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The Siren's Call: Bigfoot and secret societies

How much evidence do you need? Is the truth out there? New books consider our tireless fascination with unsolved mysteries.

August 30, 2009|By Nick Owchar

Remember Robert Bly's bestselling 1990 book "Iron John: A Book About Men"? It was the manifesto for a movement -- a call for men to get back in touch with their primal selves. Go out in the woods, strip off your shirt, bang on a drum and howl at the moon.

Bly's book and its cause have long been easy targets for comedians and columnists, but don't smirk -- there was a point there. Bly drew on the Grimm brothers' tale of Iron John/Iron Hans, a wildman in the woods who teaches a young prince some necessary lessons in order to move from childhood to maturity. Bly saw the dark woods as representing the unconscious, while the wildman hiding in it was an aspect of the male psyche that had been lost or forgotten in the modern world.

I couldn't stop thinking of that as I read " Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend" ( University of Chicago: 280 pp., $29) because it's a viewpoint that author Joshua Blu Buhs essentially shares. Whether or not there's really a furry, humanoid-like creature out there, he says, our obsession with finding him stems from a psychological need -- we want to believe there's a beast in the woods, waiting to be found.

That view's certainly going to irritate the Bigfooters.

There are very serious ones out there. When you get past all the spoof material on the Web -- and there is plenty -- you come across proprietors like Bobbie Short, whose site Bigfoot Encounters aims to debunk skeptics and serve as a place to report sightings. The Blogsquatcher also solicits reports of sightings, as well as offering a miscellany of posts about fear pheromones, hoaxes, hunter experiences and Bigfoot "vocalizations."

While the Bigfooters are intent on the proof of Bigfoot's existence, Buhs asserts that the only thing we can absolutely confirm about him is this: Our interest is a sign of our unquenchable fascination for mysteries. Our collective mind set has been primed by centuries of "stories about wildmen" -- these include reports by Marco Polo and other early explorers, fantastic bestiaries, P.T. Barnum's What-Is-It and the Brothers Grimm -- so that Bigfoot's "arrival" in the mid-20th century is just the latest in a long parade of curious figures:

As Buhs writes: "The ancient Greeks' fervid imaginations populated the earth with all sorts of wildmen and wildwomen: Amazons and centaurs and cyclopes and fauns and giants and maenads and satyrs and sileni and titans. . . . Throughout history, stories about wildmen have provided a way of thinking about what it means to be human . . . "

Michael McLeod takes a similar tack in "Anatomy of a Beast: Obsession and Myth on the Trail of Bigfoot" ( University of California: 224 pp., $24.95), considering Bigfoot more as a cultural manifestation than a hairy reality. "Bigfoot is more than just a silly slice of history," McLeod says. "The beast's appearance on the national scene marked an important milestone: the first widely popularized example of pseudoscience in American culture."

"Pseudoscience" may hit the Bigfooters especially hard -- but McLeod and Buhs use this term only to point out how devilishly difficult it has been for the scientific community to investigate the phenomenon. Buhs begins his book with the discovery of tracks on Mt. Everest in 1951 said to be made by a red-haired being called the Yeti and Sir Edmund Hillary's expedition to find evidence (unsuccessful). He also turns to the search, in Canada, for a related creature called the Sasquatch. Much of McLeod's narrative also describes the intense efforts by professional searchers to encounter a creature that hapless hikers have never seemed to have any trouble finding. He also looks at the continuing debate over the late Roger Patterson's famous 1967 film footage. You know what this shows -- a large creature looks back as it lumbers across a dry riverbed in Bluff Creek, Calif.

Though a variety of players overlap in these two books, each has its own particular strengths. Buhs, for instance, does an excellent job of showing how Bigfoot was readily embraced by the growing industry of pulp fantasy stories and men's magazines in the 1950s and 1960s. Bigfoot, he explains, fueled our male fantasies of adventure (shades of Bly). One of the best sections in McLeod's book is about a vast area -- first described by David Rains Wallace in his book "The Klamath Knot" -- covering the California- Oregon border and including Six Rivers National Forest (which encompasses Bluff Creek, by the way) and Klamath National Forest. This entire region is regarded as the "Galapagos of North America":

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