The day Kennedy was shot. Or Princess Diana died. Or when you first consciously heard Silence is Golden by the Tremeloes. These are the occasions where you remember very clearly where you were and what you were doing. One such day was the morning after the disaster in which the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up not long after launch.
The Challenger was notable in that among its crew of seven was a schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe. That morning I came down to breakfast in the main hall of my Cambridge college (I was a graduate student at the time) and heard a rash of very sick jokes. My muse not being constrained by such things as taste, I shall report them here:
A new cocktail, the Challenger – Seven-Up with a dash of Teacher’s.
N.A.S.A – Need Another Seven Astronauts.
Last thing heard from the cockpit before the explosion – ‘if she wants to drive, let her.’
Most notable about these jokes was how quickly they came into general currency. Remember – this was before the Web, before Twitter, before Facebook. Many years later I was discussing the speed at which such jokes spread with a colleague who happened to be familiar with a serial called Contemporary Legend – he passed me a scholarly paper on that very thing. Up to that point I scarcely knew that there is an entire sub-discipline of folklore studies devoted to tracking the formation of contemporary mythology.
Contemporary mythology is the field ably mined by investigative journalist Joshua Blu Buhs in his book Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend, which I’ve just read by way of preparation for chairing a meeting on cryptozoology later this month at the Zoological Society of London (for more details please see my earlier post).
Buhs doesn’t care whether Bigfoot, Sasquatch or the Abominable SnowEntity actually exist. What interests him is how people maintain such dogged beliefs in the existence of such creatures, based on evidence which is at best circumstantial to beyond the point of exiguity, and at worst, entirely fabricated. More telling is that people seem to believe in such things even when they know the evidence has been fabricated, and, even more, would prefer to stay in a state of mythological unknowing rather than have anyone discover whether these creatures actually exist or not.
The story is traced back to that huckster par excellence, P. T. Barnum, who exhibited ‘Wild Men’ in his freak shows that were quite transparently actors dressed in gorilla suits. The interesting thing was that the public flocked to see such sideshows, even though they knew that the exhibits were frauds, and Barnum knew that they knew they were frauds, and they knew that Barnum knew that they knew … well, you get the idea. Buhs takes us up the Himalayas to show us relics of the Yeti kept in remote lamaseries, or presented to mountaineers by sherpas, which were obviously faked. It wasn’t that the indigenes were trying to gull the naive westerners – they really, actually believed in the apparitions themselves, and would continue to do so even when confronted with the fakery.
But the main focus of the book is the Pacific Northwest, home of Big Foot (sic) in Washington State, Oregon and northern California, and Sasquatch in British Columbia. Nobody really knows how tales of wild men in the woods got started, but by the mid-twentieth century true believers tended to be cut from the same stripe – working class, white and male. Men who didn’t set much store by what Beatrix Potter called ‘company manners’, but who throve on manly, outdoorsy pursuits such as hunting, fishing, woodcraft and being able to look after themselves. Men who still liked to think they kept the pioneer spirit alive in an age of creeping consumerism, civil rights and such feminized pursuits as shopping. Bigfoot and Sasquatch were projections of a desire for a group of people, beset and boxed in, to imagine that somewhere, Out There, it was still possible to roam free in the woods.
Buhs tells the tragicomic stories of the Bigfoot hunters – hucksters almost to a man (and they were invariably men); skeptical of the skeptics (scientists, even those sympathetic to the idea of undiscovered wildmen, were seen as effete members of the urban middle classes come along lately to steal their glory); and suspicious of consumerism, even as their ideas and tales were bilked, lampooned, commodified and marketed, wrapped up in cheap films, in stories in old-fashioned Men’s Adventure magazines such as True, Fate and Argosy and lurid tabloid tales. But as the science-fiction B-movies of the 1950s and 1960s became the blockbuster mainstream of the 1980s, the mantle passed from the rednecks to the environmentally conscious, back-to-nature middle classes, for whom the idea of the ‘wild man’ was not that of a manly, honorable and woodcrafty adversary, but a feminized ‘nature spirit’ in tune with the environment, an ideal to which we all aspire, especially when we spend $$$ on the hi-tech camping gear we are told we need to enjoy the wilderness properly. Modern-day Bigfoot hunters are as likely to be women as men, inspired, perhaps by rose-tinted views of the Jane Goodalls and Dian Fosseys of this world, at one with nature and the apes they studied.
What concerns me, however, in the immediate future, is that the whole idea of cryptozoology is something that no respectable person (me, for instance) should touch with a ten foot pole, given that it’s riven with fraud, pseudoscience, untrammeled expectation and general chicanery. However, the fact is that unusual creatures really do turn up from time to time, so that the existence of more of the same cannot be dismissed out of
hand foot hand.
As I finished Bigfoot, though, it dawned on me that the distinction between fakery and real science as it applies to unknown creatures is as follows: if, despite decades of searching, your mythical creature (Bigfoot, the Yeti, Nessie) still fails to turn up, the likelihood is that it really is mythical and never existed in the first place. If, however, it just arrives, unannounced, out of nowhere (Homo floresiensis, several species of
small furry animals gathered together in a cave and grooving with a Pict antelope, whales and other creatures) then the myths become real and you have a legitimate object for study.
As an editor with Your Favourite Weekly Etcetera Etcetera, my attitude is this – I have a completely open mind as to the existence of the Yeti, Bigfoot, the Sasquatch and even Eight-Foot Tall Invisible Rabbits Called Harvey. But if you want me to sign up, you have to show me good, irrefutable evidence. A corpse, at the very least. So, yes, I will come up to your lab … but only if there’s something on the slab.