Wilderness, unforeseen and fearsome.
Berry writes a great deal about the impact of logging on local culture. Logging, Berry writes, is like mining: inherently short term in profit and in commitment. In this life of short term commitment, Berry argues, we lose the kinds of narratives that require generations to weave:
“Broken from the land, contemporary Americans…remain migratory…They do not spread knowledge and skills and songs as the wanderings of artists and poets once did” (34).
This claim seems to me, at best, complicated. As I read this weekend, and thought over Berry’s argument, I couldn’t help but think of Wm. T. Cox’s Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods. This book reminisces about the logger in the same breath it laments the loss of the woods he clear cut. With the logger went its own legends, specific to their own places and traditions:
“Every lumber region has its lore. Thrilling tales of adventure are told in camp wherever the logger has entered the wilderness. The lumber jack is an imaginative being, and a story loses none of its interest as it is carried and repeated from one camp to another….The lumber regions are contracting. Stretches of forest that once seemed boundless are all but gone, and many a stream is quiet that once ran full of logs and echoed to the song of the river driver. Some say that the old type of logger himself is becoming extinct.”
How strange that we might miss the woods and the loggers together, but somehow I can see that much is lost as wilderness vanishes—including the legends of those who committed their working lives to inhabiting unknown spaces, even if it was to cut back their boundaries till they might be knowable in their brevity.
So, as I piece together some thoughts on Berry to post here, I thought I might post two of my favorite creates from Cox’s fearsome menagerie. Enjoy:
“The Central American whin-tosser is always looking for trouble or making it…Its head is fastened to its body by a swivel neck; so is its short, tampering tail; and both can be spun around at the rate of a hundred revolutions a minute. The body is long and triangular, with three complete sets of legs; this is a great convenience in an earthquake country, since the animal is not disturbed by any convulsions of the earth. If the floor suddenly becomes the ceiling it does not matter, for the whintosser is always there with the legs…It has been found that a cat’s nine lives are as nothing to the one possessed by a whintosser. This animal may be shot, clubbed, or strung on a pike pole without stopping the wriggling, whirling motions or the screams of rage. The only successful way of killing the beast is to poke it into a flume pipe so that all its feet strike the surface, when it Immediately starts to walk in three different directions at once and tears itself apart.”
“Because of its misfitting skin, which is covered with warts and moles, [the Squonk] is always unhappy…Hunters who are good at tracking are able to follow a squonk by its tear-stained trail, for the animal weeps constantly. When cornered and escape seems impossible, or when surprised and frightened, it may even dissolve itself in tears. Squonk hunters are most successful on frosty moonlight nights, when tears are shed slowly and the animal dislikes moving about; it may then be heard weeping under the boughs of dark hemlock trees. Mr. J. P. Wentling, formerly of Pennsylvania, but now at St. Anthony Park, Minnesota, had a disappointing experience with a squonk near Mont Alto. He made a clever capture by mimicking the squonk and inducing it to hop into a sack, in which he was carrying it home, when suddenly the burden lightened and the weeping ceased. Wentling unslung the sack and looked in. There was nothing but tears and bubbles.”
Berry, Wendell. The Unforeseen Wilderness. Emeryville: Shoemaker Hoard, 1991.
Cox, William T. Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods. Washington, DC: Judd & Detweiler, 1910. Web.