Bigfoot. Boggy Creek. Sasquatch. Skunk Ape. Yeti. The Fouke Monster. The Jersey Devil.
You cryptozoologists out there, you know who I’m talking about.
Yet at a recent birthday party, I found myself defending the idea that Boggy/Skunk Ape/Jersey Devil, a large, terrestrial, reputedly larger-than-man-size mammal might, in 2013, be roaming the North American wilderness somewhere in Siberia, Mongolia, Alaska… even New Jersey.
Let me repeat that, not that it does exist, but that it might.
I was raised in the 70s. This was the time of the Iran hostage crisis, polyester three-piece suits, and dramatic re-enactments in documentaries. In the summer, my parents liked to get rid of me for a few weeks by sending me to run wild in the Ozarks of Arkansas, where my grandmother lived. Days consisted of riding the neighbor’s tick-infested pinto ponies with just a halter and no saddle, running barefoot around areas where hookworm infestations were only a recent memory, and hunting Boggy Creek (the Arkansas version of Bigfoot) with my slightly older cousin Sean, armed with a bb gun.
The special shoulder-blade creep of fear when I thought about Boggy Creek can only be described as addictive. I think of it that way now, but I am sure my parents would tell you a different story– that I could not sleep at night, for fear of a giant, hairy arm smashing through the window and feeling around for me on my bunk bed with its massive fingers. One night I woke up and stared out through the trees, watching a UFO circle and circle behind our maple tree. I screamed for my Dad, who came in and stared at it with me for several seconds until he realized it was a street lamp behind the branches… an optical illusion produced by a soft breeze and a very vivid imagination.
I did spend a lot of time in the library that year after school looking up reports of planes and ships gone missing in the Bermuda Triangle, plotting the last spot where the Titanic (not yet found at that time) might have gone down, and researching corroborative sightings of strange creatures… mothman, chupacabra (the goat-sucker), the Loch Ness monster. (This was pre-internet, people!) I considered how dragons might have been leftover dinosaurs. I pondered the mystery of ships like the Mary Celeste, found sailing unmanned with the breakfast table still set, and of Area 51. As I’ve gotten older, the fringe has not lost it’s power of attraction for me: I read Konstantine Raudive’s book about electronic voice phenomena. I’ve wandered through abandoned houses with my mother asking the air if there are presences there that are unseen, and listening for answers. I’ve had an experience or two I can’t explain.
And believe me… I want to understand. I want to know. Which may be why I couldn’t stop going to school. I got a bachelor’s degree in Biology, and at the same time, a bachelor’s degree in Literature. Then a master’s degree in English, and later, if that were not useless enough in money-making terms, a master of fine arts degree in poetry. Because Bigfoot, if nothing else, is the most poetic of creatures. He is the poster-child of possibility. He is the target in the shooting gallery of skeptics, and he reminds me what all of this was all about… from the moment I was 8 years old and saw my first episode of In Search Of….
A true skeptic is not a naysayer, but a listener, an observer, one who discerns from a neutral place of gathered information. Put another way, a skeptic is an undecided jury… and if that jury does not have evidence that truly confirms a decision one way or another… well then the jury stays out. At least, this is what I thought skepticism was… until the drunken conversation I had last Saturday night. It went something like this:
What do you think about Bigfoot?
Whad’ya mean, what do I think about Bigfoot?
Do you think he/she/it could exist?
Of course not.
Because I don’t believe that spongebob squarepants is real. Or that spiderman is real. It’s just not possible.The fact that there could be a living mammal of that size still undiscovered? In North America? Where the hell would it hide?
You mean it’s not probable, but you can’t say it’s not possible.
No, I’m saying it’s not possible. There is just no way.
Because you know for a fact that there is no Bigfoot.
Even though we just found some people in the South American jungle who had never had contact with other humans or modern civilization. And when helicopters fly over their village they try to shoot it down with arrows.
Well that’s different.. we are talking about North America… there’s just not enough uninhabited space. An animal that size would need huge amounts of territory.
It’s a huge country. What about the Alaskan wilderness? What about the pine barrens in New Jersey?
Okay yeah, I’ll give you Alaska… that’s huge and there’s a lot of space… but no, it’s just not possible. Someone would have seen something. I mean something definite, not just plaster casts and hairballs, and strange yodeling off in the woods…
No, I get that. But people have reported seeing things, for years and years. Just because no one has shot one and dragged in the carcass doesn’t mean you can say it is absolutely positively impossible. I mean I agree, it’s highly improbable… but there is still a mystery there. A nano-mystery perhaps, but a mystery.
Aww… come on. Now you’ll be telling me that ghosts are real, and jackalopes.
Is it just because you don’t like the idea, or think it is stupid, or trivial, or too hairy, or too 70’s?
No, it’s that I am rational. I’m a skeptic. There is no possibility that bigfoot is real.
I thought that a skeptic is someone who has a reasonable doubt, not someone who flatly doesn’t believe. If you don’t believe in something, you’re not longer a skeptic, you’re just a different kind of believer. A non-believer. And that totally makes sense if it’s true. But if you dismiss it just because it’s probably not true, well then you’re taking that on faith, aren’t you?
I don’t believe in Bigfoot, because Bigfoot does not exist.
Okay, then what about Yeti?
Excuse me, I need another drink.
I really wasn’t trying to be a pain in the ass here… but I was trying to understand the idea of why a person would walk through the world putting big X marks through possibilities. I was taught that science is the discipline of attempting to let go of what wants and believes, to try to see what is and what isn’t. It is a highly difficult act. Some might say highly improbable to succeed at… even impossible. But we try to do it every day in order to have a relationship with the possibility of discovery, and of change, and of revising our concepts of what is possible. In short… how we keep evolving. Not to mention that a world without discovery of new things would really really suck.
I think my childhood self, which I discovered last Saturday night is alive and well and firmly occupying my adult self… loves and believes in the possibility of Bigfoot, because the essence of Bigfoot is hearsay, it is grainy 8mm video, it is the threat of hoax, it is the shivery feeling of being watched, and it is the desire to keep looking, and uncovering, and doubting and thinking and wondering.
If skepticism has truly become an “ism”- that is, as system of knee-jerk reaction to certain taboo ideas, interests that smack of eccentricity, or a hubris taken from the dismissal of ideas outright because they are unwieldy, difficult to pin down, hard to replicate, distasteful, or simply too against one’s paradigm to entertain, then I don’t believe in skepticism. I choose rather, the highly improbable crunch of twigs. The glimpse of possibility commonly known as Bigfoot.