Of all the pets a child can possess there are none so useless as a stick insect.
Take pet rocks, for example. Surely a pet rock, being an inert lump of stone would be even more useless than a stick insect. Yet these rocks–some of which don’t even have the decency to have a pair of googly eyes pasted to them–are a novelty, a talking point in the manner of an empty fish tank. Pet rocks will never show you affection, never beg to be fed, and only curl up in your lap if you find some way of super-heating them down to a molten form, to drizzle them across your thighs–something I’d strongly advise again. But look, a pet rock! You keep it in its cardboard cage, nested in a pile of straw and it shows the world you’re a quirky son of a bitch–or it would have done back in the seventies, when Gary Dahl, father of the pet rock craze became a multimillionaire selling stones to similarly quirky sons of guns.
I doubt stick insects have ever provoked an eyebrow to be raised in mirth or illustrated marketing genius in quite the same way.
What about Sea-Monkeys? At least Sea-Monkeys are living creatures, dependant on their owner taking care of them. Advertised in comic books as an Atlantean race of mer-people, Sea-Monkeys were in fact brine shrimp that did little other than scoot around their tanks while looking feathery. Sprinkle salt and ‘instant life eggs’ into water and a day later, behold: the miracle of life!
Novelty and marketing, wrapped as a distraction for gullible youngsters. Just add water.
The stick insect fad–which might very well persist to this day–had no marketing behind it and was reliant solely upon novelty–or if you’re being generous, upon the magpie envy of kids wanting what other kids own. It’s show and tell and Bobby Nickels from three streets over brings in a tank of living splinters: stick insects, juddering while holding onto the greenery in their terrarium. As one the class leans forward, half repelled, half fascinated by these curious, shaking creatures.
In a monotone Bobby reads aloud a few stick insect facts: these are Indian or common stick insects, carausius morosus, that feed on privet hedges and feign death when frightened. While his classmates crane their necks for a better view, Bobby’s already become bored of his pets, only bringing them to school as a last ditch attempt to wring entertainment from them. All stick insects are girls, he says, and they lay eggs every day. When Miss. Honeywell invites the class to comes up three at a time for a better view they start discussing whether the tiny brown slugs at the bottom of the tank are eggs or poop. Bobby shifts at the front of the class room, leaning against the blackboard, getting chalk dust all over the back of his sweater, but he isn’t allowed to sit at his table again every kid in class has gawked at the tank and the insects within.
Finally Miss Honeywell take the terrarium to the counter at the back of the room, expressly forbidding her class from tampering with it. Those sitting at the back keep an eye on the tank for the rest of the lesson in case the insects escape and wriggle down their necks; after lunch one of them will have escaped thanks to the disobedience of Dean McMurphy, half-pint hell-raiser, lifting the top off and pulling one free for a better look. It judders in his palm feeling like a set of needle points prickling his skin, and when it takes a step up his arm, startled, he flings it across the room. Miss Honeywell has the whole class looking for the stray stick insect that afternoon and puts Dean in detention even though he plaintively proclaims his innocence,
And Bobby? Well, Bobby’s had quite enough of stick insects for one day and has offered to swap his collection one by one for trading cards and silly bands and other playground paraphernalia.
Kids takes the insects home in their lunch boxes, stuffing them with bits of hedge for food. Parents dig out dusty old aquariums from garages and sheds; soon every kid has their own stick insect pets they become bored with and neglect.
Where do stick insects come from? They aren’t sold in pet shops like mice, hamsters and kittens; they aren’t harvested from back gardens like old wasps nests, frogspawn or slow-worms. Until the seventeenth century people believed in spontaneous generation, the idea that organic life could erupt from dead or inorganic matter. Maggots were believed to appear spontaneously from rotting meat and it wasn’t until 1668 that Italian poet and physician Francesco Redi proved they were born from eggs laid in the meat by flies. But even Redi would have a hard job placing the origins of the common stick insect, which have a cyclical existence in which they’re forever passed from one child to another.
Many childhood fads seem to come about spontaneously, with little reason. Every generation happens across yo-yos and hacky sacks of their own accord, and what’s always existed innocuous in the background for a scant week becomes a school-wide obsession. Suddenly all kids everywhere are walking the dog or playing keepie-uppie, but a fortnight later this latest craze is consigned to the backs drawers or lost on rooftops; like a retrovirus reawakened by genetic tampering, they’ll be rediscovered again eight years and become crazes once more.
But unlike Sea-Monkeys, stick insect eggs don’t undergo anhydrobiosis, surviving long periods of time inert and lifeless. Somewhere in the world right now the stick insect legacy continues: a terrarium passed from older to younger brother, brought into class to be shared among his classmates, who’ll in turn pass them on through other siblings to other children. There is no beginning or end to this trend: it cycles, an Ouroboros, from generation to generation, perpetuated through show and tell.
What are these nasty little things, exactly? Thin and juddering, swaying in an unsettlingly hypnotic manner. If they were bigger–and we’ve all seen the sizes of not-so-common stick insects on The Really Wild Show: as long as your arm, as fat as your hand–they’d be nightmares. As it is they’re just unpleasant, best kept in their tanks before giving away to whoever will have them. “They hold onto different surfaces with hooks at the ends of their legs,” monotones Bobby, cleaning the the blackboard with his shoulders. The very thought of holding one in your hand, knowing they’ll be digging their hooks into your skin is enough to wrinkle your nose at.
As useless as they are, there’s one thing stick insects are extremely good at and that’s dying. It’s difficult to tell when they croak–they’re hardly the liveliest of creatures while they live and that’s before you take into account their only defense mechanism: playing dead–but unless you offload your stick insect hoard to another kid you’ll soon be left with a tank of dead insects, laying beneath a few pieces of privet. There will be no elaborate burial rites for these poor creatures; chances are you’ve forgotten they exist, being too distracted by pogs or skipping double dutch to pay attention to those pets of yours that–let’s face it–were barely pets. Dad takes the tank away, empties it into the compost heap and places it back into garage, to become dusty once more.
Sometimes they survive. Having played dead all along they now judder their way to freedom, and where they avoid the attentions of birds and sundry other predators they reproduce, founding secret escaped populations deep in the heart of the countryside. Creatures of the rain forest, now thriving in the rainiest of lands–perhaps this is where they once more enter the cycle of captivity. A child out playing finds a twig that moves even without wind to move it, brings it indoors in his cupped hands and his dad, Bobby Nickels that was, recognises it, pulls down the old terrarium from the loft and says “That’s a stick insect! I haven’t seen one of those since I was your age.”
But, just as likely, maybe that’s not how it works at all. Maybe stick insects really do exist solely within the cycle of a school fad, being tumbled around generation after generation as if living inside washing machines. Recycled, renewed, shared out and passed on, the fad continues.
In spite of their propensity for playing dead, unlike pet rocks it seems the pet stick will never truly die.