Tracking Sasquatch

Sasquatch

Grove Koger

The following review appeared in Boise Journal for April/May 2007, and is one of several I wrote about my state’s anomalies and mysteries for Idaho Media Corporation. By an odd coincidence, I had scheduled this post weeks before learning that author Jeff Meldrum will be speaking about the Patterson-Gimlin film at this year’s Pocatello Bigfoot Conference in Pocatello, Idaho. The conference runs September 20-21, and, as there is limited seating, tickets are required. See http://sasquatchprints.com/ for details.

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Jeff Meldrum, Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science. Forge / Tom Doherty, 2006.

Are we alone? Or to put the question another way, Do we, Homo sapiens, share the North American landscape with a close relative? A big, hairy one? Idaho State University Professor of Anatomy and Anthropology Jeff Meldrum thinks that we may, and here presents his evidence.

That evidence is of several types, some no more than suggestive, some a little more persuasive. At the suggestive end of the spectrum come art and folklore. As Meldrum makes clear, the concept of a large but elusive upright creature is common to a wide range of Native American peoples. He recounts stories and explores beliefs, but to my mind his most striking piece of evidence in this category is a ceremonial Tsimshian mask. Collected in remote northern British Columbia in the early years of the last century, the mask shows the unmistakable profile—beetling brow, flat nose and receding chin—of an ape.

Well and good, you say, but what about the physical evidence? Here Meldrum moves to the scientific end of the scale: films and photographs, recordings of vocalizations, statistical analyses, tufts of hair, and footprints, lots of footprints. Meldrum’s specialties are vertebrate locomotion and the evolution of human bipedalism. In studying casts of suspected sasquatch footprints, he finds evidence of bending and flexing—just what you would expect of real feet. Yet the casts are not of human feet, as their shape and great size and length of stride indicate.

Meldrum devotes two detailed chapters to what has been called the “gold standard” for sasquatch footage, the famous Patterson-Gimlin film of 1967. Shot by rodeo rider Roger Patterson in the Blue Creek Mountain region of northern California, the short piece of film shows a large, hairy, upright animal striding along the bank of a creek. The creature glances back over its shoulder several times at Patterson and his friend Bob Gimlin before disappearing up a draw. Meldrum visited the site shortly after reports of the incident were broadcast and was able to take casts of the creature’s footprints.

But just what could the sasquatch be? Meldrum devotes a fascinating chapter to the possibility that it’s a descendant of Gigantophithecus, an Asian ape that, true to its name, may have stood 10 feet tall. The land bridge that has existed from time to time between Siberia and Alaska would have allowed a small population of the apes to migrate to North America easily.

Meldrum goes on to discuss the seemingly “vexing” absence of a fossil record for such a creature, explaining the many factors militating against the creation of fossils or the preservation of bodily remains in a forest setting. Putting the problem in perspective, he points out that, until recently, virtually no fossils of chimpanzees or gorillas had been identified in their African homeland.

Sasquatch is one of the best works on its subject to date—thorough, even-handed, and scientifically grounded. Meldrum’s discussion of such arcane subjects as “skin ridge detail,” “hominoid crests,” and “gait parameters” may put off nonspecialists, but he has a light touch and illustrates his exposition with photos and clear diagrams.

Meldrum’s book appeared at a crucial time in the development of cryptozoology, the study of “hidden” or unknown animals. It’s dedicated to the memory of Washington State University professor Grover Krantz, whose death in 2002 robbed the cryptozoological world of one of its most important figures. There had been several other deaths in the field during the same period, and the once-active International Society of Cryptozoology had closed up shop several years before.

As Meldrum himself admits, he finds himself caught between two camps: the credulous, media-fed “cult of the mysterious” and the closed, jealous world of “institutional skepticism.” Yet he makes clear that he doesn’t “believe” in sasquatch. He states instead that a “respectable” body of evidence suggests its existence. He welcomes genuine skepticism, but points out that few so-called skeptics have been willing to give the evidence more than cursory examination. Here’s hoping they read his book.

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You probably can’t make out the blurb printed at the bottom of the book’s cover, so here’s the complete statement it’s taken from: “Jeff Meldrum’s book Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science brings a much needed level of scientific analysis to the Sasquatch—or Bigfoot—debate. Does Sasquatch exist? There are countless people—especially indigenous people—in different parts of America who claim to have seen such a creature. And in many parts of the world I meet those who, in a matter-of-fact way, tell me of their encounters with large, bipedal, tail-less hominids. I think I have read every article and every book about these creatures, and while most scientists are not satisfied with existing evidence, I have an open mind.”—Dr. Jane Goodall

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At the time I wrote this review, I understood that Meldrum had been denied a full professorship at Idaho State University due to his interest in sasquatch. I’m glad to report that, since then, his professional situation has changed for the better and that he is now Professor of Anatomy and Anthropology at ISU as well as an Adjunct Professor of Occupational and Physical Therapy. He’s gone on to publish a pair of pamphlets—the Sasquatch Field Guide and Sasquatch, Yeti and Other Wildmen of the World)—and currently edits a scholarly refereed journal called The Relict Hominoid Inquiry, which you can follow on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TheRelictHominoidInquiry/.

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Dersu & Vladimir

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Grove Koger

I hope to complete a second edition of When the Going Was Good, but in the meantime I’m posting revised and updated entries here. Today’s deals with a book by Vladimir Arseniev, who was born September 10, 1872.

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Dersu the Trapper (V debriakh Ussuriiskogo kraia. Khabarovk: Knizhnoe delo, 1928)

Vladimir Klavdievich Arseniev was born in St. Petersburg, where as a military cadet he studied under Siberian explorer Grigorii Grum-Grzhimailo. Inspired by his teacher, Arseniev developed an interest in eastern Siberia and eventually managed to have himself transferred to the region’s chief port, Vladivostok. From there the young officer undertook numerous expeditions through the Ussurian taiga, or forest, that lies along the Sea of Japan northeast of the port.

In 1906 Arseniev befriended an aging native guide named Dersu, subsequently employing him on a second expedition in 1907 and eventually celebrating him in several memoirs. Although Arseniev was a trained ethnographer and geographer as well as an experienced hunter, it was Dersu’s superior knowledge that allowed the Russian to survey and describe the region and its way of life—a way of life doomed by the very forces that Arseniev represented. And although Dersu saved Arseniev’s life repeatedly, Arseniev was ultimately unable to save his beloved friend.      

Arseniev was a prolific writer and came to be regarded as eastern Siberia’s greatest explorer. In his most famous book, he described three expeditions through the taiga and dated his initial encounter with Dersu to 1902, apparently for the sake of a coherent story. The result is not only a picture of a remote and desolate region but also a record of a friendship that transcended race and age. A Russian edition of the Dersu materials drawn from Arseniev’s memoirs and published in 1928 became the basis for the volume translated as Dersu the Trapper. Viewers captivated by the 1975 film Dersu Uzala from the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa will be gratified to know that Dersu really did exist and will welcome this mythopoetic account of his exploits.

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There are several editions of Arseniev’s book available in English. The Dutton edition (New York, 1941) was translated by Malcolm Burr and includes a publisher’s note, a number of sketches, three maps, a glossary, and an index. The McPherson edition illustrated above (Kingston, N.Y., 1996) reproduces a still from the Kurosawa film on its cover and reprints the Dutton edition, replacing its brief publisher’s note with a preface by Jaimy Gordon. The edition published by Raduga (Moscow, 1990?) as Dersu Uzala is translated by Victor Shneerson and may be based on an earlier (and briefer) Russian text of 1922; aside from an occasional note, it includes no supplementary material.

If you’d like to know more about Arseniev, see John J. Stephan, The Russian Far East: A History (Stanford University Press, 1994).

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James Hanley’s Ocean

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Grove Koger

For several years now, I’ve been working on a readers’ guide to maritime literature—novels, stories, plays and poems about sailing, the sea, the seaboard, and island life. I’m thinking of calling it “Sea Fever,” a title borrowed from a wonderful short poem by John Masefield. One of the entries I’ve completed is devoted to the most famous novel by James Hanley, who was born September 3, 1901, and died in 1985.

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The Ocean (London: Faber and Faber, 1941)

James Hanley left school in Liverpool for the sea when he was thirteen, and was completing his first trans-Atlantic voyage when World War II broke out. He spent several years on British troopships, deserted in Canada to join the Canadian army, and saw service in France. After making one last voyage, Hanley retired from the sea and taught himself to write while supporting himself as a laborer. His first important work, the 1931 novel Boy, describes the assault and murder of a young sailor and was suppressed upon publication.

The Ocean appeared a decade after Boy, and is set in the lifeboat of a ship that has been torpedoed by the Germans far from land. The only sailor aboard, Joseph Curtain, reassures, cajoles, berates, and shames the boat’s four civilians into surviving their ordeal. The language of The Ocean is vivid yet spare, an impressionistic record of the men’s thoughts and experiences:  “The eye travelled and stopped at a line where sky and water met, where one patch of water danced, one line of light seared the heavy shadow of sea.”

Hanley has been compared to Joseph Conrad, although he was critical of what he saw as Conrad’s disdain for ordinary seamen and their lot. His many works won the praise of fellow writers, but the uncompromising nature of his vision has precluded popular appeal. The Ocean is at once his most approachable novel and his greatest claim to fame.

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Other sea-related works by Hanley include  The Last Voyage: A Tale (1931); Men in Darkness: Five Stories (1931); Stoker Haslett: A Tale (1932); Aria and Finale (1932; also published in Half an Eye: Sea Stories as “Captain Cruickshank”); Captain Bottell (1933); Stoker Bush (1935); Half an Eye: Sea Stories (1937); The Hollow Sea (1938); Between the Tides (1939; nonfiction); Sailor’s Song (1943); Towards Horizons (1949; nonfiction); The Closed Harbour (1952); Don Quixote Drowned (1953; nonfiction); and Herman Melville: A Man in the Customs House (1971; nonfiction)

For further information, I recommend Edward Stokes, The Novels of James Hanley (F.W. Cheshire, 1964); Frank Harrington, James Hanley, A Bold and Unique Solitary (Typographeum, 1989); and John Fordham, James Hanley: Modernism and the Working Class (U Wales P, 2002).

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The painting on the cover of the book is Sea Ghost by Hanley’s son, Liam. The bird could easily be by George Braque and the landscape in the background is reminiscent of Ben Nicholson’s figurative works, but it’s an impressive piece just the same.

Vieuchange’s Forbidden City

Smara

Grove Koger

Until I complete a second edition of When the Going Was Good, I plan to post revised and updated entries. Today’s deals with Smara, the Forbidden City by French writer Michel Vieuchange, who was born on August 26, 1904, and died in 1930.

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Smara, the Forbidden City: Being the Journal of Michel Vieuchange While Travelling among the Independent Tribes of Southern Morocco and Rio de Oro (Chez les dissidents du Sud marocain et du Rio de Oro, Smara, carnets de route de Michel Vieuchange; Paris: Plon, 1932)

Influenced by such revolutionary spirits as Arthur Rimbaud and Frederic Nietzsche, young Frenchman Michel Vieuchange came to scorn the literary vocation he had aspired to. Turning instead to a life of action, he conceived the quixotic scheme of visiting Smara, a settlement he had learned about during military service in Morocco. Located in the Saguia el-Hamra region of what was then Spanish Sahara (and is now the Moroccan-occupied territory of Western Sahara), Smara had been founded by Sahrawi resistance leader Cheikh Ma el-Ainin in 1898, only to be abandoned by him a decade later after a military reversal. The French forces that reached it in 1913 found it deserted and laid waste to much of it, including its library.

Vieuchange began his journey from French Morocco one night in mid-September 1930. As Christians traveling in the Sahara were subject to almost certain death, he disguised himself at first as a woman and eventually hid himself in a basket hung from a camel. The physical rigors of the journey told on him immediately, and he came to realize that he was at the mercy of deceitful and abusive guides. He learned to eat locusts and drink “putrid water.” Yet he urged himself ever onward: “My only objective—to keep going.” Vieuchange’s small party reached Smara in early November, but his guides allowed him only three hours to wander the ruins of the “dead city.”

On his return journey, Vieuchange contracted dysentery and died in late November, converting, like Rimbaud before him, to Catholicism on his deathbed. His fragmentary, frequently harrowing journal was published two years later, edited and introduced by his brother Jean. In his eloquent preface, French poet Paul Claudel spoke of Vieuchange’s determination to reach Smara (and by extension death—and God), asserting that “never lover hastened to trysting-place at the bidding of his mistress with a heart so impatient.”

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Editions: The English translation is by Fletcher Allen. Editions in French and English contain an introduction, an epilogue and appendices by Vieuchange’s brother as well as a preface by Paul Claudel.

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Apalachicola

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Grove Koger

If we were to buy a second house, we’d choose one in Apalachicola, Florida. Maggie read about the little port and the nearby barrier island of St. George when we were planning a trip to New Orleans in 1999, and we thought that if we were going to fly all the way across the country, we should see as much as we could when we got there. We’ve been going back ever since.

The name of the port (and of the river at whose mouth it lies) is derived from the language of the area’s Native Americans, who began living there as early as 2000 BCE. The Spanish arrived in the early sixteenth century, and were followed by the English and, eventually, the Americans. The settlement was known at one time as Cottonton, and then, briefly, West Point. (There’s a town across the water to the east still known as East Point.) Apalachicola gained its modern name in 1831, and while locals know it as Apalach, we don’t presume to call it that ourselves.

The port’s gone through good times and bad, depending on the state of the oyster (or cotton or sponge or lumber) trade, the severity of tropical storms, and the depredations of yellow fever. Today Apalachicola has made a comeback thanks to the tourist trade, which benefits both the port and St. George Island (see my June 3, 2018, post).

Besides the venerable Gibson Inn (above), where we stay for a few days without fail, Apalachicola has several other attractions. One is Boss Oyster, where I eat the only fresh seafood I enjoy, blackened shrimp. Newer establishments include the wonderfully atmospheric Oyster City Brewery, which might well have drifted up one lazy afternoon from Key West, and the Apalachicola Chocolate & Coffee Company, which makes the richest chocolate cream pie I’ve ever tasted.

oyster city

Uneasy with the spectacle of the port’s growing prosperity, Maggie wrote “Money Comes to Apalachicola Bay,” which the Amsterdam Quarterly published last year. You can read it at http://www.amsterdamquarterly.org/aq_issues/aq21-money/margaret-koger-money-comes-to-apalachicola-bay/.

Some Enigmas

Calvi

Grove Koger

Occasionally the muse pays me a visit, and occasionally those visits bear fruit, allowing me to enter a place I can’t ordinarily reach with even the most through research and planning. One of the results I’m happiest with is “Enigma,” which Josh Wilson published in The Fabulist on November 5, 2015. You can see it at http://www.the-fabulist.org/author/grovekoger/.

But Josh was uncomfortable with the series of questions I’d posed in the poem, and asked my permission to shorten it. I accepted, on the grounds that the writer has one job and the editor another—a philosophy that I’ve shared with every writer I know and that, as a writer and copy editor, I understand from both points of view.

But I still prefer my original version of “Enigma,” despite the fact that a strict grammarian might have problems with the last few lines. Here it is:

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Sometimes those visits from the muse have resulted in vignettes or brief prose poems. One is “The Fields” which was published by 50-Word Stories on November 21, 2016, at https://fiftywordstories.com/2016/11/21/grove-koger-the-fields/.

Another is “That Great City,” which appeared in Gnarled Oak on April 2, 2018, at  http://gnarledoak.org/tag/grove-koger/.

I could reprint the pieces here, but I like to send readers directly to the publications that have been good enough (or perceptive enough—take your pick) to publish me.

Bon voyage!

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The wood engraving at the top of the post depicts the Corsican port and citadel of Calvi, which Maggie and I visited in 2008. It’s by E.T. Compton and is taken from The Picturesque Mediterranean: Its Cities, Shores, and Islands, published by Cassell in New York circa 1890.

Kinglake’s Superficial Traces

Kinglake 2

Grove Koger

My book When the Going Was Good is now out of print, and until I complete a second edition, I plan to post revised and updated sections here. Today’s entry deals with Eothen: or, Traces of Travel Brought Home from the East by Alexander Kinglake, who was born on August 5, 1809. The book was originally published by John Ollivier in London in 1844, and has never been out of print.

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Scion of a well-placed English family, Kinglake attended Eton and Trinity College, Oxford. Drawn to the army but disqualified because of poor eyesight, he turned to the law, but interrupted his studies for a more exciting enterprise. Kinglake’s friend John Savile had lately returned from Russia and Asia, and now he and Kinglake proposed another trip, this one together.

The two planned to travel through the Ottoman Empire, which stretched in a crescent from southeastern Europe through Asia Minor and the Middle East and westward again into North Africa. Setting out in late 1834 with a handful of attendants and an interpreter named Mysseri, Kinglake and Savile traveled from Belgrade to Constantinople and Smyrna. When Savile was forced to quit the expedition, Kinglake continued on to the island of Cyprus, the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, Egypt, and Syria. Retracing part of his route, Kinglake returned home fifteen months after starting out.        

Eothen (“From the Early Dawn” or “From the East”) is one of the most engaging travel books ever written. Kinglake intended it to be “quite superficial” in character, by which he meant that he had left out the many pages of  “improving” information and passages of description that other authors inserted in their travelogues. He instead recorded only what was perceived by “a headstrong and not very amiable traveller.” (In the book’s comic highpoint, Kinglake and another Englishman meet each other crossing the Egyptian desert by camel in opposite directions, but the two merely raise their hands in greeting and proceed phlegmatically; only their servants’ refusal to stand on ceremony allows them eventually to exchange a few words.) It is this unabashed irreverence that has kept the book fresh, although the same quality put off publishers in Kinglake’s own time, making it necessary for him to subsidize its eventual appearance in 1844.

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There are a number of editions of Eothen available. The one whose cover is illustrated above is from Century (London, 1982) and includes an introduction by well-known travel writer Jonathan Raban. The Oxford University Press edition (Oxford, 1982) includes an introduction by another well-known figure in the field, Jan Morris.

For further information about Kinglake, I recommend Gerald de Gaury, Travelling Gent: The Life of Alexander Kinglake (1809–1891) and Iran Banu Hassani Jewett, Alexander W. Kinglake (Boston: Twayne, 1981).