Bigfoot - and Sasquatch and Yeti and Almas and several other variations on the wildman legend, including Old Yellow Top of Cobalt, Ont. - used to be an interest of mine. Not a hobby or an obsession, but an interest, deriving from a longer-term interest in prehistorical humans and other hominids generally. I had a short shelf of books on Bigfoot/Sasquatch, several of which turn up in the bibliography of scholar and writer ( The Fire Ant Wars) Joshua Blu Buhs's Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend.
I mention this not because it makes me an expert, which it does not, but because it explains why I might want to read a semi-academic work about a creature that mainstream science, almost without exception, regards as myth or legend, and certainly not real.
- Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend, by Joshua Blu Buhs, University of Chicago Press, 279 pages, $34.95
It also explains why so much of Buhs's book sounded familiar to me. Frankly, though people have continued to report seeing Bigfoot, Sasquatch and Yeti in the 25 or 30 years since I last paid serious attention to the subject, not much has changed. Many of the same characters are being cited, including B.C. anthropologist Don Abbott, who studied the famous Bigfoot film clip by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin; René Dahinden, the Swiss immigrant to Canada who became a famous, some would say notorious, Sasquatch hunter; John Napier, anatomist and anthropologist and the author of one of several previous books titled Bigfoot; Albert Ostman, a prospector who claimed he was abducted by a family of Sasquatch in 1924; the Wallace brothers, California construction workers who "discovered" tracks of Bigfoot deep in the forest, and who, eventually, confessed they had faked the footprints; and, of course, 19th-century showman P.T. Barnum, who exhibited a series of patently fake wildmen in his early circuses.
Call them cryptids (from the Greek for "hidden," as in cryptozoology) or hominids, the phenomenon seems endlessly fascinating. Nearly every human culture has some variation on the wildman theme, and serious scientists have made the case that there could well be relict populations of Neanderthals, Gigantopithecus and/or other hominid species haunting the fringes of the civilized world, popping into sight just often enough to remind us that we don't know everything. Primatologist Jane Goodall has supported Bigfoot researchers, as have other naturalists, and wildlife biologist John Bindernagel published a book comparing reported Bigfoot behaviour with that of large apes as a demonstration that all those Bigfoot reports couldn't have been faked.
But others - almost all others, in the scientific world - maintain that the necessity of minimum breeding populations and the difficulties of finding enough food to maintain those massive bodies make the likelihood of cryptid survival vanishingly small. Buhs seems generally to be of that camp. He says early on, explaining his fascination with Bigfoot, "Here was a creature ... that embodied various ideas about the natural world ... but didn't exist." It is, in fact, what the wildman phenomenon says about human culture and man's relationship to the natural world that is the subject of Buhs's Bigfoot.
And that can be interesting stuff. In the 1960s in North America, especially, Bigfoot was big business. Books were published, Argosy magazine devoted an entire issue to the subject (and sold out in a week), movies were made. Apart from its plain old entertainment value, Buhs says, "Bigfoot was popular among white working-class men because Sasquatchiana reflected their hopes, their fears, and their hidden desires." (I find this a bit of a stretch, though he does argue the case.)
But I believe the value of Buhs's book is in its synthesizing of the many historical Bigfoot/Sasquatch stories into one readable narrative, and its summing-up of the state of Bigfoot research and belief today.
Buhs ends with the most recent humiliations and indignities in the field - primarily more fake "evidence" that blows up on close examination - and points out that that many of the "classic" Bigfoot hunters died around the turn of the 21st century, without ever seeing their dream - indisputable proof of the existence of Bigfoot or Sasquatch - become a reality. And that is sad.
But as he points out elsewhere, there is a new generation of Bigfoot hunters - small but dedicated, as always - who haven't given up. And as difficult as I find it to believe that anyone is going to turn up a Sasquatch, there is a part of me that wants to believe they're out there.
H.J. Kirchhoff is the deputy Books editor for The Globe and Mail.