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.