silver lining, which Lembke, with dazzlingly researched bits of history, science, and culture, deftly brings to our attention. There is the European starling, that invader of nests and devourer of fruit crops -- the great mimic and inspirer of Mozart and Shakespeare. The grey squirrel, famed pillager of yards and bird feeders and vastly entertaining acrobat and problem solver. The horse fly, blood-sucking insect with a walloping sting, whose maggots exude chemicals that aid in healing human tissue. Mold -- the astonishing facts of fungi-sex revealed. That famous infant abandoner, the cowbird. The centipede. The hornworm. The opossum. The fruit fly. The microbe Pfiestreria piscicida, deadly to fish and man, of which there is little good to say, except that it necessitates our own clean-up of rivers -- or else. Kudzu. Sandspur. And, finally, our very own species.

Author Notes

Janet Lembke is the author of "Shake Them 'Simmons Down", "Skinny Dipping", "Dangerous Birds", "River Time", & "Looking for Eagles", & is a translator of Greek & Latin classics. She divides her time between Staunton, Virginia, & her home in North Carolina on the banks of her beloved Lower Neuse River.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

"Here . . . are tales of despicable species--mirrors in which we might take a good, long, quizzical look at our most peculiar selves." Thus Lembke ends her introduction to a series of essays on some of the plants, animals, and microbes that we consider particularly loathsome. Starting with musings on the worth of sandburs (those immensely prickly seed beads that many find with their bare feet), the author gracefully weaves personal anecdotes, ecological facts, and literary allusions into seamless views of critters that many consider scourges. The chapter on gray squirrels is particularly enjoyable--the author meanders around shooting squirrels with Audubon, delves into the obstacle courses many squirrels are forced to overcome to get to bird feeders, and shares the laughs as a squirrel learns to go up a tree with a heavy green tomato, backwards. The squirrel piece also provides an excellent example of the thematic thread tying the essays together, the symbiosis of all life on our planet: trees provide food for squirrels in the form of nuts and squirrels provide for the next generation of trees by forgetting where they've buried some of their hoard. This highly enjoyable book engenders respect for the interrelatedness of life on Earth and is highly recommended for all libraries. --Nancy Bent

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Lembke's title seems to imply plants and animals (or other living things) that are generally found to offend. Her catalog ranges from serious disease-causing organisms to mildly and occasionally annoying ones such as gray squirrels, whose primary virtue seems to be as an ingredient in Brunswick stew. She inserts personal and sometimes interesting anecdotes but then delivers quite long and marginally accurate scientific discourses about the selected organisms. The basic premise is both intriguing and entertaining, though somewhat flawed by the almost forced choices she has made. The term "despicable" seems inappropriate for major disease-causing forms, while fitting very well those that annoy us all or do localized and significant environmental damage, such as the gypsy moth. Had this work been more a series of essays based on personal experience it would have merited more attention. As it is, the attempt to interject second-hand science leaves much to be desired. General readers. F. W. Yow; emeritus, Kenyon College

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Living Together, Like It or Not: An Introductionp. 1
Prospect and Refuge: Sandbursp. 17
The Barkings of a Joyful Squirrel: Gray Squirrelp. 27
Murmurations: European Starlingp. 41
The Natural History of Proteus: Pfiesteria piscicidap. 65
Blood: The Tabanids--Deerflies and Horsefliesp. 77
A Foot in the Door: The Fungip. 85
The Creature with Nineteen Lives: Common Opossump. 95
The Riddles of the Sphinx: Hornwormsp. 107
Legs: Centipedesp. 117
Heritage: Kudzup. 129
The Wisdom of Nature: Brown-Headed Cowbirdp. 155
The Dew Lovers: Drosophila Fruit Fliesp. 165
Unfinished Business: Homo sapiensp. 181
Appendix The Despicables Ratingsp. 197
Notesp. 205
For the Bookworm: A Reading Guidep. 209