Critters of American Folklore – Jerry Dennis

When I was fourteen years old, some older guys in the neighborhood invited me to join them on a hunting expedition. They said that if I waited at the end of my driveway at sundown with hip waders, a flashlight, and a fishing net, they would pick me up and drive me to the woods and show me how to capture the elusive, wary snipe.

I was already familiar with a snipe of a different feather, Wilson’s snipe, Gallinago delicata, a relative of the woodcock and the sandpipers. I knew from my Peterson’s field guide that this snipe could be found sitting tight in bogs all across northern North America. Not the same critter, said the guys. The real snipe, they said, was a mammal about the size of a hamster, a cute fuzzball so shy you almost never saw it. Anyone lucky enough to catch one could cage it and make it into a pet.

“So, you wanna go?” they asked.

I was flattered to be asked, but the story aroused a snipelike wariness in me. Good thing. If I had gone along with the plan, I would have been led into the forest, told to shut off my flashlight and in the darkness chant “Snipe! Snipe! Snipe!” until one of the creatures sidled up and I could scoop it into my net.

Of course no snipe would have appeared. By the time I switched my light back on, my guides would have disappeared and I would have had to walk home alone along dark roads, feeling like an idiot.

American folklore is filled with imaginary creatures designed to hoodwink gullible greenhorns. These creatures hold a special place in the bestiary of the world’s fabulous, legendary, and mythical animals. Unlike unicorns and dragons, few were actually thought to exist. Unlike with Bigfoot, Yeti, and the Loch Ness Monster, no expeditions have been launched in search of them. Yet, for several hundred years these mythic animals have been lively inhabitants of our national lore and the source of much entertainment and a fair amount of confusion.

Many uniquely American creatures can be traced to lumbermen, sailors, cowboys, miners, and other working-class storytellers. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, lumberjacks from Maine to Oregon found the woods alive with strange creatures such as the axehandle hound (which resembled a dachshund, but with a head shaped like a hatchet, and with an appetite for wooden axe handles), the agropelter (a tree-top dweller that caused deadly limbs to fall on woodcutters), the teakettler (best known for its high-pitched call, which sounded like a boiling teakettle; witnesses say it walked backward and emitted clouds of vapor from its mouth), the goofus bird (which always flew backwards and built its nests upside down), the squonk (so morose that it could be tracked by following the stream of tears it left behind during its constant weeping), and the upland trout (which flew rapidly among the tree tops and was afraid of water).

Among the most frequently discussed animals was the sidehill gouger, a mammal with long legs on one side of its body and short legs on the other, an adaptation that allowed it to keep an even keel while traversing steep hillsides. It was also know as the sidehill hoofer, sidehill wowser, sidehill guano, yamhill lunkus, rackabore, wampus cat, and mountain stem-winder. Gougers were dangerous when confronted face-to-face—some were armed with a drill-like snout that allowed them to burrow rapidly underground or through the sides of a log cabin—but if you happened to meet one on a hillside, all you had to do to avoid an attack was take a step up or down the hill.

In Texas, the sidehill gouger was known as the gwinther. Once, some cowboys tried to capture one as it ran around a mountain. They noticed that it climbed a little higher with each lap, so they reasoned that the best way to catch it was to wait until it reached the peak and had nowhere to go. But when the gwinther got to the top of the mountain, it turned inside out and ran back around the opposite way, going lower with every circuit.

In some tales, the gouger was a large, fierce, catlike predator that preyed on humans. In another version, it was the size of a calf and looked rather like a beaver. It laid eggs the size of buckets, each big enough to provide breakfast for twenty-five lumbermen. Maine had two subspecies, the sidehill winder, which circled hills in a counterclockwise direction, and sidehill unwinder, which traveled clockwise. If the two happened to meet head-on, they fought fiercely, neither willing (or able) to yield.

If a sidehill gouger happened to fall over, it would lie helpless until it died of starvation. In Arkansas, its carcass became food for the baldknob buzzard, a giant vulture with only a single wing, which could fly in one direction only and thus spent its entire life circling the same hilltop.

The hugag was another creature that got in trouble when it fell over. It resembled a moose in size and appearance, but its legs lacked joints, forcing the animal to spend its entire life standing. Because its lower lip was so long, the hugag could not graze on the ground but had to feed on twigs and branches.

In his 1910 book Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods, with a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts, Minnesota forester William T. Cox described a hugag from lumber camps of the nineteenth century:

“It is reported to keep going all day long, browsing on twigs, flopping its lip around trees, and stripping bark as occasion offers, and at night, since it cannot lie down, it leans against a tree, bracing its hind legs and marking time with its front ones. The most successful hugag hunters have adopted the practice of notching trees so that they are almost ready to fall, and when the hugag leans up against one both the tree and the animal come down.”

The hugag’s genealogy is ancient. Compare the above description with this one written more than 1,900 years ago by Pliny the Elder: “…the achlis, born in the island of Scandinavia…has no joint at the hock and consequently is unable to lie down but sleeps leaning against a tree, and is captured by the tree being cut through to serve as a trap…Its upper lip is exceptionally big; on account of this it walks backward when grazing, so as to avoid getting tripped up by it in moving forward.”

The Animal That Can’t Lie Down became a familiar character in the medieval bestiaries and was later described in colonists’ tales in early America. By the time lumberjacks began spinning yarns, it played a standard role in many storytellers’ repertoires.

Another standard was the hoopsnake, which during the colonial period was widely believed to exist in nature. Various accounts claimed the snake to be aggressive and deadly. It attacked enemies and escaped predators by grasping its tail in its mouth to form a circle and rolling across the ground at high speed. The hoopsnake was armed with a spur or stinger loaded with venom so deadly that should it slam into a tree while rolling the tree would lose its leaves and die. If you needed to defend yourself against a hoopsnake you had to bear in mind that striking it with a stick was perilous: The snake’s powerful venom might flow up the wood to your arm and kill you. The hoopsnake had foul breath, spit quarts of green poison, traveled in packs of hundreds or millions, and would chase unfortunate people for miles in its determination to sting them. By the nineteenth century, when most people had stopped believing in hoopsnakes, the creature had lodged firmly in the popular imagination and was a favorite subject of yarns and tall tales. Barstool bards still tell the stories, and some listeners may even believe them.

One imaginary creature of the nineteenth century was profitable to hucksters who traveled from town to town. They would post handbills for a showing of “The Monster Guyuscutus” and collect admission from gullible customers. One report described the creature as like a lizard, hatched from eggs the size of beer kegs, twenty feet long, and armed with sharp tusks. Typically, at some point early in the show, while the “monster” raged and rampaged out of sight in the wings, one of the showmen would run onstage, covered with blood, his clothes torn to tatters, and shout that the monster was loose, instigating a panic in the audience. During the commotion that followed, the hucksters would escape. Mark Twain made use of a variation of the story in the “Royal Nonesuch” episode of Huckleberry Finn.

The evolutionary ecologist Daniel S. Simberloff has traced the evolution of one of the best-known hoax-animals, the jackalope, a horned rabbit that is featured to this day on countless postcards in the American west. Simberloff wrote in an article in Natural History magazine in 1987 that the jackalope was not the invention of tourist boosters in Douglas, Wyoming, a community that has claimed to be the jackalope capital of the world since a local taxidermist named Ralph Herrick concocted the creature from parts of a jackrabbit and a pronghorn, but is instead a mythical creature with a long and varied history across several continents. He found a pair of horned hares nearly identical to the American jackalope in a book of natural curiosities written in 1662 by a Jesuit priest, Gaspar Schott, in what is now Germany. Today, Bavarian shops in that region sell postcards, books, and mounted specimens of the wolpertinger, a rabbit or hare bearing the antlers of a deer. Even further afield are ancient tales from Africa that describe rabbits wearing horns made of wax that would melt if the creatures came too near a fire. Simberloff went so far as to uncover a possible biological explanation for jackalopes and their kin. According to him, a virus called papilloma occasionally infects hares, rabbits, and other mammals, causing benign growths that sometimes take the form of hornlike protuberances from the skull. The virus is found in many places, including Africa, central Europe, and the plains of North America.

Stories paint a psychological portrait of the people who tell them. American folklore is big, bold, colorful, and when we take the stage we tend to be extravagant, imaginative, boastful, and outrageous. It’s who we are. We might never see a sidehill gouger or a hoopsnake but the folks who talk about them are around us every day and we’re happy to hand over a few dollars for the privilege of listening.

I’m sorry that I didn’t go out that night in search of the mythical snipe. Something vital and primitive might have been triggered by the search. A snipe is no more fantastic, after all, than a porcupine (armed with barbed spikes!) or an opossum (rolls over and plays dead!) or a skunk (sprays a foul-smelling liquid from its butt!). It probably would have done me some good to spend a night in the woods, in the dark, my heart full of hope and wonder, chanting, “Snipe! Snipe! Snipe!”

(Adapted from A Walk in the Animal Kingdom: Essays on Animals Wild and Tame, by Jerry Dennis, with illustrations by Glenn Wolff. Big Maple Press, 2015).

Jerry Dennis is the author of The Living Great Lakes, It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes, The Bird in the Waterfall, and other books. His essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Audubon, Smithsonian, Wildlife Conservation, Orion, and The New York Times. Visit him at www.jerrydennis.net. Illustration is by Glenn Wolff, who can be visited at http://www.glennwolff.com.)

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