The New York Times
Waiting for Aphrodite: Journeys into the Time Before Bonesby Sue Hubbell, Barbara Caruso
In Waiting for Aphrodite, Sue Hubbell explores the ways of sponges and sea urchins, millipedes and earthworms, horseshoe crabs and the sea mouse known as Aphrodite - as well as our ways. She takes us on a journey through the mysteries of time - geological, biological, and personal - as she writes of the evolution of life on this planet and the evolution of her own… See more details below
In Waiting for Aphrodite, Sue Hubbell explores the ways of sponges and sea urchins, millipedes and earthworms, horseshoe crabs and the sea mouse known as Aphrodite - as well as our ways. She takes us on a journey through the mysteries of time - geological, biological, and personal - as she writes of the evolution of life on this planet and the evolution of her own life: her childhood next to a Michigan graveyard; the three colleges where she "learned three things"; her twenty-five years on a ninety-acre farm in the Ozarks, where she kept bees and wrote her classic book A Country Year; the move from the Ozarks to a strange little house in a Maine town "that was a Yankee version of what my Missouri town had been when I first moved there, before Walmart and McDonald's?" She had chosen the Maine town as the place she wanted to grow old in, but in its tide pools and ocean waters she discovered a whole new world, the world of little things that inspired this book.
The New York Times
"In her new book, Hubbell becomes a Shakespeare of advocacy for some of the more ignored denizens of our complicated planet. For, she says, hath not a (millipede, earthworm, cricket, etc.) its own life, beaty, rightness and place in the scheme of things? Can't we see them, admire them, appreciate their simplicities and their complexities, marvel at their durability?- remembering, meanwhile, that we humans are, compared with many of them, the most insolent upstarts of evolution? Along the way in this engaging tribute, you find that you are being educated-by Hubbell of course, and by the array of dedicated scientists and partisans of each invertebrate she seeks out." Newsday
"Hubbell makes life more interesting." Nature
"From a tidal pool in Maine and rainforest treetops in Belize to the Missouri Ozarks, [Sue Hubbell] sees everything and speaks of it in words that blend passion and insight and wit and charm." Kansas City Star
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I went to three different colleges before I managed to snag an undergraduate degree, and considering how callow I was in those days, it is a wonder I learned anything at all. But looking back, I believe I learned three things. Two are irrelevant to our purposes here, but one has some bearing. A professor at the first of those colleges penetrated my attention sufficiently to impress upon me that there was no such thing as objective writing, that every inscription, every traveler's tale, every news account, every piece of technical writing, tells more about the author and his times than it does about the ostensible subject. The best that can be hoped is that the writer will lay out his bias up front.
I'm nearly half a century away from my college days, but everything I've ever read, including the scientific papers on biological subjects that I mine for my own writing, has convinced me that the professor was right. The writers of those papers, men and women I have interviewed and have come to know and admire, have selected their subjects because they have a passion for them. They have observed phenomena with an eye shaped by their experiences in particular places and times and have found interest and significance according to their own gifts, limitations, sadnesses, and sociabilities; their understandings have been shaped by their own peculiar and quirky worlds.
One of the better achievements of Western thought is the scientific method, which, when it works well, makes allowances for all those passions, limitations, and quirks. A good field biologist goes out and looks at thereal world, sees something no one else has noticed, writes it down as accurately as he can, and reports it to others through publication. On the basis of his observation, he or someone else may spin a theory that explains it. Other observers with other passions, later observers with other biases, check it out, supplement, amplify, disagree, revise. Science is a process, not a body of received wisdom.
My own interests run to small animals that creep and jump and slither and flutter, the invertebrates "the little things that run the world," as E. O. Wilson has said. What I hope to do when I write, keeping my old professor in mind, is to tell about the world of invertebrates, which appears to me an interesting and engaging one. I try to lay out my biases up front. I am grateful but astonished that over my writing life one of the several lives I've had sober, serious, responsible grownup editors have let me loose in that particular world to satisfy my own curiosity and amuse myself, in return for bringing back reports of what I see. There is a lot of news.
Because we have backbones vertebrae we think they are important, so in one of those smug Aristotelian bifurcations, we have divided up the animals into vertebrates and invertebrates. Actually, it was Lamarck, the eighteenth-century French naturalist, inventor of the notion that acquired characteristics could be inherited, who dreamed up the word "invertebrates." But the idea goes back to Aristotle, the original digital thinker, a man who always divided things into two categories. His basic division of animals was into those that had blood and those that lacked it. By blood he meant good, rich, red blood, not the pale ichor that oozes from a bug when you squash it, and in the blooded category he included mammals, birds, reptiles, and fishes in short, vertebrates, animals with backbones. The bloodless were crustaceans, cephalopods, insects, and snails in short, invertebrates, or at least the ones he knew about. His scheme made further divisions of the Twenty Questions sort. Does the blooded animal have hair or is it hairless? Legged or legless? If it has legs, are there four or two? This digital, yes or no, approach is familiar to anyone who has used a botanical key. Leaves alternate or opposite? Stems fuzzy or smooth?
Today, however, the basic principle of taxonomy is that living things should be defined by what they have, not what they lack, so taxonomic divisions come in varying numbers, not just in twos. The biological reference text I use divides all animals into thirty-two phylum units, of which animals with backbones are only one. But the Aristotelian way of thinking is powerful and still dominates our view of the world. College courses are taught and textbooks written on "Invertebrate Zoology." The premier zoological research institutions of the world, such as the Smithsonian, have departments of vertebrate and of invertebrate zoology.
Thoughtful taxonomists and zoologists grumble about this backbone fixation. One of them, Robert O'Hara, part philosopher, part zoologist, wondered how humans might be classified if an arthropod were making up the scheme. Arthropoda, meaning "joint-footed," is the biggest phylum of animals, those that by numerical rights, at least, should do the classifying if they were so inclined. The phylum includes spiders, insects, crabs, and lobsters. An arthropod might, according to O'Hara, describe us and our near relatives this way: "The anarthropods are a primitive group with few species and a limited diversity of form. Their reproductive rates prevent them from adapting to their environments closely, and the giantism exhibited by many anarthropods has kept their numbers very low and is no doubt the cause of their general sluggishness."
The invertebrates could get along without us quite nicely, and did for hundreds of millions of years, but we could not get along without them, so dependent are we on the life processes they have initiated and keep going. We humans are a minority of giants stumbling around in the world of little things, often not noticing our neighbors, not even being able to see many of them because they are very small. Yet each and every species, constituted from the same basic handful of chemicals as we are, has a complicated and special way of getting on in the world, different from ours and different one from another.
When we learn something about the way invertebrates live, they become familiar to us and we develop some charity and friendliness toward them. I am pleased to know that the woman who lives next door to Arne and me in Washington, D.C., has a home business that is thriving and that her children are doing well in school. I am pleased, also, to know that the bumblebee I see in early springtime, working the azaleas in our front yard, is a solitary mother queen hustling up enough provisions to raise daughters who will help her work during the months ahead. I find it satisfying and enjoyable to watch a periwinkle snuffling through the algae on a seaside rock near our new home in Maine and know that it is having a good feed.
Although we don't know everything about vertebrates, we know quite a lot: occasionally a new bird or fish or mammal or reptile is discovered, but those discoveries are rare, so we know pretty well how many tens of thousands of vertebrate species there are, and we know a good deal about their biology and behavior. But more than 95 percent of the animal species are invertebrates, and we have discovered only a fraction of the suspected tens of millions of them. We know next to nothing about how they get on in their lives or what happens when we lurch through their communities. We don't even have a fix on the number of invertebrates pecies already known and described, which is surprising in these days of computer technology and catalogs. Nowhere in the world is there any tidy master list of all discovered species with their names neatly registered and affixed. Specialists in a particular group the fireflies, for instance usually have a fair notion of how many species there are in that group, but even those are educated estimates, and the numbers within bigger groupings, such as insects or sponges, are guesses. So we don't even know what we know. Anyone venturing among invertebrates is sure to have the pleasure of discovery. And nearly every observation becomes a piece of news from an uncharted world.
That sort of pleasure is certainly one of the reasons zoologists go out into the field ... and why I follow them there. In working with them I have been struck, as a writer, with the similarity of our occupations. Both journalism and field biology require standing aside a little, playing observer, not participant, taking a look at the real world, interviewing its inhabitants one way or another, watching the manner in which they get along, and reporting what we have seen or heard. But more than that, both writers and biologists share a compulsion to describe to others how we see that world. We keep at it, publishing this bit now, another later, piling up reports of our own realities.
A couple of books ago, I learned just how heady the pleasure of discovery could be and what a compulsion its pursuit becomes. In that book, Broadsides from the Other Orders, I was writing on several themes and using the biology and behavior of a particular bug to explore each one. I selected my bug examples in direct proportion to my own curiosity, which is to say ignorance, about them: silverfish, katydids, water striders, daddy longlegs, and so on. For twenty years I had been living, on my farm in Missouri, in close company with camel crickets pale, silent, humpbacked crickets with stripy brown jumping legs. When I looked them up in guidebooks I found the same three or four tired facts about them, but nothing that satisfied, so I put camel crickets on my list for the book. My procedure, as chapter added to chapter, was to head down to the Library of Congress and spend several weeks reading everything I could find on the new chapter's bug. Usually, by the end of that time I had found the one person who was doing interesting work on it. I would telephone him or her and ask if I could come talk. Entomologists are generous people, and they invariably said yes. But with camel crickets the situation was different. Very little was known about them, and nearly all of it had been discovered by one man who had died by the time I started my reading. A student of his, on the verge of retirement himself, had continued some of the taxonomic work, and he kindly identified the species I had on my farm. He also informed me that my species was a special kind that had piqued his mentor's interest. In fact, he gave me a paper written by that man near the end of his life, in which he described the species as a piece of "unfinished business and a beckoning problem."
Briefly, the paper explained that my camel crickets existed in a small area in and around my farm as an isolated group within a larger population that were thought to be the same species. When the males of this group matured sexually, they became puzzlingly different from the males outside, whom they otherwise resembled. They grew a bright orange bump on the back of what we would like to call their necks but mustn't, because bugs don't have necks. And, the taxonomist told me, no one knew anything about how camel crickets mated, for that act had never been seen: perhaps the orange bump contained a food gift that males allowed the females to bite into during courtship. The contribution of a body part is a part of some insect wooings. Camel crickets of other species are common across the United States. They are nocturnal and live in basements, under piles of stacked lumber, in corners of garages, in country well houses, but none besides mine flaunted an orange bump.
I learned to sex even immatures, captured a few males and females, and began keeping them in a terrarium. I figured out what they liked to eat, gave them water in bottle caps, learned that they were virtually blind and deaf but received a startling array of information through their more-than-body-length antennae. I watched them molt and grow, and took notes on all this as much for myself as for the chapter I was to write for the book. And, yes, I became the first person to see them mate and lay eggs. They mated in a contorted position, but the female never nibbled at the male's orange bump.
For comparison, I began raising, in separate terraria, populations of camel crickets from twenty miles south of my farm, outside the range of my group. I discovered, to my surprise, that those males and females matured more slowly than did the ones from my farm and therefore mated much later in the season. This meant that in the wild the two populations would never interbreed. Could they? I isolated immature males and females from both populations and kept them cloistered in single-gender terraria until the ones lacking the orange bump were ready to breed and then mixed them, pair by pair, in still other terraria.
By this time my chapter on camel crickets had long since been written and the book published, but I was still fired with the delight of investigation. In those days I was regularly commuting the 1,010 miles between my Missouri farm and the house in Washington in a van loaded with manuscripts, source books, two dogs, a cat, the unabridged dictionary, and the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. To that pile I added a good many terraria of camel crickets.
In the end I found that the two populations could be induced, in this artificial way, to interbreed and that their offspring were fertile, so that by the common definition they did indeed belong to the same species. That definition holds that a species is made up of individuals that interbreed and produce fertile offspring. But the offspring of these forced matches were frequently deformed; some could not molt successfully and often died before their time. Does the orange bump of the speedily maturing group contain a hormone that hastens development? Are the two groups genetically distinct? Is the orange-bump group a species in formation or, alternatively, a primitive group? My farm bordered a geologically unusual area that contains plants relict from the Ice Age. Might my camel crickets be relict, too, from a time when the season was shorter?
I haven't the equipment, skills, or training to answer those questions, but they spurred me, when I finally admitted that I had to give up the farm, to place it with an organization that will keep it and the camel crickets forever wild and safe. There were, to be sure, additional reasons for that decision, but the presence of the unusual camel crickets contributed to it. It is my hope that someday a young entomologist will stumble across something I've written and go looking for camel crickets with bright orange bumps one springtime. He may answer those questions, but he will ask others. That's the way the process goes.
There will always be people who believe that watching camel crickets is an unsuitable way for a grownup to spend her time and energies. One reason for the lack of information about camel crickets was that although they are an extremely common insect, big and easy to observe, they have little relevance to humans; they neither help nor harm us. Most research is driven by the availability of funding, and funding agencies need to see a payback. Will research on this particular oddly named animal we have never heard of improve human life in some demonstrable way? If we fund the research, will we find a better way to kill the animal if we believe it to be harmful or to encourage it if we find it beneficial? Camel crickets, in that sense, are neither "good" nor "bad" bugs. In this they resemble most of the life on the planet. In the very short run, the one in which research funding takes place, it is hard to show that much of what lives and grows in the world relates to us. We eat salmon but not sea mice, the elusive Aphrodite, a genus of worms that live in the ocean deeps, where, some scientists say, there may be as many as ten million other species as unconcerned with our existence as we are ignorant of theirs. Certain black flies cause a terrible tropical disease in humans, river blindness, but camel crickets do not make us sick, nor do most of the more than one million other species of insects. Sensible, practical concerns should and do make salmon and black flies of more importance and interest in the funding of research and the formation of public environmental policy than camel crickets or Aphrodite or those other nameless millions. That is the way of the world, or at least of our time in the world.
I must confess, however, that I've never been convinced that to be interesting and important an animal needs to have a relationship to, or use for, human beings. As a matter of fact, otherness, remoteness, and independence engage my curiosity and intellect more than do similarity and utility. And I think there are a number of good long-term reasons why we should persist in our interest in camel crickets and sea mice and all those millions of invertebrates awaiting discovery. Some of those reasons will turn up in the pages that follow. But here, initially, I want to return to this compulsion that we have, writers and naturalists, to become tellers of tales about the world we have traveled in.
My brother, Bil Gilbert, a writer whose preoccupations run to animals with backbones, most especially crows, has often written of our "fascination with other bloods" as the basis of our yearning to understand the ways of others, as an escape from mere human perspective. But it is my son, Brian Hubbell, also a writer, a poet, who has said it best of all. Poets often do. He wrote, in a 1996 issue of the Beloit Poetry Journal:
Dry September weekday morning,
time indolence equates to sin,
I was outside, eyes closed over coffee
thinking some things I think when
a grasshopper flew in a certain fury
arcing off the desiccating asters
and affixed itself sharply to my upper lip,
returning startle with a compound stare
a ceaseless green on green.
Buttoned in its urgent grip
words came as plain as under
a falconed pigeon's ring
or in a half-corked bottle;
surely the heart of sadness is this knowing:
each embarks a gulf alone, each with
his fractured bit of seeing and a need
but not the tools to tell.
Meet the Author
Sue Hubbell is the author of, among other works, A Country Year and A Book of Bees, which was selected as a New York Times Notable Book. She lives in Maine and Washington, D.C.
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