Book Review: Anatomy of a Beast


Anatomy of a Beast: Obsession and Myth on the Trail of Bigfoot, 
by Michael McLeod, UC Press (www.ucpress.edu), 2011, 238 pages, $17.95

Let’s be honest. When I picked up Anatomy of a Beast, I did so on a lark. Another Bigfoot book? As a wildlife biologist, one whose bread and butter lies in the hunt for threatened and endangered species, there’s forever the allure of turning over that next rock, rounding a bend in the river, reaching for your binoculars in the hopes that you’ve found *it*, whatever *it* may be. For me, *it* tends to be a California red-legged frog or a Berkeley kangaroo rat, not a woods-dwelling walking carpet. Needless to say, my cryptozoological exploits have never transgressed beyond masterminding a snipe hunt with soup pots and pillowcases. It’s not so much that I don’t believe in Bigfoot, it’s more that I don’t choose to disbelieve – call me an optimistic sceptic. Still, you won’t find me quitting my day job for a gig lugging plaster footprints and a Cine-Kodak K-100 camera through the backwoods in search of Sasquatch. I admit all this freely to put into context how pleasantly surprised I was to find myself enjoying author Michael McLeod’s homage to dyed-in-the-wool believers of Bigfoot (they call themselves Bigfooters), despite the curious looks I got from fellow commuters to and from work.

To be clear, Anatomy of a Beast isn’t really about Bigfoot so much as it is about Bigfooters – the mythological pursuers of the mythological persuee. These persuers are McLeod’s titular “beasts,” those true believers who have devoted their lives to finding undeniable proof that Bigfoot exists. But here, Bigfoot takes a back seat as McLeod anatomizes what makes Bigfooters tick – not the beast, the men behind the beast. In the opening pages, McLeod admits his take on the Bigfoot brouhaha to be one of “someone in an ape suit… gone berserk.” Still, as a writer, producer, and director of documentaries for PBS and the Discovery Channel, McLeod confesses that the famous Patterson-Gimlin video (a snippet of which is featured on the book’s cover) seems real, leading him to admit that “if I were to fake a film, I would shoot it exactly the same way.”  So blossoms McLeod’s interest in the Bigfoot phenomenon, a fascination with “how [Roger] Patterson… had managed to make an imaginary character come so fully alive.”

McLeod is less interested in debunking Bigfoot – to buy into the premise there’s a “beast” worth dissecting rather assumes from the get-go it is more myth than man-beast – than he is understanding the believers. Surprisingly, he treads these not-so-hallow grounds with respect and compassion. McLeod tugs at threads that unravel the stories of people driven by life’s lows and high-stakes: pride, illness, wealth, chicanery, professional reputations, hype, hope.

McLeod’s supposition that the idea of Bigfoot reflects a tribal memory of humankind when Homo erectus (early humans) and Gigantopithecus (an extinct species of giant ape) existed contemporaneously is strangely comforting. In much the same way we appear hardwired to see faces in a billow of smoke or burnt toast, perhaps the mythology of Bigfoot – our gut-instinctual need to see creatures in the woods – is a hybridization of a global bestiary made up of wild man, apes and gorillas, and indigenous spirits. Taking it one step further, McLeod goes so far as to suggest that our own Bigfoot was reimagined by woodsmen who, “[seeing] nature in retreat,” left a “small statement, calculated to puzzle: a kind of joke, but with a twist.”

To believe – even if only for a moment – is to kindle a sense of wonder and hope that there’s anything wild left in our wilderness, something worth protecting. McLeod’s beasts, however, are those that have allowed themselves to believe to such extremes, they’re subconsciously not choosing to allow themselves to stop believing.  Thus, as long as proof of Bigfoot’s existence remains elusive, Bigfooters will continue their search. The day they stop looking is the day the Bigfoot myth withers and dies – after all, how do you find something nobody’s looking for? If this woodsmen’s puzzle helps keep our wilderness wild, that’s reason enough for me to not choose to disbelieve.

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  1. #1 by Don Stephens, life-long student of 'Clemmys' on January 26, 2013 - 5:18 pm

    Matt,

    When it comes to crypto-things, I also try, in the absense of personally experienced data, to remain skeptically agnostic. This works nicely for me in the case of “Nessie”, “little green men” and a range of other such fasinating ponderables. But it’s not nearly so effective, in cases where my own personal, “hopefully-scientific” observations inconveniently intrude:

    One night in my teens, as their “youth-leader”,I was on a moon-lit hike with a single-file group of young boy-scouts, when I noted a VERY tall back-lit humanoid form, seemingly gazing our way from about 100 yards distance, on the far edge of a long-ago cut-over meadow, deep in North-Idaho forest. My mind still tells me It was as clearly “there” as is the memory of it in my head, over fifty years later.

    At the time,I pondered that stange and briefly seen image for a few paces, turning away to check if any of my pre-teen charges showed signs of having shared the starling observation. But they seemed happily involved in giggling conversation with their peers, undisturbed. So after severaI more step, I turned back to check on the distant watcher.

    It was no longer there.. Its disapearance was as disconserting as sight of it had been, before. So I wondered if I’d just seen a tall silvered stump in a certain light. I fell back, letting the boys pass me by. But I was unable to find any angle from which such an illusion reappeared.

    To this day I don’t know what it was…only that it was neither a stump nor conventionally “human”, too tall and stout and “of a piece” ie: its form unbroken by clothing. And I know that I do enjoy recalling the encounter. And so in my detached and agnostic sketicism` I can respect those who choose to more actively quest after this sort of elusive “puzzler”

    I only hope that when/if someone does find it, they’ll respect it’s right to life and independence, leaving it be, in it’s increasingly endangered habitat remnants..

    Another time, I’ll share my interface with another crypto, an until-now unreported or described North-American herp, far more “tangeble” to me for a time than any “something, across a moon-lit meadow”… : )

    – Don Stephens

  2. #2 by Matthew Bettelheim on January 31, 2013 - 7:49 pm

    Thanks for sharing your experience. You are one of many who have had unexplained stories they’ve shared with me. My only experience was in 6th grade camp (??) when the counselors dressed up in an ape suit to scare the campers.

    Other than the Sword Lake Turtle, I don’t know of many crypto-herps… but there’s always a first, right?

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