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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

A Bug Lover's Life

Air Date: Week of April 9, 1999

Author Sue Hubbell gets up close to the creatures which crawl, creep and slither past us each and every day.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Not many of us take the time to appreciate the tiny little wonders of the animal kingdom, which crawl, buzz, and slither past us each day. Well, fortunately, Sue Hubbell has. Ms. Hubbell has spent years studying and writing about the lesser-known invertebrates. Some of the results are her books. Broadsides from the Other Orders, and a book of bees. And her article "Bug Art" in The New Yorker. Ms. Hubbell's journeys have taken her from graveyards in Michigan to a cabin in Maine, where she found the inspiration for her newest book, Waiting for Aphrodite. But she told me her career in championing invertebrates actually began on a sprawling homestead in Missouri.

HUBBELL: It began when my first husband and I started keeping bees out in the Ozarks. And we didn't know much about bees, which is proof of how silly we were to do it. But we were the kinds that when you started something new you got a book, and you'd read about it. So we did, and the more you know about their biology, the better beekeeper you are, and therefore the better living you'll be able to make from them. So, I was sort of the designated one to figure out about bees, and I started reading about bees and I was hooked. Insects were just it as far as I -- I can remember specifically when it happened. I was reading about the insect's circulatory system. They have what is called an open circulation system, where the hemolymph flows freely in the body cavity, and it gets pumped to either end. That's how it moves around. And I thought, you know, wow. (Laughs) How different can you get? So I just started off trying to learn something more about insect physiology, where insects fit in. And pretty soon I began to realize we were the ones that were different, because we were in such a minority.

CURWOOD: And then you discovered camel crickets?

HUBBELL: Yeah, we had a lot of camel crickets in Missouri, probably because I lived in kind of a damp house. They tend to like damp places. And I was doing a book a few years back just on insects. And for the book, I was selecting ones that I didn't know very much about. That's because if you're going to spend two years, which is what it takes me to do a book, I want to have something that's interesting to do, which means learning something new. So I've always been curious about these camel crickets. They're great big pale, light tan crickets. They don't make any noise, they're not like the cheerful little black chirping ones. And they have a kind of a humped back, which is why they're called a camel cricket.

CURWOOD: But don't they invade people's houses?

HUBBELL: Oh sure. They're everywhere. Different species, not the species I had in the Ozarks, but so little is known about them that the only way I could answer any questions was to start keeping them. Which is what I did. And so, that became kind of a passion with me for a while. Something I think I may return to up in Maine. I want to find out what the Maine camel crickets are up to.

CURWOOD: Are you one of these 8-year-old girls who'd come in with a cricket or an ant or a butterfly or a worm or a--

HUBBELL: Well (Laughs) I'm ashamed to say this, but I was actually terrified sometimes by those things. (Curwood laughs) I had been taught at an early age that those thing were -- as most children are, most of those are creepy. And I can remember, I was seven exactly, I can remember when this happened. My parents had a summer cottage at a lake and they had just enough money to build either a garage or a playhouse for me. And kind, generous parents that they were, they decided to build a playhouse, which they were calling a dollhouse. And they got all done with it, and there was -- I went into it for a first time and there was a daddy long legs in it, and I ran out shrieking and would never go in there again. (Curwood laughs) And it became a storage shed. No, I did not have a very distinguished early career.

CURWOOD: Taxonomy. This is the science of identifying and classifying. What's the fascination here?

HUBBELL: Well, it was kind of the fascination, I wrote some about it in that other book I did, which is called Broadsides from the Other Orders. That was sort of the main idea in back of that, ordering systems. It's what our brains are very good at, and our ordering systems often shape the way we look at the world. We mistake the ordering system for the real world. And that happens in everything, all human endeavor. The way we categorize becomes the reality rather than dealing with the reality. And I thought that was a pretty intriguing thing. So I was looking at the kinds of pickles we as humans get ourselves into when we mistake that order for reality. And using insects as the examples of it.

CURWOOD: We're just about out of time here, but before we go, I'm wondering if you could talk to us about the presents that you got when you left Missouri, gave up your honeybees and your camel crickets, and headed for Maine and Washington, DC.

HUBBELL: Oh, well, that's kind of -- yeah, that's kind of neat. I had a family that were really good friends of mine out there, some of the best friends I've ever had. And the father and husband of the family gave me a sack of red oak acorns. And they're both red and white oak out in Missouri, but there were beautiful red oaks on my place. Now, the place where I am right now in Maine has no oaks on it. It may be that oaks are not going to grow there very well, but that's not stopping me. I'm planting oaks, acorns, all over. And I've been there a couple of years now, and last summer I had the first little red oaks shot up from the soil. So I'm very hopeful, maybe I can get them to grow there.

CURWOOD: I wonder if you could read from the end of your book about these oaks, these acorns that you planted.

HUBBELL: (Reading) I'll not live long enough to see those slow-growing Ozark red oaks as stately trees. But those children, and our grandchildren honorary and biological, may. And after all, that's no small thing. It's as good a reason for planting acorns as any I know.

CURWOOD: Sue Hubbell's book is called Waiting for Aphrodite: Journeys into the Time Before Bones. Thanks for joining us today.

HUBBELL: Thank you.

 

 

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