Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Headless Horseman, Bigfoot, and Nature

The headless horseman.  Click for photo credit.
When I visited Walt Whitman's boyhood home on Long Island recently, I purchased a small book of short stories by Washington Irving.  I read Irving when I was young, but I am currently making my way though some of the regional writing of New York and New England in my leisure reading.  Irving's short stories seemed a good addition to my bedside book pile, particularly given my love for 19th century literature.

The first short story I read was The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  The story is simple.  A small hamlet, Sleepy Hollow, is an out of the way village near the Hudson River that is home to numerous supernatural stories of ghosts, witches, and most importantly, the headless horseman.  The horseman is supposedly a ghost of a revolutionary war soldier who's head was blown off in battle.

The surrounding community engages a superstitious and imaginative teacher, Ichabod Crane, who evinces the superstitious nature of the community and augments the sense of the spectral with stories of his own from his native Connecticut.

Of course, like many good stories, there is a love triangle with the daughter of a wealthy farmer, Ichabod's desired partner, and a burly local young man the third of the triad.  Ichabod, between teaching the children of the rural area and imagining ghosts and witches all around him, dreams of improving his lot in life by marrying the wealthy young woman.  of course, in due time, might and brawn wins over brains and imaginations and poor Ichabod is rejected by her.  To make matters worse, he is chased out of town in terror by his burly rival in the form of the headless horseman!

Bigfoot out surfing in Washington.  Click for photo credit.
While reading this story, I was reminded of my friend and former student, Joe Murphy.  Joe was part of a field geography class I taught some time ago.  I took the group from Florida to California.  We spent time in the coastal ranges of Sonoma County and in the Sierra Nevada Range of Plumas County.  As part of the class, students had to develop their own field projects on the physical or human geography of the regions we visited.  Joe decided to pick a very unique topic--Bigfoot--as his research theme in the Sierras.

Bigfoot sightings are recorded for various areas of California and Plumas County has its fair share of notable incidents.  It is home to many Bigfoot enthusiasts and some of the local restaurants and stores have photos on display Bigfoot or Bigfoot footprints.  I wasn't particularly thrilled with Joe's choice of topic.  I wanted the students to be quantitative, scientific, and analytical.  But, Joe rightly made the case that the topic fit nicely within the realm of cultural geography--a topic with which, at the time, I had little experience given my background in geology and soil science.

Another reason that I was uncomfortable with Joe's topic is that I really had no time for people who were superstitious or who embraced pseudoscience.  Growing up in rural Wisconsin, I, like Ichabod Crane, was highly aware of ghosts witches, and other supernatural specters.  I could also tell a good tale as well.  However, my college education taught me reason and the scientific method.  So, Joe's topic made me uncomfortable.  But, I gave him the green light to go ahead the develop his ideas within the context of the cultural geography of Plumas County, California.

As it turns out, his work was among the more remarkable student works of my career.  He reviewed the history of Bigfoot sightings in the area, and spoke with a number of local residents about the topic.  He found that Bigfoot was a big part of the cultural identity of the region with material culture goods in the form of Bigfoot trinkets and other memorabilia, and non-material culture in the form of place names, menu items (Bigfoot sandwich I believe), and other interesting features.

Would the region be the same without Bigfoot?  The sightings certainly brought tourists to the area.  But Like Sleepy Hollow, many people in the region had a disposition to accept and repeat the Bigfoot legends.

But Joe took his thoughts one step further.  He argued that Bigfoot was symbolically important.  In many ways, he noted, Bigfoot is a metaphor for nature--a nature that is wild and unknown.  He made the case that a world of reason that rejects Bigfoot is a world without nature.  We culturally construct Bigfoot legends because of the very wildness of nature and because of our fear of the unknown and the anticipation of danger lurking in the dark.

In the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, we have the headless horseman legend existing among an out-of-the-way hamlet connected with the outside world by isolated shadowy roadways.  Lonely churchyards, graveyards, and bridges full of historic mysteries and the unknown add an ethereal nature to the community.  The expansion of New York City, at least at that time, did not include this corner of the world which is now not too far from the current Tappen Zee Bridge.  In Ichabod's time, this now suburban landscape was a mysterious land.

After reading Joe's work, I asked myself whether I preferred to live in a world where Bigfoot exists, or a world without the beast.  The answer was clear.  Bigfoot is indeed a symbol of wilderness and I want to always have Bigfoot, the headless horseman, the Chupacabra, or other things that roam around the wold forests, swamps, and plains of the world.  While my reason tells me that these creatures are not there, my heart looks for them.

Last year, I visited a friend who lives in a remote valley of the Catskill Mountains.  His young neighbor is quite a hunter and set up motion sensor cameras in the woods to catch images of animals as they go by his preferred hunting stands.  He does this to try to figure out where best to hunt during the season.  During my visit, the neighbor stopped by to say he got an image of the local Bigfoot in the motion camera.  Of course, we all wanted to see and we marched off to his house to crowd around his computer.  What we saw was a blurry outline of something that was probably a close-up image of a deer that happened to walk right by the lens.  But others were convinced it was the Bigfoot.

As an environmental scientist I was asked my opinion.  I didn't believe for an instant it was Bigfoot and I told them so.  But, I was pleased that my opinion had little impact on the young hunter.  To him, he got a perfect image of the creature.  He will continue to look for him.  He will continue to believe.  He will always have Bigfoot in the hills around him.  And nature remains.

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