Adventures in Research: Bad Luck Bananas

I’ve researched a lot of random things in the name of my writing. To my left is a bookshelf with titles on it such as: The Conlanger’s Lexipedia, The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, Science and Society in the 16th and 17th Centuries, the Crystal Bible, Crowning Anguish: Memoirs of a Persian Princess from the Harem to Modernity, The Secret Life of Plants, and — my personal favorite — Barbecued Husbands.

You can tell a lot by looking at people’s bookshelves. Particularly if they’re a total weirdo or not.

The thing is, even though the research is done for my book, it often just translates into a familiarity with a time period or a topic, and the chance of an actual detail or historical fact making it into the manuscript is…low. Any one of those facts becoming useful or relevant in real life? Slim to none.

Which brings me to last month’s fishing trip. My dad, husband, two brothers-in-law, a nephew, and I, all went deep sea salmon fishing on a small charter out of Ilwaco, Washington. We woke up at five, drove to the docks, and got our licenses. The sky was a beautiful silver overcast, the birds were flocking for shoals of bait just under the water, and we even saw a humpback whale. My brother in law, David, caught a good coho at the beginning, but after that, things slowed down. Way down. We spent a good eight hours perched on our poles. Our skipper couldn’t understand. He’d taken the boat from one promising spot to another, but the fish just weren’t biting. In all, our entire group caught six salmon. That’s a lot less than we’d hoped for.

And then my husband, Nathan, took out a banana. He pointed to the “NO BANANAS” sign on the cabin window and asked, “Is that for real?”

I followed his gaze and stared at the sign. And I, mind buzzing with ten years of random book research, registered what had happened. I realized our fishless fate had been sealed the moment we brought our lunch on board.

“Sure is,” said the deck hand.

“Why?” Nathan asked.

And then I spoke. For my moment had come.

REASON NUMBER ONE. Venomous spiders like to hang out in bananas, like Banana Spiders, which is a name for several species including Golden Orb Weavers, which look amazing and won’t kill you but you probably don’t want your eighteenth century sailing vessel infested with them, and Brazilian Wandering Spiders, which have a nastier bite — the effects of which we’ll leave to this wikipedia description:

The venom of Phoneutria nigriventer contains a potent neurotoxin, known as PhTx3, which acts as a broad-spectrum calcium channel blocker that inhibits glutamate release, calcium uptake and also glutamate uptake in neural synapses. At deadly concentrations, this neurotoxin causes loss of muscle control and breathing problems, resulting in paralysis and eventual asphyxiation. In addition, the venom causes intense pain and inflammation following a bite due to an excitatory effect the venom has on the serotonin 5-HT4 receptors of sensory nerves. Aside from causing intense pain, the venom of the spider can also cause priapism in humans. Erections resulting from the bite are uncomfortable, can last for many hours and can lead to impotence.

REASON NUMBER TWO. You know who else likes to hang out in bunches of bananas? Termites. This is a problem when your ship is made of wood.

REASON NUMBER THREE. Bananas release ethylene gas. You can read this whole article on the effects of ethylene gas on humans, but here’s a highlight:

Ethylene enters the body primarily by inhalation of air containing ethylene, but can also enter the body by dermal contact with ethylene. Ethylene is of low toxicity to humans and exposure to ethylene is unlikely to have any adverse health effects. However, inhalation of air containing extremely high levels of ethylene may lead to effects including headache, drowsiness, dizziness, nausea, weakness and unconsciousness. Studies have shown that ethylene is metabolised to ethylene oxide, which has more adverse effects on human health. 

In other words, breathing normal amounts of ethylene has little to no effect on people, but lets say you have an entire cargo hold full of bananas and its not getting the kind of ventilation anyone thought about until the modern era. In that case, going down into that cargo hold, or staying down there too long, could have some rather nasty results.

REASON NUMBER FOUR. Because of the rate at which they produce ethylene gas, bananas ripen and rot quicker than a lot of other fruits. That means they need to be shipped faster, and as they say, “haste makes waste.” Also, it was a heck of a lot harder for sailors to catch fish when the ship was booking it to the next port, resulting in anti-banana sentiments being even stronger in fishermen than general seamen.

REASON NUMBER FIVE: Bananas float in salt water, so when a ship carrying bananas sinks, everything goes down…except the bananas. At that point, those bananas are looking pretty guilty to superstitious sailors. (There were thousands of bananas on the Titanic, by the way. Coincidence? I think not!)

I relayed this information to my family — rather rapidly — and with the vigor of a woman who has just realized she’s arrived at the very moment her mental database of historical bad-luck-banana information is actually, miraculously, relevant.

My husband put the banana away.

Because that, my friends, is why we had a bad fishing day. Because bananas.

Thanks for coming on this journey with me. #nobananas

p.s. two of the six were mine. probably because *I* wasn’t the one who brought the bananas.