Bigfoot The Life and Times of a Legend by Joshua Blu Buhs: review 21 Jun 2009
Joshua Blu Buhs' Bigfoot lists fleeting 'sightings’, dubious footprints, a faked film…so why are we so keen to believe in the existence of the giant ape? asks Philip Hoare .
Recently, David Attenborough took up the challenge of the creationists, speaking out against the biblical notion of man’s dominion over animals. In this year of
’s 200th anniversary, such debates raise the question of what we want animals to be, stirring up age-old issues of human history and natural history. For cryptozoologists – students of unknown or undiscovered animals – the sense of the unresolved mystery of the natural world is paramount. They seek the truth behind the tales of the sea serpent, the Loch Ness monster, or the Abominable Snowman. Are such creatures real or merely expressions of our Edenic longing – a reaction against a scientifically determined world that has exerted its own dominion over us? By naming and cataloguing an animal, do we thereby own it? Darwin
Perhaps more than any other monster, Bigfoot, the legendary wildman ofUltimately, the rational mind must agree with Buhs – that Bigfoot is a cultural creation of man, rather than a natural creation of God (or a cul-de-sac of natural selection). Yet the romantic in this reviewer is left with the lingering hope that somewhere out there, a big hairy hominid is stalking the wilderness. Just to prove everyone wrong.
California (known as Sasquatch in ) is subject to notions of ownership, living, as it supposedly does, so tantalisingly close to civilisation. In his witty account, the American scholar and sceptic Joshua Blu Buhs sets out in search of an animal variously claimed as British Columbia ’s only remaining ape, an extant Neanderthal, or an even older hominid such as Gigantopithecus. Certainly Bigfoot has a noble lineage, reaching back to medieval times and beyond. The hairy man of the woods is the feral 'other’; as much a European or Asian fairytale as anything else. Imported to the New World, the myth was promptly recycled by the great showman P?T Barnum – and re-imported to America Europe. In 1846, Barnum brought a wildman, supposedly captured in California, to . Dubbed 'What-is-it’, the exhibit 'growled and, like any good geek, ate disgusting things – in this case, raw meat’. The hirsute sensation was, of course, an actor in a furry disguise. Twentieth-century awareness of Bigfoot, however, coincided with a discovery on the other side of the world. In 1951, the mountaineer Eric Shipton photographed a series of strange footprints in the Himalayan snows. Championed by the media, the Abominable Snowman was a welcome distraction for a Cold-War age. In a world overloomed by the mushroom cloud, it was important that science could not provide all the answers. The resurgence of Bigfoot on the American west coast was part of this cultural shift. As the wilderness was invaded by loggers and the settlements that sprang up in their wake, so Sasquatch and Bigfoot were flushed out of the forest. As early as 1920 , there were reports of giant figures with long reddish hair, leaving muddy footprints by rivers. One man claimed to have been kidnapped by Bigfoot for a week, living with the throwbacks in a remote valley before escaping to tell his tale. As the stories grew, so did the investigations, led by a mixture of hicks and hucksters, renegade academics and buccaneer businessmen – modern-day Barnums. Ray Wallace announced that he had actually captured Bigfoot, although he never produced the evidence (it later turned out that Wallace was one of the most egregious hoaxers, responsible for faking footprints with an oversized rubber stamp). Then in 1967, Roger Patterson, a one-time rodeo rider, returned from the northern Californian woods with film of a large, lolloping ape – apparently a female, as indicated by its pendulous breasts. But the entire scene bore an uncanny resemblance to an illustration in True magazine published some months earlier. And when the film was examined by scientists, they determined that the ape may have looked like a woman, but it walked like a man, probably one in a monkey suit. Buhs’s great theory about all these shenanigans is that they were an expression of the working-class American male culture whose traditional values and duties had been displaced by commodification and new notions of racial and sexual equality. How galling, then, for 'their’ monster to be subsequently embraced as a New Age symbol for an era of eco-awareness. Bigfoot was no longer a target for hunters’ guns, but a cuddly cross between an overgrown chimp and Chewbacca in Star Wars. In his postmodern attempt to pin down Bigfoot, Buhs’s focus is on the hunters, rather than the hunted; this is not so much a book about Bigfoot as the belief in him. Yet Buhs certainly has a lot of fun along the way, with characters such as Grover Krantz, a 6ft, bearded, heavy-drinking anthropologist who looked a little like a Sasquatch himself, and whose attempt at a serious study resulted in utter rejection by his professional colleagues. The unruly academic would have done well to remember Friedrich Nietzsche: 'He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster.’ London
An interesting sociological/psychological take on bigfoot. I doubt those who say they have had encounters with bigfoot would appreciate it was just a cultural creation. The problem is, if it is a cultural creation in the
USA , how does that account for Yeti, and the other bigfoot type creature reported around the world? This is where further research would have helped. If the author could have explained all of them as cultural creations and how this occurred, that would have been worth a read. Until he does, we will all keep looking. Almas
Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend
A PS the doctor tells me I am not well at the moment so if the blogs are a bit sporadic or not up to scratch , I hope you will bear with me. I appreciate every single follower and every reader of my blog and feel privileged that so many people do take time to read it, so I don’t like to let you down.