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new england writers at work

Millman’s apartment is lined with trinkets from travels

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Author Lawrence Millman, an ethnographer and mycologist, has written 16 books, one of which focuses on fungi in New England. Often, however, he travels much farther afield: He went to the Irish countryside to research “Our Like Will Not Be There Again,” and his travelogue “Last Places” took him from Norway to Newfoundland. He lives in a small studio apartment in Cambridge.

BASE CAMP: My apartment is my base camp because I’m always on the move. The skins of animals [are] on the walls, and maps. I’d be writing about a place, take out the map and unravel it. I got so tired of that, I would just tape it to the wall. Now my walls are covered entirely of maps [of places I’ve been]. Shamanic necklaces [hang on the walls], too. One was made by a Chukchi shaman [and is] about a hundred years old. I wear it to ward off evil while I’m traveling around, while I’m writing, and whenever I visit an editor.

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WHITE NOISE: I can write well in the city because I don’t get distracted. [A park] is the closest thing to nature, where I live.

THE TRAVELER’S FRIEND: I have a terrarium of giant Madagascar hissing cockroaches — about 15 or 20. One of their greatest virtues is that they incite a Zen-like attitude. [Also], the cockroaches suspend their metabolism, so it doesn’t matter at all if I’m away, and they sometimes look a little irritated when I return . . . They’re wonderful reminders of what human species are all about. Two males fight for a female and they try to knock each other over. The winning male will go up to the highest post and spread his pheromones and the losing male will defer. We look around us and that’s exactly what’s happening in our species.

FIELD NOTES: I don’t write too much in the field. I take voluminous notes. I’m totally devoted to notebooks. I use a pen. When I traveled in Greenland, I was known as “allaut,” which means pencil, because whenever I was with somebody, I had my notebook out . . . [Although] I use my recorder, too, I feel it’s more human to write down what someone is saying rather than record it.

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DOES NOT TRANSLATE: I always travel with a translator. There are groups of [indigenous] people who have worked with outsiders, and you try to plug into them. When I went to Chukotka in Sibera, I worked with a Russian guy I found out about through an ethnographer I knew. He was so obsessed with his little [wireless] devices he didn’t go to a single event with me — he stayed in the village where they had Wi-Fi. I finally told him if he didn’t accompany me, I wouldn’t pay him. Now I’m writing a book [“Taps for a Lost World”] about the world’s obsession with screens.

GUEST OF HONOR: Food is a universal language. If you say to your guide, “Sorry, I only eat hamburgers,” then your host won’t be as interested in conveying information to you as they would be [otherwise]. I’ve found that at the table, it’s kind of rude to take notes. There was a feast in my honor in Fais, an island in Micronesia in the Yap archipelago, where I was a visiting writer and ethnographer. They served fruit bat. At the very end, I was offered the penis. I ended up describing it in an essay as a piece of Goodyear tire impregnated with urine. It was terrible. Then afterward a teenage kid came up to me and said he couldn’t believe I ate that. I said it was part of the custom. He said, “No, it’s not. They were just making fun of you.”

Eugenia Williamson can be reached eugenia.williamson@ gmail.com.
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