Down in the woods, something stirs

Toby Howard

This review first appeared in New Scientist, 5 August, 1995.

Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide by Robert Michael Pyle, Houghton Mifflin Company, pp338, $21.95

ON OCTOBER 20, 1967, so the story goes, Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin surprised a female Bigfoot in the Bluff Creek valley of Northern California. Thrown to the ground when his frightened horse bucked, Patterson grabbed his rented movie camera, and ran after the fleeing Bigfoot, shooting 952 frames of sixteen-millimetre film, at an uncertain speed. Patterson's film certainly exists. But does Bigfoot?

The belief that there is an unknown species of hominoid primate, a Yankee Yeti, living in the wilderness areas of the north-western United States, is an enduring one. Drawing upon years of apocryphal reports, and disputable physical evidence, the consensus among believers is that Bigfoot is a nomadic, nocturnal, foul-smelling, omnivorous ape-like creature, at least six feet tall, powerful enough to hurl boulders, yet shy and non-aggressive. The non-believers protest that the evidence is nowhere near conclusive. The believers and the non-believers continue to argue the toss.

Funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship, naturalist Robert Pyle set out to explore the myths, legends, evidence and hoaxes that comprise Bigfoot culture. In Where Bigfoot Walks, he presents a narrative account that combines a report of his Bigfoot fieldwork, a compelling plea for ecological sanity, and a potpourri meditation on the nature of human belief.

Pyle has trekked into Bigfoot country (the 'Dark Divide' of northern Washington State), interviewed native Americans about their tribal traditions, attended conferences, and met with many of the major characters, asking the obvious questions on our behalf: If the sightings are as abundant as claimed, why hasn't a Bigfoot yet been captured? Where are their bones? How do they get enough to eat? Where do they go in winter? The believers respond with confident theories, suggesting that it's up to non-believers to prove the negative. But as Pyle points out, citing the discovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker in Cuba, it is very hard to prove extinction or absolute absence. Just as Bigfoot might one day be found, so might the suspected six-foot tall Amazonian jungle sloth.

For some people, however, such as Grover Krantz of Washington State University's Department of Anthropology, belief is not the issue: 'I don't believe in Bigfoot', he says, 'I have certain knowledge that causes me to conclude.' Even so, the authenticity of some of the tracks which most impress Krantz has recently been convincingly challenged by analyses in The Skeptical Inquirer. And so it goes on.

Where Bigfoot Walks could just as well be about UFO abductions, crop circles, the Loch Ness monster, weeping statues, spiritualism, or anything else from the paranormal catalogue. Given that so many people desperately want to believe in 'mysteries', the question is whether such things have any external reality, or whether they are artefacts of our culture. On this issue, Pyle remains open-minded, and truly sceptical.

The Patterson film, like much purported Bigfoot evidence, remains contentious. If genuine, it is enormously important. If fake, it is worthless. The Bigfoot industry, however, rumbles on: there are annual conventions, magazines and books, entire towns that depend on the Bigfoot-spotters for their livelihoods, and now the inevitable Internet mailing list and World Wide Web pages. In Pyle's view, mysteries like Bigfoot give shape to many lives.

Where Bigfoot Walks is a pleasure, although perhaps because of his many years studying butterflies, at times Pyle's writing is over-colourful. But whether he is helping a slug across the road, hugging a tree, crawling through a lava tube or discussing the colour of bear excrement, Pyle rejoices in the beauty of the world, and communicates his enthusiasm and expert knowledge with a rare modesty. His book should appeal to anyone with an interest in why people want to believe in the supernatural, when they already live in a world bursting with natural wonders.

As Pyle says, the natural history of the Bigfoot hunter is at least as compelling as the creature itself.

Toby Howard teaches at the University of Manchester.