Sir John Franklin’s Lost Diary

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On September 9, 2014, Parks Canada discovered the remains of the HMS Erebus, explorer Sir John Franklin’s remarkably newsworthy flagship. Among the artifacts retrieved from the ship was a Fortnum & Mason jar labelled “Sweets.” The jar did not contain any sweets, but rather a diary written by Sir John himself — a diary that solves at least part of the so-called Franklin mystery. What follows is that diary’s final entries:

FranklinApril 30, 1847. Ship lies groaning & straining in the ice off King William Island. On a whim, I brought out my maps of Arctic Canada, only to discover that the Admiralty had provided me with maps of Polynesia — an unfortunate error.

May 2, 1847. Sore gums & loose teeth indicate that many of the crew have scurvy, so I spoke out against this nefarious French disease & initiated tango lessons and likewise bench pressing of the ship’s spittoons to ward it off.

May 3, 1847. Ship still mired in the ice. The bosun, in the midst of a tango maneuver, fell overboard, went through the ice, & was promptly torn to shreds by a school of man-eating isobars. Bloody Arctic!

May 5, 1847. Dreamt Lady Jane came for a visit & asked, “Sir John, why are you late to supper?” “I’m looking for the Northwest Passage, dear,” I told her. “But you can’t eat the Northwest Passage, can you?” she replied ominously, then vanished.

May 8, 1847. Lost three men today, one to scurvy, another to terminal gingivitis, & yet another to ennui. To make matters worse, the steward told me, in his inimitable fashion, “we ain’t got no more elevenses for you, sir.” How can I captain this expedition without my elevenses?

May 11, 1847. The cook extremely upset over our empty larders. Says there isn’t even any solder left inside our food tins. “Hang in there, old chap,” I told him, but the roar of the wind in the ship’s rigging garbled my words, & he tried to hang himself. At least the men are still obeying my orders.

May 12, 1847. Dense fog. We can’t even see the ship’s prow, much less a possible shortcut to the Orient.

May 14, 1847. We’re totally out of crumpets, so I had to feed Cedric [Cedric was Franklin’s pet toucan] a few forlorn scraps of hardtack. Not surprisingly, he squawked in protest.

May 15, 1847. Took bearings & discovered that, instead of corpulent, I am now merely portly. Remarkable that I can now ascend the mast-head as well as descend from it.

May 17, 1847. Men shivering almost constantly, & their beards are hung with icicles, as the Admiralty somehow has seen fit to supply us with tuxedos & cummerbunds rather than parkas. Wrote a letter of protest to the First Lord, then such was my hunger that I proceeded to eat it.

May 27, 1847. Several Savages [Eskimoes] with prognathous jaws visited the ship today. They brought us a batch of pemmican eggs. Alas, all rotten. Must have been laid before the great pemmican migration south. In return, we gave each of the Savages a tuxedo & cummerbund.

May 29, 1847. More misfortune — one of the crew, doubtless a petty officer, has eaten poor Cedric! I said to Fitzjames [Franklin’s second-in-command], “Find the bounder responsible for this & give him a taste of the cat.” “Sorry, sir,” Fitzjames told me, “but we’ve already eaten the ship’s cat.”

May 31, 1847. Lieutenant Orme, a clean-shaven fellow except for his clump of grizzled whiskers, broke into my cabin & consumed the contents of my chamber pot, then began singing “Rule, Brittania.” I put him in the section of the sick bay reserved for nutters.

June 5, 1847. Weary of being mired in ice, we abandoned ship & began making our way to Back’s Fish River, thence, we hope, to England’s green & pleasant land. The men carried me in a sedan chair. Two days into our journey, I realized I’d forgotten my robe & slippers, so we marched back to the ship.

June 8, 1847. Abandoned the ship a second time. Curiously, my sedan chair seems to have disappeared, & I’m now being manhauled in a sledge filled with towels, kettles, sail-maker’s palms, porcelain cups, bedding, checkerboards, our portative organ, longboats, etc.

June 9, 1847. Met a group of Savages & asked them using signs for the route to Back’s Fish River. They fled in terror when Fitzjames produced a loud blast of flatulence. “Sorry, sir,” he said, “but starvation seems not to agree with me.”

June 10, 1847. Longboats abandoned owing to the terrestrial aspect of the land.

June 12, 1847. Dr. Goodsir, our surgeon, tried to enliven things by asking us which vegetable the Admirably forbade us to take on board the Erebus. Answer: Leeks! Only Goodsir himself laughed at this feeble joke, & as he did, several of his teeth loosened in his gums, then fell into the snow.

June 13, 1847. What a nuisance! I seem to have left my monogrammed cutlery & all my medals on the Erebus, so we had no choice but to march back to the ship, which was now a sorry sight — both the fore & aft decks were covered with a thick coat of scurvy.

June 14, 1847. A blizzard has kept us on the ship, so I began working on a talk to be given tomorrow at tea-time. Key sentences include: Eat your boots, men. They’re quite tasty. Give me a nice fresh boot over steak-and-kidney pie any day. [On an earlier expedition, Franklin had been compelled to eat his boots]

June 15, 1847. Hallo, what’s this? Fitzjames has barged into my cabin without a knock. “Sir John,” he says, brandishing his cutlass, “the men & I have made an important decision. The cabin boy is lean & emaciated, while you…”

Here the diary necessarily breaks off, but the percipient reader will have no trouble ascertaining why Franklin’s remains have never been found.

Mystery Writer

One of my finest moments occured at Na-Bolom in San Christobal de las Casas, Mexico, in the fall of 1992. I had just given a talk about the Labrador Innu in the hacienda’s library, and when I sat down, Trudy Blom, the facility’s 92 year old owner and a prominent ethnographer, said, “You are sitting in B. Traven’s favorite chair.”

A Traven book that is perilous to ignoreB. Traven was — and is — my favorite fiction writer. If you’ve seen the Humphrey Bogart film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, then you might know that the film is based on the Traven novel of the same name.

Traven would not have wanted you to know anything about his life, however. He gave a wide berth to interviews, journalists, prizes, and publicity of any sort. Such a wide berth, in fact, that he makes Thomas Pynchon seem like a David Letterman regular.

There are quite a few theories about Traven’s identity. One theory is that Traven was the illegitimate son of the German Kaiser. Another theory is that he was Jack London, who faked his death and became Traven. Given that he, like London, wrote about down-and-outers in remote locations, this theory at least makes literary sense, which is more than I can say for the theory that he was the American writer Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared in Mexico in 1913.  Traven died in 1969, and if he were Bierce, he would have been 126 years old at the time of his death.

In all probability, Traven was the German anarchist writer Ret Marut, who, being pursued by the Kaiser’s secret police, fled to Mexico around 1925 and adopted a new name, lest he be extradited to Germany. To consolidate his camouflage, he engaged in a number of manual jobs — cotton picker, oilman, miner, etc — which gave him an excellent window on his subsequent subject matter.

“An author should have no biography other than his books,” Traven wrote, and perhaps we should respect that sentiment rather than try to prove he was really (for example) Flannery O’Connor. Perhaps we should respect that sentiment with all authors, not just Traven…

What of Traven’s books? I’m not easily moved by fiction, but I’ve been powerfully moved by The Bridge in the Jungle every time I’ve read it. This novel concerns the disappearance of a young Indian boy and a small village’s efforts to find him. I also recommend the novella Macario, which describes an elderly Indian man’s encounter with Death right after he’s obtained his life’s wish — a roast turkey.

And if you want a reading experience that out-Kafka’s Kafka, then you should procure a copy of the doubtless autobiographical novel The Death Ship, a tale of a sailor who has lost his identity papers and who signs on a “death ship” — i.e., a ship destined to be sunk at sea so that the owners can claim the insurance money.

Or you could read The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which, believe or not, is a lot better than the movie.

Speaking of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, let me conclude this bog entry by quoting a passage from that novel — a passage that should be memorized by the myriad mining companies that have laid waste to natural environments. Howard, a gold miner, says to his fellow miners:

“We’ve wounded this mountain. It’s our duty to close her wounds. It’s the least we can do to show our gratitude for the wealth she’s given us.”

An encounter with Terana caerulea

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Terana caerulea!Not so long ago, I was visiting a stamp-collecting friend, and I happened to see the corticioid species Terana caerulea on a recent Macedonian stamp. A corticioid fungus on a stamp?? I was beside myself with astonishment, since corticioids (aka, crusts) are the outsiders of the fungal world, either despised or ignored. A mycophile of my acquaintance refers to them as “molds.”

There’s no reason to despise Terana caerulea, however. The name of its former genus, Pulcherricium, will tell you why. The species is an intense cobalt blue when fresh and a pleasant bluish color when not so fresh. Even the spores are bluish in color. The surface is smooth or slightly tuberculate, with a waxlike consistency. Inhabiting hardwood debris, T. caerulea can be found in New England, although it’s far more common in the southeastern part of the country.

Here’s my hope: that other countries will start putting crust fungi on their stamps, and in this way help to stamp out a more or less worldwide prejudice. I can imagine the bright-red Phanerochaete sanguinea on a Seychelles stamp and the wine-red Cytidia salicina on a Tunisian stamp. I can also imagine the yellow hydnoid Mucronella flava on a Serbian stamp and the green-blue Byssocorticium atrovirens on a Danish stamp.

Dare I hope that America, perhaps the most anti-corticioid of all nations, will put a (for example) gold-yellow Lindteria trachyspora on one of its stamps?

Photograph by Brian Luther.

Santa Claus is a mushroom!

Christmas is nearly upon us, and I can’t help thinking of a certain mushroom. Specifically, I think of Amanita muscaria, a large, often obese red-and-white species that plays a part in the composition of Santa Claus. I can hear your gasps of astonishment, so consider the following:

Lapp life in the old daysIn the Middle Ages, Europeans had peculiar notions about Lapland. For instance, they thought all Samis (Lapps) were shamans. As it happens, many of them in fact were. Let’s say a sick person puts out a call for a noaidi (shaman). The noaidi would arrive at that person’s lodge in a reindeer-drawn sled. He would be obliged to enter via the chimney because the pile-up of snow prevents him from entering through the front door.

Before his arrival, the noaidi would already have ingested several dried karpassienis (Amanita muscarias), which would help him ascertain the cause of his patient’s illness. It’s said that the noaidi who has eaten this mushroom typically turns into a facsimile of it, or at least takes on its distinctive red-and-white color scheme. Also, payment for his services would be in food, often lots of it, so he would usually be a quite large man.

Giant Polypores and Stoned Reindeer

my latest!

Here I might mention that reindeer are inordinately fond of A. muscaria. Presumably, it gives them the same sensation that it gives to us non-reindeer — the sensation of flying. If you interviewed a reindeer, I suspect that it might say that it quite liked the feeling of flying through the air with the greatest of ease. It might add that a reindeer with a red nose is afflicted with a parasite, a bot fly larva (or larvae), and while this can be painful, it doesn’t usually result in one’s nose glowing like a light bulb…

To learn more about the Santa Claus-mushroom connection, I recommend that you read my book Giant Polypores & Stoned Reindeer. You can purchase a copy by sending at a check for $20 (postpaid) to: Lawrence Millman, P.O. Box 381582, Cambridge, MA 02238. You won’t regret it!

16 reasons why giant madagascar hissing cockroaches (Gromphadorhina portentosa) make good pets

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one of mine1. They do not bite you, scratch you, or leave dead mice on your pillow. Nor do they confuse your leg with a sexual partner.

2. Their slow, indeed downright torpid movement can induce a zenlike state in the observer.

3. They tend not to possess the universal cockroach baggage: harmful bacteria, viruses, or worms.

4. They don’t wrack up expensive veterinarian bills.

5. Even if you did step in their poo, it would not produce the “ick” factor that stepping into the poo of (for example) a Canis familiaris would.

6. They don’t mind the absence of food in their terrarium. Go away for a month, and they just alter their metabolism accordingly.

7. They are among the few insects that communicate with a breath-powered voice, like birds and mammals.

8. Tape record a male hissing, replay it for a female, and watch her body palpitate with excitement.

9. They don’t wake you up in the middle of the night because they need to be let outside.

10. They don’t stick their muzzles into something nasty and then lick you.

11. They possess symbiotic mites that frolic like ballet dancers around their exoskeletons.

12. Those exoskeletons bear a close resemblance to polished mahogany.

13. Unlike certain pets, they’re not stuck in a state of perpetual childhood. Instead, they pass from egg to instar to adult without a backward glance.

14. They’ll eat anything you eat and, in addition, they’ll eat their own molts.

15. They don’t hiss at the neighbors.

16. They’re more or less unchanged in 365 million years. As the cockroach archy (of archy and mehitabel fame) said to the reader: “after all we were around when you were only a whatsis.”