Truth, Class and Imagination in the Deep Woods

Joshua Blu Buhs. Bigfoot: the Life and Times of a Legend. University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Michael McLeod. Anatomy of a Beast: Obsession and Myth on the Trail of Bigfoot University of California Press, 2009.
Something is stirring in the jungles, if not those of Tibet or the Pacific North West of North America, then those of the imagination. This is Bigfoot the cultural icon, the central subject of these two books.

Of the two, Buhs is the by far the best, it is likely to the be the definitive history of the Bigfoot of the imagination for some considerable time, tracking the development of the myth, showing the various streams of the story: the theme of the Wildman in all human cultures; Yeti hunting in the Himalayas; Canadian Pacific tales of Sasquatch collected by John Burns; the modern fakelore of Bigfoot which rapidly went feral to become real folklore. There may not be, probably isn't, a physically real, paws-and-pelts animal out there in the forests, but Bigfoot is real in another sense, it is a cultural reality, something which now pervades popular culture, something that is talked about and everyone knows what you are talking about.

For Buhs the Bigfoot has had several meanings and several social uses. In its early days Bigfoot hunting was a means by which white working class men could demonstrate the cultural values of challenging the wilderness, proving their manhood in difficult conditions. The stories of Bigfoot proliferated in working men's adventure magazines such as True and Real where truth and reality were very much in second place to exiting yarns. Bigfoot became an oppositional symbol to the plastic culture of consumerism. Its sad fate however is to be transformed into just such a commodity. If the actual beast cannot be bought and sold, then its image can. Later on still, his image is appropriated by the very middle classes that the original hunters were in opposition to: environmentalists, conservationists and others who thought they knew more about the areas concerned than the people who had worked there all their lives. The wilderness is no longer seen as something to be challenged and overcome by masculine endeavour, but something to be cherished, nurtured and communed with by those who "can express their feminine side

Buhs' study is very much in the Magonian psychosocial tradition, even to the practice of the dreaded cult of librarianship, in that his expeditions are to remote and barely accessible archives, rather than remote valleys and mountain peaks. Here however he meets Bigfoot as it once was, before the numerous revisionings

As a film maker Michael McLeod is part of the elite, consumer culture, against which Bigfoot and his hunters had stood, which perhaps explains why, though doing the more Forteanly-correct treks into the wilderness, he remains mainly aloof from the allure of Bigfoot, taking a much more debunking role, frequently expressing his inability to understand how the believers can really believe in Bigfoot. The answer is, that to know why Bigfoot as a paws-and-pelts creature is very improbable requires quite a bit of specialist knowledge, and is by no means common sensibly obvious.

At the heart of both of these books are the trickster figures around which the Bigfoot legend grew Ray Wallace, Roger Patterson, Ivan T. Sanderson, and the charismatic hunters such as René Dahinden, Peter Byrne, John Green, Tom Slick, Grover Kranz and others. Wallace's fake footprints, and Patterson's (almost certainly) faked film help shore up the iconic image of Bigfoot. Patterson in particular comes across as especially puzzling figure, half conman, often taken in by his own spiel, half obsessive true believer, hunting the Bigfoot practically to his dying day, as cancer ate away at him. A similar obsession drove René Dahinden, though there never was a suggestion that he was a conman. Perhaps for both, Bigfoot represented the implacable forces which were grinding them down, the Great White Whale of the forests, the image of the wilderness within and without which was always going to win in the end.

Perhaps we should regard the footprints and the film not just as ‘fakes’ but as works of art, which evoke feelings of awe and otherness; perhaps the joke and the fake should be seen as particularly working class male forms of permissible art, permissible because not identified as such, and therefore not part of a ‘feminine’ elite culture. The footprints and the film are perhaps not all that removed from the shaman's drawings on the cave walls which make inner encounters with otherness from beyond the edges of geography, manifest to an external audience

The trouble with hunting things in the wilderness, is that the wildness can enter and possess you, which is clearly what happened to many of the Bigfoot hunters, tearing each other apart in endless lawsuits, fist fights and obscure ideological battles, making any attempt to create a Bigfoot community futile. The only beasts these people found were in themselves

Perhaps the most ambiguous central character in both narratives was Ivan T. Sanderson; someone who could have been an outstanding naturalist, at times remarkably prescient, in having an ecological vision, or sensing the likely bushy nature of human evolution, yet who threw it away in the pursuit of chimeras such as living UFOs and giant penguins. Maybe there just wasn't the science or the technology to give him the breaks he needed. Fifty years ago there really wasn't a science of human evolution, at best a proto-science with no genetic markers and only the vaguest ideas of dates. Sanderson's vision of human bushiness was peopled not with real fossils, which were then few and far between and only very imperfectly understood, but mythic monsters and racial stereotypes. There wasn't in his day the sort of television equipment which could have made him the American equivalent of David Attenborough, so he went down the road of cheap articles in pulp magazines. Sanderson really deserves a proper scholarly biography

Of these books I strongly recommend Buhs to all Magonians, McLeod contains some additional background and is worth getting for that, but the tone can be grating) -- Peter Rogerson

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