Choosing Not to Know: A Review of In Defense of MonstersBy Amy Monticello
January 23, 2012
Astrophysicists work to uncover a Theory of Everything, the mathematical equation of all life in the universe. Religious zealots describe heaven and hell in florid detail. Tarot cards, constellations, the all-mighty Google. In our search for certainty, whether through belief, proof, or a near-perfect search engine, what is the value of choosing not to know?
In his newly-released nonfiction chapbook, In Defense of Monsters (Origami Zoo Press), B.J. Hollars chooses his words carefully when he challenges readers to consider that infamous creatures such as Sasquatch and the Loch Ness monster “may not not exist.” The use of the double negative is deliberate, a strategy employed throughout the collection meant to distinguish Hollars’ challenge from demanding empirical proof. Instead, Hollars relishes the possibilities of such existences, backed by meticulous scientific and field research, while simultaneously exploring a wilder, more sinister proposition in the face of humanity’s fact-hunger: that what we call elusive may be choosing to elude us.
Chapbooks allow writers of all status some welcomed literary flex. Because they tend to be the domain of small, independent presses like Origami Zoo, chapbooks capitalize on limited print runs and e-book formats, which give both writer and publisher greater freedom to experiment with content and form. While many emerging writers use chapbooks to begin compiling or excerpting longer work to test in the literary market, other chapbooks deliberately function within the abbreviated form. They contain wholly developed ideas that operate singularly, and not as a sneak preview of something yet to come. In Defense of Monsters has such an identity in its three heavily-sourced essays, complete with Works Cited pages in proper MLA style. Content and form are healthily symbiotic here, as Hollars has written something closer to a political pamphlet a la Thomas Paine, meant for concentrated circulation, meant to stir something up in those lucky enough to obtain a precious copy. As I read these classically-inspired essays–two out of three using the “In Defense Of” structure–I imagined some cloaked figure thrusting tattered pages into my hands, part of some Lutheran-esque underground effort towards reform.
Each of Hollars’ essays “defends” a different monster, beginning with the familiar Sasquatch (a.k.a. Bigfoot), then moving to the lesser-known Beast of ‘Busco (a giant turtle said to reside in Indiana), and finally returning to the familiar with the Loch Ness monster of Scotland. Yet with each categorized defense using a variety of archeological, biological, historical, and anecdotal evidence to support the creatures’ possible existence, Hollars reveals more about the species who indisputably does: us. And it is our existence that receives both the most tender and critical of Hollars’ analysis.
For example, “In Defense of Sasquatch” reminds us of where we’ve already been shortsighted, with humans having named less than two million of the “10,000,000 plants and animals assumed to exist,” according to the International Institute for Species Exploration, which “confirm[s] a difficult fact–the unknown far outweighs the known.” As Hollars also points out in this lighthearted opening piece, Sasquatch enthusiasts even have precedent for continuing their vigil on the Gigantopithecus that “undoubtedly existed” in the past, since we have already located living species once thought extinct–the New Holland Mouse, Terror Skink, and Coelacanth, to name but a few. “When we swear off Sasquatch,” Hollars writes, “we are admitting that there is nothing left to discover, that human knowledge is complete and carefully indexed, that a Google search is as far as we need to take our searches.”
But “searching” takes on a complicated meaning in the two subsequent essays of the collection, for Hollars understands that humanity too often exploits what it finds. And in such exploitation, Hollars identifies the costs both to the mysterious species we seek and to the humans obsessed with them.
Hollars’ literary game of “hide-and-go-seek” takes us next to Churubusco, Indiana in “Sasquatch in a Shell.” In 1949, Oscar the oversized turtle, better known as the Beast of ‘Busco, made his first appearance in Fulks Lake, spotted by local farmer Gail Harris. As the hype grew with other sightings, Churubusco briefly enjoyed the kind of novelty that comes with any World’s Biggest designation, capitalizing on Oscar’s presence in every conceivable way–Oscar burgers at Pat’s Café, an insurance company’s turtle-y new slogan, and the annual Turtle Days festival still held today.
However, Oscar’s legend has an insidious quality. As the giant turtle’s publicity grew, so too did the demand for his capture, leading Gail Harris to become “a hometown Captain Ahab” who nearly lost his life in the pursuit, and in the process damaged his family’s privacy, their property, and Fulks Lake itself with a full-scale drain that “reduc[ed] the seven-acre lake to a single acre of sludge.”
This propensity for destruction, Hollars claims, may explain why the Loch Ness monster (or Nessie, as she is called in the final piece of the book), still hasn’t risen from the murky depths to possess her one rather flimsy scientific allowance of a genus-species classification, Nessiteras rhombopteryz. Though rationale for her existence is carefully detailed and runs deep with paleontological support, as do Sasquatch and Oscar, Hollars is more interested in answering the central question surrounding Nessie’s elusiveness: “The world wondered, quite fairly: How could modern science–complete with submarine and sonar–fail to find such a large needle in such a very limited haystack?”
But instead of examining where humans on the hunt may have gone awry, Hollars employs one of the book’s central strategies and imagines Nessie as a creature of agency, “allow[ing] humankind its folly,” but deciding “she would play no part herself.”
After all, Nessie was first spotted in 1933, according to the newspaper reports Hollars provides, and as early as 1934, the Washington Post published a profound editorial, of which Hollars excerpts the following:
Indeed it is not without import that the accounts of the giant saurians, which in our youth would have been grand copy, are today relegated to inside pages. The competition is too keen for natural monstrosities. The real issue, moreover, is not so much what we think of the sea serpents, but what they think of us…What has this legendary animal risen from the dawn period of racial memory at just this time?
Hollars, like the Washington Post, is keen to place the discoveries of humankind in historical context. In this case, the rise of the Nazi party in Germany was poised to enact a terrible plan on its own species at the same time that Jim Crow laws in the United States “preferred the rope.” And while Scotland drew up legislation to protect what may lay hidden in fog-laden Loch Ness, Hollars wonders “who protected European Jews or African-Americans in the South?” The theory posed in the book’s final lines do what all resounding literature does, suggesting something surprising, yet inevitable. In this case, Hollars leads the reader to a frightening precipice in his once-playful argument. In the long view, which looks back as well as ahead, Hollars can imagine that humankind’s control issues could become our evolutionary Achilles heel.
Hollars’ essays reminded me of another recent and superb read. In her 2010 memoir, Let’s Take the Long Way Home, Gail Caldwell recalls her friendship with writer Caroline Knapp, who died of lung cancer in 2002. In the chapter about Knapp’s death, Caldwell’s sure-footed narration breaks when she compares Knapp’s death to “driving a car into a brick wall with nothing on the other side,” calling this moment “one of the most desolate” in her life. “What I took away from that dark alleyway,” Caldwell writes,” was that, when it came to God, I needed not to know–needed the humble ignorance as to whether anything existed outside that grim tableau…I kept thinking of the phrase ‘requisite mystery,’ as though that could capture my necessary position in the universe now, poised on the line between Knowing and Not Knowing, between what seemed to me the arrogance of religious certainty and the despair of a godless world.”
Caldwell hinges her emotional survival on a philosophy of agnosticism, of choosing not to know. Hollars seems to hinge our physical survival on this philosophy, as well. In addition to the wonderment we retain when we embrace our limitations of knowledge as a species, we may too retain our path towards evolutionary enlightenment, rather than a self-induced extinction.
B.J. Hollars is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He is the author of Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America (University of Alabama Press, 2011) and the editor of You Must Be This Tall To Ride (Writer’s Digest Books, 2009), Monsters: A Collection of Literary Sightings (Pressgang, 2012) and Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction (University of Nebraska Press, 2012).
My wife, first among skeptics and an avowed bigfoot debunker, echoes the points of many anthropologists who insist that, 1.) To sustain the species, a creature like Bigfoot would need a breeding population that numbers into the hundreds; 2.) There is no fossil record of a giant North American ape; and 3.) Nobody has ever produced the carcass of a dead one.
All excellent points, and I have no cogent response to the first two; on the carcass question however, consider the example of the ubiquitous bear. Fish & Wildlife officers, forest rangers, and zoologists will admit that they do not find carcasses of bears who have died in the wild of natural causes. They find plenty of bears who have died of human causes—shot by poachers or struck by cars. But dead of old age—of a heart attack? Never. Not even the massive Kodiak bears, a behemoth that can weigh 1,500 pounds and stand 14 feet high; even the mighty Kodiak which lives on an island doesn’t just turn up dead. And this holds true across the predator class; rangers don’t find dead wolves, dead coyotes, dead bobcats or dead mountain lions that have not been shot. The ruminants—elk, deer, goats—yes, all the time. But predators, it seems, are very discreet about dying. And nature is very efficient about disposing of remains.
Does this support B.J.Holalrs’ assertion that such a creature “might not NOT exist”? Probably not.
I don’t know why there would not be a fossil record of a creature that hundreds of otherwise reasonable people (some of them police officers) purport to have seen. And I don’t know how hundreds of Bigfeet could live out their lives—mating, migrating, nurturing their young and still avoiding detection, classification, and—inevitably, zoos. I just know that we haven’t heard the last of Bigfoot, Sasquatch, or the southern American skunk ape!
I’m very late to this discussion, and that’s because I didn’t get an answer back from my back-country National Park Service ranger friends (life-long Parks people, with a lot of experience in Alaska; they are not young) until today.
Along the Sasquatch lines, I’d point out (as an anthropologist) that the fossil record for Gigantopithecus fades away roughly a half-million years ago — when we humans were still Homo erectus. I agree with everything that Monty said about Sasquatch.
My ranger friends (Dennis and Penny Knuckles, currently in the Black Hills) speak to Monty’s comments — really, I should say, “amplify” them. No one’s looking for an argument here. I thought Monty’s comments were interesting but since I have no North American backwoods experience, I thought I’d run them by my ranger friends.
“Finding predator vs prey carcasses is mainly a numbers game. For example, let’s say there are 10,000 deer in the Black Hills (there are actually quite a few more). About 200 mountain lions prey on them. So, all other factors being equal, you would be lucky to find 1 lion carcass for every 50 deer you find. Most people, including biologists and rangers, would spend decades randomly stumbling across 50 deer that died of natural causes unless they are studying them. But, against the odds, friends of ours did find a lion carcass (it wasn’t even shot or run over!) last spring. Add to this the fact that predators usually hang out in areas humans don’t go, and it makes it even more unlikely to find a carcass. By the way, biologists do find carcasses of coyotes, bobcats, etc., even though these small predator carcasses get scavenged and disappear quickly.
The above analysis assumes all other factors being equal. But they are not. You have to consider behavioral factors, too. For over 150 years, predators have been shot on sight, whether it was legal or not. They earn their living by stealth and elusiveness, and are especially secretive when ill or dying. Gut shot bears will crawl deep into the brush to die and can rarely be found, even when you know they are there. We saw bears seriously injured by other bears disappear into deep cover. Would you go in looking for the carcass? We value our own carcasses too much! Even our domesticated sled dogs would seek out a quiet, remote spot to die. In contrast, ruminants just seem to keel over wherever they are ruminating. If they are starving, they are likely to die out in the open trying to get that last mouthful of grass; easy to find, until the scavengers clean up (even then, large ruminants tend to have large bones and lots of hair, which are easy to find when scattered).
Most predators meet violent ends; they don’t die peacefully of old age out in the meadow. Predators eat predators. One of the largest causes of natural mortality for wolves is being killed and eaten by other wolves. Same for bears. Not much left, afterwards; we normally found a jaw bone, chewed radio collar and some hair, but that’s about it.
As for those notoriously large brown bears, as mentioned above, there really aren’t that many compared to large herbivores, so sheer probability alone accounts for finding so few carcasses. Plus, bears that are having trouble feeding due to infirmity or old age often have fatal run ins with humans, are killed and eaten by bigger, badder bears, or die in hibernation when their fat reserves are insufficient to sustain them. In these cases, you won’t find them at all (except for the ones turned into bear skin rugs).
As for Sasquatch, you would think that since humans have managed to reduce or eliminate most predators, their populations would have increased in the past 150 years to the point where there would be some verifiable sign of their existence. Biologists don’t rely on finding carcasses. It’s far easier to find tracks, scat, hair, feeding sites, territorial markers, etc. for any wildlife species, whether predator or herbivore. Assuming, of course, there’s any good Sasquatch habitat left or they exist in the first place. My bet? Start checking trophy hunters’ dens!”
So long as I’m quoting Dennis and Penny, I’ll pass on a tidbit I found very amusing. Bears, even Alaskan brown bears, are scared shitless of wolves. Dennis and Penny told me about being involved in a bear study (weeks or perhaps months long) where a number of bears were routinely in a large meadow, and they were observing them. Enter one wolf. Bear panic! Bears in flight every which way. Wolf ambling around, ho hum, not up to any mischief. I’d love to have seen that.
As for books like this one — I find them really annoying. This is mostly because Hollars seems to be saying that he’s just interested in these supposed critters because they have a cultural reality, and so why not talk uncritically them? Why not give in to the easy “who knows?” rather than spending the time and effort to do a little research.
These books annoy me because they are insulting to serious researchers. Evolution, ecology, paleontology, zoology — these are not areas in which amateurs have much to contribute. In my book, “ignorance” is never an insult. From the review, Hollars seems ignorant and it seems that he’s quite uncaring about his ignorance. Anything goes. If he can’t think of a reason for or against something, well, then that’s good. That’s enough.
Now I hasten to say that another huge source of annoyance for me is when my scientist friends decide that there can’t be anything very difficult about this writing game, either. It’s parallel — it really is, and I’ve seen it.
In my old Anthropology Department, when I shifted from writing about ecological anthropology to writing poetry and fiction I was not quite made a pariah, but was certainly made to know that what I was doing just wasn’t done (and had a delayed promotion as a result). Only later did nearly half my colleagues approach me with their “creative” writing, their “personal essays,” their “memoirs,” and in one case, a murder mystery. A guy I knew from graduate school told me that as soon as he retired, he’d knock off a few short stories about the Solomons, no problem getting them published.
The mystery writing guy took it seriously, and I worked with him a bit. He knew it was a craft he had to learn. The others — nope. They just started writing, and so far as I could tell, all thought it was pretty damn good and worthy of being published, well, published almost anywhere. They showed it to me and no, it wasn’t very good. They could write decent English sentences and mount an argument but that’s all they could do. They didn’t seem to know the difference between that and literary writing. To date not a one of them has a single non-academic word in print.
So it works both ways.
End of rant, except to say what I believe, which is that the natural world has more than enough mysteries to keep us occupied for decades if not centuries. Why invent them?
What a remarkable review, Amy! I love how you take the time to address the content and its connective threads to other literary works, the larger idea of not-knowing, but also that you address the chapbook as an intentional art form. I’ve never thought to see a pamphlet parallel there, and I find that really intriguing.
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