A couple weeks ago I was out doing some field work when I spotted a roe deer break cover from a patch of woodland and walk out into a patch of heather. I was being quiet and still and vaguely camouflaged so it got pretty close. The long, rank heather broke up its outline. The dappled light played on its back and it was a struggle to follow it with my binoculars. Eventually, when it was about thirty yards away, it noticed me and fled. I had been watching it for five minutes, as well as I had ever seen a roe deer.
While I was watching it flee, as it rippled through the rank heather, long brown back legs on small body, my brain started firing, an involuntary chill ran down my spine and my blood started pulsing.
For a split second, and in spite of all evidence to the contrary, my body told me that I was watching not a roe deer but a lynx.
This week I was out working with a group of fourteen year olds. We were talking about the wildlife that lived around here. I mentioned eagles, red deer and pine marten. ‘Do you have unicorns here?’ one asked, jokingly. Another piped up, ‘wait, unicorns aren’t real, right?’ I told them I’d seen a red deer with one antler the other day, which could be a sort of unicorn. ‘Do you live here?’ ‘Sure’, I said, ‘in an apartment in the stables, right above where we keep the unicorns.’
A recent article on BBC news piqued my interest (sadly I can no longer find it). It described how sightings of the Yeti by Nepalese farmers have declined in recent years. Once a fairly common occurrence (a few sightings a year), there has now not been a sighting for a year or so. The article attributed this decline to the changing behaviour of the Nepalese farmers, who were spending less time on the hills as a response to an increasingly modernised lifestyle. Incidentally, the article remained curiously quiet on the question of whether or not the Yeti actually existed.
How curious, I thought, that sightings of mythological creatures should decline in line with a changing lifestyle.
I have three points to make about these stories. First, in spite of our best efforts, humans are not inherently rational creatures; we make judgements based on our senses and emotions and both are easily fooled. Second, a creature doesn’t have to exist to leave footprints all over one’s psyche. Finally, culture, it seems, is at least partly responsible for the existence of mythological creatures, and culture is at least in part a response to our environment.
I have been thinking alot about cryptozoology recently, for no real reason. Cryptozoology is essentially the search for mythical creatures. From Nessie to Bigfoot to the Yeti, people spend time and money searching for creatures that the rest of us bluntly believe do not exist.
The point of cryptozoology is not really about finding species new to science. If it were, then every cryptozoologist would simply go to the Amazon and find an insect that no one has described before. The point is about finding creatures new to science, but not new to myth and legend. For this reason cryptozoology is as much a study of culture as it is of wildlife. It has a fairly fascinating history, full of colourful characters, which is excellently described in David Quammen’s essay ‘Stranger than Truth: Cryptozoology and the Romantic Imagination’.
While self-identified cryptozoologists tend to be, shall we say, of a type, the tenets of cryptozoology spread deep into popular culture. One of the most popular recent incarnations of cryptozoology is the TV show Jeremy Wade’s River Monsters. In it, our hero goes out to far-flung rivers in search of enormous, usually man-eating fish. Before casting his rod, he first recounts the creature’s mythology and history. Sometimes he meets people who have been injured by the fish, or know of people who have been killed by the monster.
After a few days of fishing and some amount of discomfort and a little bit of danger, Wade usually catches his quarry. In that moment, culture and myth are stripped, and all that remains is an animal, gulping for oxygen. The creature stops being a monster and becomes just another large fish. The episode is over, and we have to wait until next week to find a real monster.
Cryptozoology is, then, a self-defeating exercise – an ecological tilting at windmills. After all, once someone captures Bigfoot, he is no longer myth, he is just another great ape. If cryptozoology were ever to find one of the creatures it seeks, it would stop being cryptozoology and become plain zoology.
Which is not to say that I disapprove. Quite the contrary. Cryptozoology is exactly as rational as, say, watching an episode of Game of Thrones. Cryptozoology shows us just how much people rely on fantasy to make sense of the world around them. It shows us that monsters are of our own making, because we need them to stay sane.
What are these monsters? Ghosts of creatures now extinct? Flashbacks of a genetic past when we hunted mammoths and were hunted by sabre-toothed tigers, and fought with strange hominids? Or just wish fulfillment – a way of making a dull day more interesting?
The question is, ultimately, what is the difference between a unicorn and a Greater One-horned Rhinoceros?
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