Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live
by Rob Dunn
Basic Books, 2018
At one point in Rob Dunn's new book Never Home Alone (append 30,000-word subtitle here), our author, a professor in the department of applied ecology at North Carolina State University and rather unapologetic bug-nut, is in mid-stream talking passionately about house spiders, wasps, and all the various other creepy-crawlies that inhabit human homes in far greater numbers than their mortgage-holders. Dunn vents passionately about the possible benefits these creatures could provide to humans and urges his readers to think about those benefits. “When you see the insects flying around your home, pay attention,” he writes, “and instead of asking, 'What use does this species have?' ask, 'What use might I find for this species?'”
But although the tentacles and mandibles of his imagination might be waving in the direction of pan-species cooperation, Dunn's feet are planted firmly in the real world. He knows perfectly well that 99.9% of his readers aren't going to ask “What use does this species have?” nor are they going to ask “What use might I find for this species?” – they're going to be asking something far more basic:
Even after thinking about the values of the species in your home, even after realizing that beer and wine exist thanks to insects, if the first thought you have upon hearing about all the kinds of arthropods in houses is about how to kill them, you aren't alone. King Tut was buried with a fly swatter, his subjects apparently sure that whatever the afterlife might hold, whatever luxuries and pleasures, it would also inevitably have house flies.
The lonely, near-hopeless task to which Never Home Alone sets itself is to teach King Tut the error of his ways. The book is crammed full of eeensy-weensy tales of wonder from the insect world, stories about the biological marvels that have evolved over eons among beetles, spiders, and all the various multi-legged thumb-long flesh-colored monsters that live in your bathtub drains. On virtually every page, readers learn about these marvels and their potential applications to the benefit of humans, all of it written with the bounce and insight of a true believer:
Recent studies have revealed that the physical structure of the bodies of some of the insects common in backyards, if not houses per se, can either disfavor or favor specific species of bacteria. Both cicadas and dragonflies have tiny knives on their wings that dice bacteria to bits. These structures are now being replicated on building materials with the idea of making those materials antimicrobial in a way that bacteria cannot evolve to resist (it is hard to evolve resistance to a tiny knife).
“The burden is on us, not nature, to make the most of what evolution offers us,” Dunn writes, and his book goes to heroic lengths to convince readers that the relentless infestation of their homes – micro- and macroscopic bugs of every conceivable variety lurking in every conceivable nook and cranny (they're watching me type this, they're watching you read it, and they're venturing across both our slack faces every time we take a nap) – is actually an opportunity, even a bounty. It's a heavy burden. Even readers who love this hugely enjoyable book are unlikely to react to the sight of a millipede on the kitchen counter with anything other than cataclysmic murderous rage.
But even those readers will love the other strand running through Never Home Alone: the revelation – thrilling and unsettling in equal measure – that the plain old precincts of our homes are alien wonderlands of the exotic and the unexpected. Dunn shows us that your home is “a kind of record of your life, much as the bacteria on the baker's hands are a measure of how much time they spend baking.” The teeming ecosystems of any home are fractionally different from those of any other, and Never Home Alone takes readers deep inside those ecosystems. You'll never look at your bookcases the same way again.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.