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

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.”

An Unsung Hero

In honor of the excessive media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, I’ve decided to write this bog posting about an Arctic explorer named Paul Bjorvig (1857-1932). What does this virtually unknown Norwegian have to do with recent events in Boston? Absolutely nothing. That’s why I’m writing about him.

P. Bjorvig

Paul Bjorvig

In 1898, Bjorvig took part in an American polar expedition led by two highly unlikely individuals, the Chicago journalist William Wellman and religious enthusiast Evelyn Baldwin. The expedition used Russia’s remote Franz Josef Land archipelago as a base for, among other things, searching for lost Norwegian balloonist Salomon Andree. Wellman and Baldwin also roamed about the archipelago. “We are giving the islands, straits, and points good American names,” Wellman wrote.

While the two leaders were traveling around Franz Josef Land, Bjorvig and another Norwegian, Bernt Bentsen, remained behind in an ice cave and looked after the expedition’s supplies. Bentsen grew increasingly ill, perhaps from scurvy, perhaps trichinosis, and in January of 1899 he died. His last request to Bjorvig: “Please don’t let a polar bear eat my remains.” I promise you that I won’t, said his companion.

The only way to prevent a polar bear from dining on Bentsen was to keep his remains in the ice cave. A not very pleasant thought, but Bjorvig had given his word. He wrapped Bentsen in his, Bentsen’s, sleeping bag and, because the cave was so small, kept that sleeping bag right next to his own sleeping bag. Days blurred into weeks, but Bjorvig and Bentsen remained together, so to speak.

Eventually, Wellman returned to the ice cave (Baldwin was now inhabiting the crude Masonic lodge he’d built on Greely Island). Where’s Bentsen? he asked Bjorvig. “Dead,” Bjorvig replied, pointing to the sleeping bag. If he had then screamed in anguish or beaten his head against the cave’s icy wall, he might be remembered today, but he did nothing more dramatic than offer Wellman a cup of coffee.

In fact, the media — such as it was in those days — paid almost no attention to Bjorvig. Nowadays, of course, the media would swarm all over him, ramming microphones in his face and asking him all sorts of questions. What was it like to hang out with a dead man for two months? Did you contemplate suicide? Do you think the Arctic has conspired against you? How about your companion’s smell? Could you evaluate it on a scale of 1 to 10? And was it a threat to, if not your sanity, at least your appetite? In the end, Bjorvig would have become a celebrity and doubtless a talk show regular.

Once he returned to Norway, Bjorvig did not undergo a period of healing, nor did he engage in prayer or reflection. Instead, he signed up almost immediately for an expedition to Antarctica. After the Antarctic trip, he signed up for an expedition to Svalbard (Spitzbergen). While he was in Svalbard, he heard that his 22 year old son had been killed by a bear back in Norway. Not a single member of the media ever asked him how he felt about the loss of his son. At the time, such a question would have been considered vulgar if not downright invasive.

In 1908-1909, Bjorvig overwintered in Svalbard with his friend Knut Johnsen. One spring day the two men went for a walk, and Johnsen fell through the ice. There was nothing Bjorvig could do to save him. After his friend’s death, Bjorvig decided that (as he wrote in his journal) “I have had enough sorrow from the Arctic.” Then he added the following line:

But if a man has no sorrows, he has no joys.

 

Thanks to Perspektivet Museum (Norway) for the image of Paul Bjorvig, used under Creative Commons license.

Bibliodeath

Bibliodeath, by Andrei CodrescuPoet, NPR commentator, novelist, literary magazine editor, travel writer, English professor, polyglot, gentleman farmer, and raconteur Andrei Codrescu is a veritable heterogenius whose remarkable new book Bibliodeath takes the reader on an autobiographical journey through the notebooks, typewriters, and computers on which he’s scribbled, pounded, and tapped during the last 50 years. In response to the book, I engaged my old pal Andrei in the conversation that follows.

L: I have to admit, Andrei, that I’m still reeling from the pyrotechnics to which you put your adopted language in Bibliodeath. Why do you think certain European writers — Nabokov, Conrad, and (don’t blush!) you, for example — write a better, more felicitous English than most native-born writers of English?

A: We don’t write better English. We just write slow and breathless English. If you have to think about every word, you travel to its origins, swing through its meanings, and surface with that word subjected to something like cosmic agitation. Or more simply put, we get our writing chops from reading, so we see before we hear. We die in one language, only to be reborn in another. It’s the dying and coming back that makes us so fascinating to anyone who isn’t us. And I’m not blushing: I like my work. I like Nabokov’s even more.

L: In Bibliodeath, you celebrate the evolution of the printed word from notebook to book to (sorry for the obscenity!) cybertext. Can you offer any words of solace to writers like yours truly who see their careers frustrated as a result of the contemporary cyber mania?

A: I think our careers are going down the drain because we’re getting older and are allergic to working for free. When I was young, I did (almost) everything for $100. In the mid 90s, I had a streak of luck and the nerve to ask for real bucks. Amazingly, I got my chutzpah stamped. We’ve also come to the end of the cult of writing and the worship of the writer. Other media have caught up. Some movies are so good that it seems a sin to rehash them in words. On the internet, everybody has an opinion, so the job of “opinion-maker” has gone the way of shoe-cobbling and watch repair (or watches, for that matter). We are fallen gods, and sore as hell because it happened so fast, and we fell so hard. Nobody’s afraid of Virginia Woolf anymore, damn it!

L: We are getting older, it’s true, but elders like us were once regarded as fonts of wisdom. Now we’re flung by the wayside like so much chattel. Unless we happen to write teen-oriented zombie novels. I don’t think the other media have caught up. In the United States of Amnesia, the lowest common denominator rules, so other media have dumbed everything down. With the internet, even a right wing Bible thumper with an IQ of -35 has a voice. As for movies, 99% of them are products, nothing more. Products with pretty faces.

A: I think you’re an ageist, Millman. You prefer literature because it’s older than movies. Rear Window and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator are as good as anything by Steinbeck or Faulkner. But, yes, we’re becoming very good at forgetting, which puts us safely in the arms of the military-industrial-entertainment-cyber complex, a comfortable place in which to fuck up Mother Nature and to be transported to the Bardo of the clueless (where the teen zombies live). On the other hand, we have many good writers of children’s and young adult books. Perhaps those who write such things get back their child-brains from the adult exo-skeleton of received facts. Being infantilized in this way is not so bad for a writer. Personally, I’d rather write something as good as The Lorax at this point in my life than something as hopeless as Beckett’s Molloy. I say this: humor the young, give them no cash, and steal your grandchildren with charming stories.

L: Today’s Boston Globe reviewed the following movies: Wake in Fright, Keep the Lights On, Seven Psychopaths, Sinister, and Girl Model, but there was not a single book review… not even a review of Bibliodeath. Sic semper gloria mundi! I confess I haven’t read The Lorax, but I do like the not necessarily scientific idea of Horton, a male elephant, hatching a bird’s egg… and not crushing it. Which brings me to my last question: it sounds like you’re writing a kid’s book. I know you’re living on a farm in Arkansas, but by “kid” I mean human, not goat progeny.

A: You’re right. I’m writing a kid’s book because I recently read Dr. Seuss’ Yertle the Turtle 6 times to my 3 year old grand-daughter Raya, and if I had stayed any longer where she lives, I would have had to have read it to her 120 times more. Who would want to read Ulysses 6 times? Out loud, for chrissakes! But the reason I want to write a book that is not only read and reread many times over is that Yertle the Turtle is a work of genius: at once simple and profound, and a story about justice that a “grown-up” might take 5 years to write. I think I might be old enough now to try something like this. I once met Theodore Geissel (Dr. Seuss) at a party in Old Metairie, Louisiana: he was an elegant tall man, shy and self-contained. It’s too late for “tall,” but maybe I can try the others. Who needs the Boston Globe when you’ve got the ear of an insatiably curious 3 year old?

A true mycophile

It’s been so disturbingly dry and bereft of fungi here in the Northeast that I feel a strong sense of foreboding. At any moment, I expect to see the Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse galloping down the road toward me. Five Horsemen? That’s right, for the newest and most potentially dangerous Horseman of the Apocalypse is Climate Change.

Bolitotherus cornutus, male

Mack is a Bolitotherus cornutus male.

In such difficult times, the fungally-deprived person can inspect horse dung for a fruiting of Coprinus or wait until one of the Apocalyptic Horseman’s mounts dies, then examine its moldering hooves for Onygena equina. Even better, perhaps, that person could look for an insect that makes perennial polypores its home as well as its breeding ground. I’m referring to the Horned or Forked Fungus Beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus), a tenebrionid species far more pleasing to me than the so-called Pleasing Fungus Beetle.

A few months ago, I collected a male and female Bolitotherus on a Ganoderma applanatum in Vermont and brought them home for study. The male, Mack, has a pair of horns sprouting anteriorly from his pronotum, the better to thrust a competing male from his polypore home (big horns are probably good for mate selection, too), while the female, Sue, lacks horns. Otherwise, both look quite similar… like miniature medieval armored tanks. This morphology suggests that they could survive anything, perhaps even climate change. Their actual survival mechanisms consist of (1) rolling over and playing dead at the slightest provocation, and (2) releasing a benzoquinone defensive volatile in the direction of a breathlike air stream. I’ve tried to get Mack and Sue to release this volatile by breathing on them, but they’ve refused to do so. Maybe they like me…

Certainly, I like them. In the time I’ve spent studying them, they’ve exhibited an almost total absence of movement that seems almost zenlike. What can they be thinking about? Perhaps about nothing? That would be very zenlike, too. And whenever I watch them for any length of time, I start to move into a zenlike mode myself. Indeed, I would recommend that aficionados of meditation and Eastern religions seek out Bolitotherus cornutus for inspiration.

On at least one occasion, however, Mack and Sue were positively unzenlike. One night I woke up around 3am and couldn’t get back to sleep. All of a sudden I heard a peculiar rasping sound from Mack and Sue’s terrarium. I saw that the ventral surface of Mack’s abdomen was grating against the dorsal surface of Sue’s thorax. From what I’d read about the species, I knew that this was the position a male and female Bolitotherus assume prior to mating. And, sure enough, Mack and Sue were soon going at it with, for them, reckless abandon. I’ve been so delighted with the two of them as companions that I’m currently hoping that another generation of Bolitotherus will grace my abode.

For another, equally delighted response to Bolitotherus cornutus, please visit the Cornell Mushroom Blog, from which I have gratefully borrowed Kent Loeffler’s photo.

North of Siberia (Part 2)

Wrangel Island

Still on Wrangel Island (red arrow)

For those of you who read my previous bog post, I still haven’t left Siberia’s Wrangel Island. In the island’s tiny cemetery, among several rows of Russian Orthodox crosses, I noticed a Star of David. There was no name on the grave, so I asked one of the scientists on the island if he knew who was buried there.

“A Jewish doctor, Nikolai Vulfson,” he told me. “Killed by fascists.”

Later I researched Vulfson for a book I was writing on the Arctic and learned that he hadn’t been killed by the fascists. At least not by those of the German or Italian persuasion during the Great Patriotic War, so-called.

Let’s travel back to the 1930s. Vulfson was Wrangel’s doctor, a man who was dedicated to the health of the local Eskimos (Siberian natives never call themselves “Inuit”). In this, he was opposed by the island governor, Konstantin Semenchuk, who said: “If you give Eskimos what they want, they’ll become lazy or turn against us. Then we would have to shoot them.”

On December 26, 1934 Semenchuk seemed to have a change of heart. He told Vulfson to visit the village of Mys Florens and investigate an apparent typhus outbreak. The doctor left the main village of Ushakovshoe by dogteam, accompanied by Semenchuk’s henchman Stepan Startsev. Only Startsev reached Mys Florens. He told the Eskimos that Vulfson had somehow gotten lost in a blizzard. But there hadn’t been a blizzard at the time.

It wasn’t until January 4 of the next year that Vulfson’s bullet-riddled body was found. Someone, perhaps Vulfson’s widow, radioed for a government investigation, not believing the death was a suicide, as Semenchuk had professed. An investigator arrived and began collecting information about Semenchuk, who not only seemed to have been responsible for Vulfson’s death, but commonly raped young Eskimo girls and also promoted famine conditions on the island. He was recalled to Moscow.

At Semenchuk’s trial, his prosecutor called the governor “human waste.” Semenchuk protested. He was a visitor from Mars, he said, and thus was not subject to the same rules as a typical Soviet citizen. The court did not buy this defense. Along with Startsev, Semenchuk was declared an enemy of the State and executed by a firing squad.

If I had known Vulfson’s story in advance, I would taken a photograph of his grave. No, I wouldn’t have taken a photograph. For I would have been too saddened by the fate of this good man to reach for my camera.