Book Review: ‘I Know What I Saw’

scary tall and thin black trees in blue background

Seriously weird wildlife.

NOTE: this article was originally published to WSJ.com on August 2, 2019. It was written by Tom Shippey.

 

A collection of firsthand sightings of mythical and mysterious creatures in the U.S., from the Oglala Deer Woman to the Texas Lobo Girl.

 

Farmers on the Mediterranean island of Corsica have been complaining for a long time that something was preying on their sheep and lambs, but no one in authority believed them. In June the predator at last was identified: the “cat-fox” or (in Corsican dialect) “ghjattu volpe,” a previously unknown species of large wildcat. If a new creature can turn up on a relatively small island that has been settled for millennia, what, one might ask, could still be lurking in the woods of Maine or Washington state?

That’s the question raised by Linda Godfrey’s “I Know What I Saw,” a collection of firsthand encounters with strange creatures from all over America, including the Oglala Deer Woman, the angry little Haunchies near Muskego, Wis., and the “upright canines” or dog-men spotted in many locations. As Ms. Godfrey points out, however, even with firsthand accounts, people tend to assimilate “what I saw” to what they’ve already heard about, and nowadays there are so many things we’ve all heard about: ghosts, werewolves, even sci-fi notions of energy vortices and dimensional portals.

See a pale humanoid creature in a cave in Mexico, for example, and it’s a “Gollum.” Ms. Godfrey quotes a very clear description, given by a former Marine, of a 7-foot-tall “stick person” running along a road in Ohio—not the only such sighting in this area—but she also notes Native American accounts of “stick people” and now the “Slender Man” meme circulating online. Might the sightings have been unconsciously affected by such stories?

On the other hand, maybe old legends sprang from similar sightings long ago. Ms. Godfrey frequently matches up modern reports with Native American folk tales regularly dismissed as imaginative or mythical. Thus the Deer Man described in Ojibwe tales resembles one of the dozen “deer people”—walking upright, with quasi-human bodies but deer-faces and oversize heads—recorded in a parking lot in Colorado in 2018. The old legend might have given rise to the report (though there’s no evidence that it did). But sometimes the modern report comes first.

In the 1890s, for instance, there were several sightings of a giant serpent in Lake Geneva, Wis., and once again there are Potawatomi stories of the same thing. But the stories, though ancient, were known only to a few anthropologists and not published in English until the late 1920s. They cannot have shaped the monster-scare a generation before.

The same goes for the Witchy Wolves of Omer Plains in Michigan. In May 1896, the Keeney family went to tend the grave of their son, Corwin, who had died in captivity in the Civil War, with his remains returned only in 1895. To their alarm, a she-wolf had commandeered the recently dug grave as a birthing-den and “sprang from her lair, snarling,” reinforced by members of her pack. There could have been a natural explanation. But people started to say that the cause was a curse put on the corpse, or (a Chippewa version) a case of “spirit dogs that guard the graves of ancient warriors.” Since then there have mysterious deaths, Witchy-Wolf tracks, and hounds sent to follow the tracks that didn’t come back.

The most ancient correlation, however, has to be between “Bigfoot” and legends from much further away. One of the heroes of the epic of Gilgamesh, 4,000 years old, is Enkidu, half-human, half-animal, covered in fur but walking erect. And then there is the famously shaggy Esau in Genesis 25, born “red all over like a hairy garment . . . a cunning hunter, a man of the field.” Esau famously surrenders his birthright to his agriculturalist younger twin Jacob, though his descendants do not entirely pass out of history.

Is Bigfoot lore a memory, perhaps, of prehistoric competition between hominid variants? The fossil record gets more complicated all the time, and there certainly were once creatures like Enkidu or Bigfoot. But they’re extinct, right?

Maybe so, but there’s room for doubt. To start with, one thing about which there can be little doubt is the presence, in non-legendary reality and right up to the present, of large black felines all across the Midwest. In an appendix, Ms. Godfrey cites more than 80 big-cat sightings near Hillsboro, Wis., and the reason seems obvious. As the human population becomes more road-bound, cougars or mountain lions are extending their territory once more. The puzzling thing is that so many of them are black, which is thought to be possible only in leopards and jaguars. Hybridization? A result of zoo escapees or abandoned pets? The colonization of the Everglades by Burmese pythons reminds us of what can happen when animals escape captivity.

The dog-men or “upright canines” are harder to explain. They stretch from the “dog woman” of Wernersville, Pa., who terrified three teenagers out ghost-hunting in the 1970s, to the Wolf Woman of Mobile, Ala., around the same time, and the Texas Lobo Girl, who sounds like a kind of American Mowgli, back in the 1830s. Was she the source of all the later legends?

Ms. Godfrey keeps a somewhat open mind on wolves with human faces, but she thinks there are too many sightings of giant dogs to be pure invention. Dire wolves, extra-large relatives of today’s wolves and dogs, were real but are now extinct. But could we be looking at another case of hybrids, made even scarier in people’s minds by images from werewolf movies?

Going back to Bigfoot, also known as Sasquatch (among many other names), if such creatures exist, they would be not only an undiscovered species but a primate or even a hominid, our closest relative. As it happens, Ms. Godfrey is sure she has seen one herself—and saw him throw a rock accurately at her companion, a very human ability—but never full-face or close-up. Still, when dealing with wary creatures (and most creatures have good reason to be wary of humans), it’s natural that encounters will be fleeting, taking place in poor light, signaled only by stench, strange noises or movement in the trees.

As with black cats and “dire dogs,” though, we have lots of encounters, in modern times, consistently reported. Perhaps Bigfoot is expanding his territory like the cougars, in which case we could all be in for a surprise one day, like the authorities on Corsica. It seems that there are still bits of the “goblin universe” out there—Goat Men, Puckwudgies, Spook Pooches and more. Ms. Godfrey gives an admirably tantalizing but evenhanded guide to them.

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