Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Giant Steps

The titles or authors I can’t recall, the content only barely, but the photos in my elementary school’s surprisingly bountiful selection of Bigfoot books spring back into memory as though only days, rather than decades, have passed. The thing lived on the peripheries of the visible, so naturally it was the images that really mattered. The elusiveness of the creature could not have seemed more carefully designed. The iconic, infinitely reproduced stills from the 1967 Roger Patterson film, sensuously grainy, as though the creature’s fur were mottled with blur, and that pose, looking back over its shoulder like a wounded lover bidding a dramatic farewell, fascinated me like it did millions of other kids, and, I guess, almost as many adults. Bigfoot was already so perfect, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to alter its allure by trying to prove its existence, or by, most appallingly, trying to hunt it down and kill it. Bigfoot—or Sasquatch, to use the more noble-sounding and proudly Canadian term—would only ever be Bigfoot so long as it remained in the shadows, off the grid, never quite seen by prying eyes.

Author Joshua Blu Buhs

Much to the chagrin of those determined to usher the creature into the annals of legitimate science, Bigfoot lends himself quite nicely to being placed within the universal myth of the wild man, a potent symbol of our primal conscience. If he does exist, would Bigfoot be the product of nature, or would be some manifestation of the collective unconscious, a shared desire to believe that something almost human could persevere uncorrupted by the domesticating and soul-deadening effects of civilization, a Frankenstein’s monster built not of disparate body parts but of fragments from our vast cultural swamp? Such questions, however ridiculous the subject matter might seem to some, can yield complex and revealing answers, and I can’t imagine anyone providing better ones that Joshua Blu Buhs does in his engrossing read
Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend (The University of Chicago Press, $34.95). The book is a biography of a figure whose existence is extremely dubious at best—and Buhs, while remaining respectful of true believers, makes clear from the outset that he’s not among them—and is thus in essence a biography of the conditions under which this figure was cultivated and came to thrive. Buhs tells a great story by weaving together a multitude of interrelated stories taking place over two continents and the better part of a century. There are countless terrific anecdotes: the man who shot Bigfoot and listened to him tell his life story as he lay dying; a guy being abducted by a Bigfoot and held captive in a cave with an entire Bigfoot family, the implication being that he was destined to become the boyfriend of Bigfoot’s daughter; Jimmy Stewart agreeing to smuggle a Yeti paw from Nepal to England. Bigfoot spawned a lot of things, among them great stories, heated arguments, and a hugely profitable industry. But along the way he also spawned a community of misfits, some passionate and articulate, some cynical, some cracked. The story of their formation is one of the book’s highlights.

“What accounts for Bigfoot’s popularity?” Buhs asks. Perhaps it is that the possibility of its existence “was evidence that the world was not yet fully explored, that there was still room for man to test his mettle, to touch the really real behind the false front of consumer goods and scientific arrogance.” This angle, of modern man—and we are talking mostly about males here—alienated by an intellectualized, feminized, materialistic or reductive culture lies at the heart of Buhs’ thesis. The men who made Bigfoot what he is were mostly white, working-class and rural, loggers, hunters, small town reporters, disgruntled scientists and more than a few outright con men, Patterson, as most reports attest, being one of them. Following the emergence of sensational Yeti reports in the Himalayas, sightings of Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest and of Sasquatch in British Columbia, as well as reports of traces of the creature, such as hair, feces and, most famously, footprints, began to accumulate in the 1950s, leading to an explosion of Bigfoot related material in the 60s, the overwhelming majority of it turning up in magazines devoted to a blend of traditional masculine interests and the paranormal. As Buhs traces the development of Bigfoot iconography a compelling case is built around the creature fulfilling a deep need, becoming a figure of authenticity in a world where so much of what constitutes daily life is composed of the overtly phony, and mass produced.

Yet from almost the very beginning Bigfoot seemed ready to be co-opted. The creature represented a tireless resistance against consumerism within the very culture in which consumerism was born, yet this same creature was all too adaptable not only to the dictates of literature and movies, but to New Age ideologues and people trying to sell more Canadian Club and Kokanee—like a good many backwoodsmen, Bigfoot, it seems, is a heavy drinker. He would with time become safe, cuddly, a best friend to the Hendersons. He would be the poster monster for environmentalists, and a sort of prototype for the teachings of
Iron John and Women Who Run With the Wolves. The creature has never been captured, but he has been stuffed with fire-repellant materials and can be frequently found enjoying a wild ride at Disneyland. By taking a closer look at the cultural history, Buhs suggests that with the demise of the primitive Bigfoot and the ascendance of the new, hip, fully tamed one, we can trace some sort of gradual surrender to the unstoppable juggernaut of modern artificiality. The stalwarts, meanwhile, have not given up their vigil. The creature may still be out there, immune to polluted streams and deforestation, smacking his feet into some soft earth as a way to say “I was here,” and laughing at us as he returns to his cave to watch free cable.

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