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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
12.3 (Summer 2012)
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Big Feet, Invisible Tracks
J. S. Moseby
They say that human beings don’t taste good. That seems both a very dubious proposition and—in these times—a very daring one. How would anybody know the taste of man-meat unless he had tried it, or how would he surmise the way it might taste to a leopard? And in these times, when there’s no accounting for taste and each has his own, how could someone whose nose had crinkled at a morsel of roasted man be so cocksure that a wolf would have the same reaction?
Maybe Ice Age predators did not leave Sasquatch alone because of his taste so much as because of his smell. Witnesses who claim to have had very close encounters with the Old Man of the Woods often remark upon a pungent stench in the air. Hominids sweat rather than pant, and the result is most certainly an unpleasant odor (or as certainly as one can assert such things in these times; are there cultures that actually relish the fermented fragrance of month-old perspiration?). The thickly forested areas where Sasquatch is said to thrive are almost all in the far north; and in the far north, frequent bathing would cause frequent reduction in body temperature and create a need for more frequent feeding. Inasmuch as bodily stench may in fact serve as a survival strategy, it makes little sense to suppose that these stunning creatures would turn an advantage into two distinct disadvantages just for the sake of what we consider personal hygiene.
It seems even more likely, however—almost compelling—that an Ur-Sasquatch living when dire wolves and saber-toothed tigers still prowled would have carried defensive weaponry. Big as he is, and wholly adequate as that size seems today to secure him from molestation, this mega-hominid would surely have been easy prey out among the glaciers for a huge cat or a pack of monster-hounds, and we can hardly imagine that his taste or smell would have mastered another beast’s desperate hunger.
The Sasquatch, you see—and this is the most stunning thing of all about him, if he really exists—lives alone. All the other primates are social: only this one is solitary.
The consequent probability of weapon-carrying poses an interesting set of circumstances, and I am unaware of any other investigator’s having sufficiently weighed them all together.
1) We can scarcely believe that Sasquatch evolved later than modern humans: his development was either parallel or, more likely still, precedent to ours.
2) He must therefore have had some strategy for survival in times when our distant ancestors relied upon tightly knit tribes of several dozen and upon such technology as sustained, managed fire—two shifts of which he never appears to have availed himself.
3) It is possible that his ineptitude at fending off predators was indeed instrumental in his becoming almost extinct—that the few “naturally selected” Sasquatch were those who grew tallest, ran fastest, and climbed highest to escape Paleolithic tigers, thus refining the very qualities by which they are best known today. Possible… but unlikely. For how would this creature not have thought of a club or a spear when chimpanzees have been filmed using stones artificially? If today’s Sasquatch can construct crude shelters or hunting blinds out of logs and branches, then would not yesterday’s have been capable of picking up a limb to drive off a wolf pack?
4) It is remotely possible that Sasquatch is solitary as a result of having been “betrayed” by society in some manner. That is, perhaps the gigantic creatures disbanded and chose to fend for themselves because grouping together put them at greater risk than going it alone. An extreme shortage of food might have accounted for the social collapse; so, too, might the greater visibility of groups to marauding hunters. But these scenarios really make little sense; for rare food is gathered with less individual expenditure of energy by groups (e.g., the Bushmen of the Kalahari), and the clan’s ring of strong adult males produces many more defensive assets than liabilities. Hence…
5) the Sasquatch, as we know him (or as legend has him)—that is, all alone for time immemorial—must surely possess some minimal ability to engineer his environment. This ability may well extend to the point that its artifices remain invisible to human eyes; and artifice that escapes notice is not really minimal engineering at all, but a very clever sort, it seems to me.
Why is this conclusion so consequential? Because the recurrent argument against the existence of Sasquatch is that a vast majority of the planet’s human residents never sees him. Such reasoning might persuade if we assume Sasquatch to be just another large mammal, like a gorilla or an elephant. If the creature knows how to embellish those shelters offered by Nature, however, and how to lay certain “trip wires” around his compound on the order of fallen leaves and brittle deadwood, then his obscurity would be far less a matter of accident. Many skeptics will scoff, in response, that a massive skull or femur of this mythical species should have been found after four hundred years of the white man’s clearing and plowing. These voices, too, are silenced if we assume a degree of technological skill in the great beast. He probably conceals his dead in some very efficient fashion. There may even huge mounds of bones within a few caves or crevasses that no farmer or developer would ever approach: perhaps death and the rites of dying are that moment when Sasquatch embraces the communal existence which he otherwise scorns. Maybe a lone member of the species, having smelled out the body of a brother, retrieves it and lays it to rest in some eerie speluncal graveyard.
We supposed the coelocanth extinct for millions of years before one was hauled out of the Madagascar Channel’s deep trench. If we haven’t the wits to chase down every living species of fish, why should we believe that we could locate a highly evolved, intelligent mammal determined to avoid us like the plague?
Some may find this attribution of emotion to Sasquatch a self-indulgent excess on my part. Am I not exemplifying the renowned self-hatred of the Western intellectual—am I not romanticizing Sasquatch, almost, into a kind of noble savage whose loathing of Western technology and urbanization is a last defense of the Garden of Eden? Nothing of the sort. What could be more natural and “sensible” than that this creature would avoid the newly arrived tribe of clothed, bearded Europeans who instantly and unremittingly waged a war against the wilderness? That Sasquatch was capable of taxonomizing humans into relatively benign Native peoples and the deadly menace from Europe is yet further proof of his sophisticated discernment. Amerindian legend and lore across the continent abounds in references to these awe-inspiring creatures; the diaries and accounts of fair-skinned frontiersmen contain no references (or none that I have ever found) to Sasquatch beyond his existence in Indian legend. The Natives sought to coexist with the Europeans… and their cultures languished or perished. Sasquatch, who had already chosen to hold himself aloof from humans living by the hundred around campfires, saw every reason to evade the Johnny-come-lately humans attacking trees and game with an apparent desire to exterminate both.
More specific objections to more specific claims about Sasquatch behavior usually appear to me to involve circular reasoning. Some have insisted that a top-tier predator of this nature (for the creature is supposed to live off of antelope that it chases down in huge strides) would surely have shredded some of the human beings who invaded his territory—yet we have no reports of mysterious and gruesome fatalities among hikers and campers. Many a back-packer has indeed claimed that rocks were hurled about his campsite at night to the accompaniment of terrifying grunts. A few even swear by all that’s holy to having been pursued, especially lone female hikers and joggers (for Sasquatch is said to have a particular curiosity about females). Why is none of these campers ever actually struck by a stone, and why is none of these shapely joggers ever slung over the hairy shoulder of a beast who can easily run down a deer? Wild bears frequently claim casual victims. Why is a Sasquatch attack always a “near miss”?
To me, the obvious answer is the same as that to other objections about the general population’s not having recorded abundant sightings: Sasquatch is smart. He knows that a human kidnapping or fatality would draw mobs of high-tech inquisitors into his woods. How does he know this? Probably because such was the precise result of an earlier encounter or series of early encounters. When you kill a little man in clothing, hunting dogs and rifles show up by the dozen or hundred. The caveat was probably passed down for generations as part of Sasquatch culture—for we must plainly concede that much in this rugged lifestyle is learned and requires parent-to-child teaching. Solitary as they are, these creatures must cross each other’s paths not only to reproduce, but also to communicate vital warnings by vocalization; or perhaps they leave signs and markings in the brush (a technique well known to the hobo vagrant).
Sasquatches, in short, are quick studies: otherwise, they would have died out long ago. Perhaps they did; and if they did, it must have been because they did not learn fast enough. But if they truly exist, then we must suppose that they have the mental acuity necessary to exist almost entirely undetected in a contemporary environment. We should therefore not argue that they would have made various thoughtless choices and exposed themselves if they were really banging about in “our” woods.
Perhaps, too, the Sasquatch has some natural aversion to dismembering another hominid. Just because we enjoy killing and mutilating our kind in diverse ways doesn’t mean that other species suffer from the same inclination. Who knows? The Sasquatch may even enjoy watching a lone human streak off in panic when he rises from a bush and grunts the equivalent of “Boo!” For all we know, he may have a rare sense of humor along those lines. Shrieking, squealing women probably give the greatest savor to his pranks, and they are far less likely than males to be packing a gun.
Then one has the variety of objection that comes from researchers who want to “believe” (as if they were in quest of religious faith) but receive no answer to their “prayers”. They pack off into the most remote areas of Appalachia or the Adirondacks or the northern Rockies or the Cascades, and they fill the night forest with their howls and thumps until the East begins to blush. They are crestfallen—almost personally insulted and morose—when they attract no response. Why, I wonder? Do they imagine that Sasquatch does not know the difference between their warbles and one of his? Or do they suppose that his perceiving their good-faith effort to meet him on his own terms will at last draw him out of his shell? Do they expect him to appear like a Hollywood Extra-Terrestrial from a landed saucer and raise an opened right palm in universal greeting?
This is a creature who—if he exists at all—owes his continued survival to a culture of remaining hidden, particularly from human beings. Why would he want to jettison an entire and complex web of reliable conditioning just to give a “high five” to a happy hiker?
On the contrary, the best way to gather evidence of Sasquatch activity in a nocturnal forest would clearly be to plant a series of concealed cameras and microphones, and then to remove oneself completely from the scene, along with every trace of human presence. But such a protocol would not create the mystical experience of scaling Mount Sinai into a gilded cloud pregnant with inhuman words.
I will admit that I have my own reasons for “believing in” Sasquatch; for if the arguments against his reality are grossly tendentious, requiring him to be the kind of creature that we would be in his place (running around wild and naked like a kind of hippie Tarzan), the arguments for his reality are equally thin. My main reason is that I have grown tired of intellectual arrogance. While I do not burn candles to Sasquatch in a little shrine of my own making, there is indeed, after all, something of the same contempt in Science’s dismissal of him as we find in its dismissal of religious faith. Science has already “found out” everything that is real. If it were “there” (that is, anywhere), we would know about it. If other intelligent life forms existed in the universe, scientists would have registered some inkling of them by now. If extra-sensory phenomena possessed any substance—déjà vu, strange forebodings of the future, mind-reading, spectral encounters, and the rest—then science would have an explanation for them rather than very clear explanations of their impossibility.
This attitude, of course, may belong to the general public more than to practicing scientists: it may be more caricature than characterization. The bourgeois Westerner since the days of Edison has always considered himself to be the inventor of his gadgets and gismos in some small way, as though the actual men and women in lab coats were only doing what he hadn’t the time to do. Yet let us be honest: the stigma of arrogance doesn’t belong only to those who take all the credit for living in a high-tech era without sharing in any of the know-how behind their technology. The inventors themselves, with all due respect, are increasingly overweening. They have no interest in that which doesn’t test “positive” on a sophisticated screening and whose rumored activities cannot be induced to re-occur when and where desired. If certain things by definition leave no trace in any experimental filter, then they are deemed not to exist… but is this kind of thinking not the quintessence of arrogant folly? Sounds and sights beyond the range of the human ear and eye didn’t exist, either, until about two centuries ago.
I am fairly confident that I could disappear into the woods and never be seen again if I really wanted to do so. I have seen bends and ravines in the Smoky Mountains where little clapboard shacks sit miles and miles from the nearest power line or sewage pipe… and who knows if some oldtimer still lives in one? There are refuges and preserves in Mississippi and Georgia from which one emerges upon Jackson or the suburbs of Atlanta as from a vast ocean upon a desert isle. Anyone who takes the window seat on a cross-country passenger flight must marvel at the enormity of our nation’s unpopulated area. Yet like a foolish scientist, we believe that even a lone fugitive possessed of the most advanced survival skills could not remain at large for long. The miles and miles that we drive every day from home to school to job to restaurant to shopping mall to home again team and seethe with people—indoors, in cars, or on foot—like an anthill trodden by a passing boot. Something as out-of-the-ordinary as a Sasquatch must be seen by somebody, sooner or later (sooner meaning by this afternoon, later by next week).
In this very environment, though, I could go for a walk tonight for ten blocks in any direction, and not a soul would see me. I could go well before midnight—I could go before nine o’clock, especially on a weeknight. If I heard a car coming, I could evade the headlights and fade into the shadows. If one door out of a hundred opened for a trip to the garbage can, say, or to retrieve a briefcase from a parked car, I could silence my footfalls and wait. I could probably walk from end to end of the city, and even those few who might see me peripherally from a highway or an intersection would see nothing but a dream’s shadow as they hastened eagerly to a rendezvous or steered their way wearily home to bed.
I could do this because I know where to walk, and when to walk, and how to blend in. I could probably do this in an ape suit, even without a million trees and their perpendicular shadows to absorb me.
The only thing that truly and completely perplexes me about Sasquatch is (as I have hinted before) his utter absence of a regular social life. How can he live this way, and why does he live this way? He appears to exist like Homer’s Cyclopes, spread among ample dark vales and caves to a density approaching statistical zero. The Greeks claimed that their one-eyed giants were made immortal at the forge of Hephaistus (though Homer, curiously, dubs Poseidon the father of Polyphemus). The Sasquatch may live a very, very long time. He has the physique to do so, and one must suppose that any member of the species surviving into adulthood would have the constitution of Superman. Longevity would also explain the creature’s remarkable knowledge of his territory and his canny understanding of human habits. He may well live for over a century.
Sooner or later, though, he has to reproduce. Male and female must meet. Such encounters are probably easy to arrange, for Sasquatch must have a sense of smell as highly evolved as our own is nearly vestigial. The sexes can no doubt detect each other’s presence within the same hundred square miles by scent left in the underbrush. The night howls and tree thumping which “researchers” are so fond of replicating may also well be indexed to sexual activity.
I do not suggest that abandoning a pregnant mate for more solitary wandering in the thicket has anything grossly unnatural about it per se. Bears live this way. So, in a very different environment, do cheetah. But the cheetah is indeed something of an evolutionary oddity, after all. A feline with several canine characteristics, it has stretched independence very close to the snapping point. When game is scarce or when it is wounded and cannot chase down its prey, it simply dies. No social group exists to soften the blows of physical isolation. Even on its best day, it must expend terrific bursts of energy to bring down one gazelle all by itself. A female hunting for a couple of cubs often returns to her lair to find her babies in bloody pieces, mangled by some bypassing leopard or hyena eager to eliminate local competition. No mate or sister ever stays home to guard the brood.
It is surprising, really, that any cheetah at all still exist. The trajectory of the species is carrying it inexorably toward extinction.
As for bears, their ability to hibernate is an incalculable advantage. They resemble the Sasquatch more than the cheetah in that their sheer size immunizes them to every predator except man; and their unique winter-long sleep allows them to protract life by living only half of it. Nature has been so generous to them that they have had to initiate few strategies on their own. The ursine brain is fairly small for an animal of such great mass.
In Sasquatch, however, we have a creature who perceives intently, finely analyzes, and learns much within a single life-cycle. He knows better than to kill when such an act would produce long-term complications. Yet he also seems to know that he may engage in discrete acts of terrorism with favorable results. He has figured out just how and where to push the human population back that has been pushing him into small pockets of dense forest for centuries. Due to the extreme sparseness of his numbers (so extreme that we do not honestly know if he exists), he must surely communicate his discoveries to others of his kind in a symbolic manner; for what one Sasquatch learned when engaging human intruders would most likely have been unobserved by any other Sasquatch, yet all of this far-flung clan would have a vital interest in the discovery.
Why, then, do these Cyclopean primates not form at least into small groups of three, four, or five? Are they so very savvy that they understand the risk of multiplying their immense silhouettes this many times in the forest shadows? They seem, rather, to have rejected social behavior long ago—or never to have blundered upon it. What does an agile mind think about, then, that has exchanges with other minds of its kind perhaps once or twice a year? What is an ordinary day in the life of a Sasquatch like?
I had waited eagerly for these few days of being alone so that I might give myself fully to my writing, the nuisance of petty interruptions entirely removed. I do not much care for people in their baboon-like troops, anyway. They scent themselves artificially, they deck themselves with tokens of luxury to demonstrate their high level of worldly success, they raise their voices above competing ones to assert their place in the pecking order, they show teeth until their eyes close as a sign of submission when the group leader makes a stale joke, they cram themselves into places that are far too close and hot to hear insipid music or cliché prattle for hours, they pickle their brains with intoxicants in the meantime lest the situation’s naturally nauseabund qualities overpower them… not my cup of tea.
And yet, I could not live like a Sasquatch. A mere morning of this unbroken communion with myself over a keyboard is enough to leave me vaguely depressed by afternoon. For what I seek in writing, I think, is the Man that men kill, the person that people bind and gag in their inane social rituals. I should love to take a lonely walk up Cold Mountain like Han Shan—but I would do so to understand life better, not to leave it behind or forget about it. Though he doesn’t say so in any of his poems, Han Shan obviously came back down the mountain and wrote; and one does not write unless for someone.
Does Sasquatch, then, leave poems ciphered in the leaf litter, like a kind of Buddhist Sibyl? Or does he only wait for deer to ambush and savage? If the latter, as seems more likely, then how is the formidable intellect within him to be rescued? Just because he has learned too well that we are not to be trusted, perhaps, he has shut himself off from the only life that matters. His soul hibernates year round as his mind hunts and spies and parses odors. We have killed him, too, and he doesn’t even know it.
A frequent contributor to these pages for years, John Moseby writes and teaches in the North Georgia area.