Ibsen came into my life—and changed it—one evening in the late 1980s. I don’t recall whether the night was dark and stormy, but it might have been.
In those days we had a housekeeper come once a week, and prior to my taking on the chore, she did the laundry. And that day was laundry day. So when I walked into our darkened bedroom and saw one of my black socks in the middle of the floor, it did not surprise me. When the sock moved, well, that surprised me.
I stepped closer and saw that what I’d thought was a sock was actually a frog. How cool!
But wait. There are no frogs in the Oakland Hills that I was aware of. It was time to turn on the light.
Now I could see what I was looking at. It was a scorpion. Quite a large scorpion—about the size of a frog. Or a man’s sock.
“Sharon,” I called. “There’s a scorpion in our bedroom!”
Brave soul that she is, she came in to see. She saw.
“What are you going to do?”
“You watch it. I’m going to get a jar,” which I proceeded to do.
As I hunted through the kitchen cabinet where the jars lived, I heard her call. “Hurry up! It’s moving!”
I arrived just in time. It had moved at least four inches.
I did that thing I’d been doing since I was a little boy—you put the jar over the critter, slide a piece of paper underneath, flip it over, and screw on the top. Voila!
Except for one thing. I hadn’t punched holes in the top of the jar. Every kid in the world knows you need to punch holes in the top of the jar. (It had been a while since I was a kid.) So I took the jar back into the kitchen, found a hammer and a nail, and punched a bunch of holes in the top. With each stroke of the hammer the poor (giant) scorpion bounced an inch or two into the air. I felt bad for it.
And so began my scorpion-related feelings.
I put the jar on top of my dresser, and as we prepared to go to bed, I checked on it. Every minute or two. I could hear it clattering around the circumference of the jar after I turned out the light. The last thing I remember before falling off to sleep were Sharon’s words:
“If that thing gets out, I’m divorcing you.” (At the time we were not yet married.)
In the morning I checked on Ibsen—that’s what I had decided to call him. He was still alive, and so were we.
I knew nothing about scorpions, so over lunch I headed to the Berkeley Public Library. Considering this was the main branch of the library in a city that boasts a world-famous university, I was disappointed to find only one book on scorpions, and that was in the children’s section.
In the five minutes it took me to read the thin volume, I learned one important fact: scorpions only eat live prey. So now my mission was to find some live prey to feed to my new friend. The thought of releasing him back into the woods behind our house never once occurred to me.
On my way home from work that day I made a detour to the East Bay Vivarium, a fabled institution where one can buy snakes, geckos, iguanas, tarantulas, hissing cockroaches, and crickets in a variety of sizes. How many crickets did I need? Well, Ibsen was a pretty big scorpion. So I bought two dozen. In the end I only needed two. One would have been enough.
Over the years, I learned to hate crickets. They truly are vermin. They smell bad, they eat anything, and they can be both demanding and noisy. Thus I was happy to learn that a scorpion can take down and devour a cricket twice its size. (Unfortunately, the opposite can also be true, although I never allowed that to happen on my watch.)
I also acquired a large terrarium and fitted it out with a layer of soil, some rocks, a green plant of some kind, and a small model of an undersea diver that came with the terrarium/aquarium. When the set-up was finished, I carefully dumped Ibsen into the box. (He had somehow begun to look smaller to me than I’d originally perceived; a lot smaller. Scorpions and other animals have a way of tricking you in this manner.) He headed straight for the rock and burrowed underneath it.
I’d also fabricated a Plexiglas cover with airholes. My paranoia surrounding Ibsen’s imminent and certain escape was such that initially I placed a heavy rock on top of the cover. At some point in my past I’d seen a horror film where giant scorpions with flashing red eyes take over the world. While you may laugh at my exaggerated concern, there is documented evidence of a prehistoric remnant of a scorpion embedded in amber that was, extrapolating its original size when alive, over one meter in length. Hell, Fred Flintstone could have put a leash on it and taken it out for a walk. (I also discovered that scorpions and cats are natural enemies; but if a meter-long scorpion was in the fight, I wouldn’t bet on the cat.)
And so our relationship began, Ibsen and I. He came out at night looking for a cricket, and occasionally I supplied him with one. And when he nabbed it—which he always did—he took 24-plus hours slowly devouring his meal. Watching him eat, I felt the same satisfaction that a mother must have while nursing, or spooning mashed peas and applesauce into her baby’s mouth.
Months went by. Ibsen seemed happy living under his rock, coming out at night searching for a cricket. But I began to feel alarmed one day when I realized I hadn’t seen him for a week. Had he escaped, which would lead to my faux-divorce? Was he (gasp) dead? Had Sharon taken her revenge? Had the housekeeper, who always kept her distance from the terrarium, done away with him?
A day or two later I decided to investigate further. With trepidation (and wearing a glove), I carefully lifted the rock and looked under it. And there was Ibsen, her back covered with tiny white scorpions, each about a centimeter or less in length.
“Sharon!” I shouted. “Ibsen is a girl!” Sharon came to look and admitted that the babies were cute. (She’d never said that about Ibsen, even when we though she was a he.)
I counted at least 25 newborns, but that number was steadily decreasing as Mom, no doubt experiencing the normal postpartum hunger, was slowly and carefully eating her young. (I had heard of human mothers eating the placenta of their newborn, so I wasn’t totally surprised.)
Unlike other arachnids (eight legs) such as spiders, scorpions give birth to live young rather than via eggs. What is even more surprising is that they have no fixed gestation period. The mother, just as Ibsen had done, can wait weeks or even months to give birth until the most opportune time arrives (unlike human mothers, who often choose the most inopportune moment).
So one day I had one scorpion. And now I had, maybe, 25. By this time I’d learned that the newborns derive nourishment from some substance on the mother’s back, but are also at risk of becoming dinner. But let’s face it, if every scorpion gave birth to 25 or 30 young who survived to adulthood, we’d be overrun.
I put in a call to the entomology department at UC Berkeley and soon visited a Ph.D. candidate who was happy to talk to me about scorpions. Although this young man had written a number of papers on the subject—he gladly gave me reprints—he sadly admitted he was no longer studying scorpions.
“There’s no money in scorpions,” he stated, bluntly.
“Why?” I asked.
“The grant money in entomology is all about agricultural pests and diseases. Scorpions don’t harm plants, and they’re no great threat to humans if you leave them alone. Thus, no money.” This made sense.
I later heard a similar comment from a patient of mine. He was an entomology professor from Israel, a crusty old guy who was probably wandering in the desert wilderness with Moses. In his heavy accent he told me, “Scorpions! Ach, they are such an archaic animal!”
Another cool thing about scorpions is that they have their own zodiac sign (quite a rare thing) plus a constellation!
Sadly, although I am on the cusp, I am not actually a Scorpio. Not only that, but as a Sagittarius, my personality and demeanor are reportedly quite different. This was explained to me years ago by my personal astrologer, Hank Friedman, a patient who once bartered with me: he’d give me a private astrology session, and I’d give him an eye exam. What a deal! (If you’d like, I can show you my chart, which I keep in a plastic sleeve in my astrology file. It’s got all kinds of colored lines, circles, and rune-like symbols, most of those symbols heavily concentrated in the Sagittarius and Scorpio sectors. I have been told that this is meaningful. You probably know more about this than I do.)
Ibsen and her brood (litter?) were only the beginning of the adventure. As word spread and people learned of my interest, my collection of scorpiana began to grow.
On my desk at work, instead of a picture of a dog or a cat, I proudly displayed a photo of Ibsen resting on her rock. I invested almost a hundred dollars in Gary Polis’s seminal work, The Biology of Scorpions, which I still display proudly on a bookshelf. What is more, scorpion art in all forms can be found everywhere in the world. I have models of scorpions made of metal, wood, and blown glass. A glass figurine from Prague. A wire sculpture from China that features a spark plug body. Preserved scorpion paperweights from Arizona. In Oaxaca, Mexico, I commissioned an artist to produce two brightly-colored wooden models in the traditional Oaxacan style. Jewelry showcasing scorpions can be found everywhere; for a couple of years I wore a small glass miniature around my neck until it eventually broke.
One of my favorite acquisitions was a poster-sized color illustration that I found in Buenos Aires. It was drawn by a Peruvian/American artist named Boris Vallejo who is known for his futuristic landscapes, superheroes, and sci-fi works of art. Mine featured a scorpion the size of a Cadillac transporting a scantily-clad woman on its back over a moonscape-like mountainous terrain. I carefully carried this rolled-up work of art from Argentina and brought it to a framing shop in Berkeley. When the guy helping me unrolled the poster, several Berkeley women were standing nearby, and I heard a slight gasp from the group. I felt compelled to say to no one specifically, “I actually bought it for the scorpion.” The framing guy thought it was really cool, and I displayed it on the wall of my study for many years.
There was a time in the early 1990s when scorpions seemed to be taking over my life. I had constructed a large table to display the many critter boxes and paraphernalia I’d collected, as well as containers for the much-hated crickets.
At one point I discovered on my doorstep a few scorpions in jars that my neighbors had found while gardening. I installed them in private dwellings on my display table. The following month after Sharon and I returned from a week’s vacation, I found that all three had given birth. I now had over a hundred scorpions to house and feed. I felt like I was running an orphanage. Fortunately, the siblings were doing a good job of cannibalizing each other, thus reducing the number of mouths I had to feed with crickets that were not much bigger than a pencil point. (The “mouths” of scorpions are sort of too complicated to describe.)
At some point I became aware that Henrik Ibsen himself kept a live scorpion in an empty beer glass on his writing table. (As a number of great thinkers have implied, There are no coincidences.)
Fortunately (or unfortunately) as time went on, my collection of little critters began to diminish, as did the time and space needed to care for them. By 2014, I was reduced to only one Ibsen—they were all named Ibsen—that I’d raised since birth. After an uneventful life of at least six years, this last companion passed.
By this time I’d learned the secrets to keeping them alive: 1) make sure there’s a little wet spot on the ground, and 2) a diet of one or two crickets every three months is more than enough.
In the United States, there appears to be only one species of scorpion (the Arizona bark scorpion) whose venom is truly dangerous. And remember—scorpions sting, they don’t bite. They also fluoresce under the illumination of a black light, a must-have acquisition for any lover of scorpions. I acquired several types of lamps over the years, and used a black-light flashlight while looking for scorpions in Redwood Regional Park. I was successful in finding one, scooped it up with a trowel, put it in a jar (with holes punched in the top), and got the hell out of the park—it was 1:00 a.m., dark, and quite scary out there!
The scorpion mating ritual was shrouded in mystery for many years. Researchers observed that the male and female would “dance” around together—a promenade à deux—with the male holding the female in his pincers. What was happening was that the male would maneuver the female so her sex organ would come in contact with spermatophore he had deposited on the ground or on a twig. Although I never personally observed this ritual, there are great videos online.
One other interesting thing is that in order to grow, the scorpion must regularly molt its exoskeleton. The first molt occurs about two weeks after birth, then five or six more times until it reaches maturity. After molting, the scorpion is particularly vulnerable to predators until each new exoskeleton hardens. I’ve observed many molts—it does not look like an easy or comfortable process!
When I last decluttered my study, I packed up and stored all but a few items of scorpiana. Remaining on a single shelf is a Oaxacan wooden sculpture, the Chinese wire and sparkplug model, a large scorpion paperweight from Arizona, and a glass ashtray from some forgotten outpost. Plus the mostly-unread volume by the late Gary Polis. I even took the framed moonscape poster off the wall. That was painful—for me, anyway.
Occasionally I glance over at the photograph of the first Ibsen on top of her rock and experience the same feelings that a dog lover must have when glancing at an old picture of Lassie, Toto, or Rin Tin Tin.
I can say without hesitation that Ibsen (et al) was the best pet I’ve ever had—no fuss, no mess, no hassle, a cricket every couple of months, no barking, no ruined furniture or carpet stains, and complete devotion.
And she had her own Zodiac sign.