Thursday, September 27, 2018

Fantastic beasts and where to find them

This is an interesting, entertaining but also very peculiar book written by John Warms with illustrations by Jarmo Sinisalo. The work is published by Chad Arment's press Coachwhip Publications. Warms is a Christian creationist and crypto-zoologist residing in the Canadian province of Manitoba. His book is a collection of Native American (American Indian) lore about monsters supposedly lurking in the Manitoban outback: lake monsters, boss snakes, thunderbirds, giant beavers the size of a black bear, and the ubiquitous Bigfoot (née Sasquatch).

The problems start when we realize that Warms, ahem, believe all this folklore stories to be literally true! Now, I'm willing to buy that *some* unknown animals may have survived in the Canadian wilderness (I know I wouldn't!), but “Strange Creatures Seldom Seen” stretches my credulity to the breaking point. How likely is it that at least seven different species of *huge* and unknown lake monsters live *in the same lake*? Or that frogs the size of bears could possibly be real at all? Or that some eagles are so enormous that they can catch and fly away with an entire adult moose? Or that some moose live underwater? Or that mermaids are real and look like White Canadian girls, only with a fish tail? The Bigfoot stories are also wild, with some squatches being of an impossible size, others being very human-like in appearance, and most being mortal to a hunter's bullet, yet somehow, their pelts never show up in our museums… The author claims to have discovered the tunnels of the giant beavers and the nests of thunderbirds, but admits that at least one of the nests might be man-made, ironically as a tribute to said thunderbirds.

There is very little cultural context to these anecdotes. Questions a skeptical reader would like to have answered include: How common is recreational lying among these Native groups? Is story-telling an activity that shouldn't be taken absolutely literally? Are there similarities between these stories and others which are more obviously supernatural or spiritual in character? Is alcohol part of the picture? Don't get me wrong, the anecdotes are interesting in their own right, and I particularly enjoyed the Sasquatch chapter, but after reading late 19th century reports about dragons in populous regions of Sweden, which simply can't be true, I think some skepticism is in order if somebody claims that literally dozens of unknown species of large beasts live in modern Canada!

That being said, I happen to think that at least some reports of this kind could be paranormal in nature, and hence “real” in some sense, although not in the flesh-and-blood way most crypto-zoologists would prefer. The Bigfoot stories have certain “classical” paranormal traits, with the creature making the witnesses sick or strangely distraught, the witness sensing a nasty odor before the encounter, etc. I already remarked on the impossible size of some Bigfoots. It's interesting to note that the Natives sometimes refer to it as a Wendigo or as the guardian of all living creatures, implying that the “ape” is really a spirit-being of some kind. How many of the other fabulous beasts described by the author and illustrated by his Finnish associate are really “ghosts” of one kind or another, is of course an interesting question…

In a weird kind of way, “Strange Creatures Seldom Seen” represents both the best and the worst of crypto-zoology, at the same time. For such a forte, five stars is the only possibly option. And yes, if the author ever finds a giant beaver, or disproves Darwinian evolution, I will be the first to acknowledge it.

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