Monday, August 27, 2007

Bigfoot and the Virgin

Bigfoot, the gigantic hairy hominid that roams the forests of Northern California, can often be seen carved out of wood and keeping watch over the doorways of many a business and residence along the old redwood highways. Standing serene yet stern, he recalls the Virgin Mary herself, who also guards portals as faithfully as she guards her virginity. But Bigfoot and the Virgin have more in common than mere statuesque functionality.

Willow Creek has designated itself the capital of Bigfoot country. It has erected a huge, twenty-five-foot-tall statue in Bigfoot’s honor. But in fact, Willow Creek is not the only community to take Bigfoot as its special emblem. Bigfoot can boast as many commemorative statues as can the bears of Yosemite. His hulking form can be seen everywhere, greeting tourists and visitors with his less-than-friendly face. But here’s the catch: it is still uncertain whether or not he exists. What is most interesting about this little complication is the fact that communities take him as their totem whether or not certain individuals within that community believe he’s real.

It is clear that the Bigfoot legend grows scientifically. That is, it acquires detail and specificity through a correlation of eyewitness accounts and other such evidence (footprints, bits of hair, his distinctive screams and odor). In contemporary discourse, there are no equivalents of the fairytale or the myth to illuminate specifics about behavior, personality, or history the way one can investigate, say, the trolls of European folklore. There are only eyewitness accounts, or “memorates.” Bigfoot ‘hunters’ (specialists, really) collaborate various memorates to construct a profile of the creature that is often rather precise in its naturalistic detail.

In recent years, memorates have surfaced connecting Bigfoot to UFOs. This has coincided with the creation of a new legend about these creatures’ extraterrestrial origin. According to this legend, Bigfeet are emissaries of an advanced race and possess highly developed technology and even psychic abilities. For the moment, this sits uneasily with the current legend that emphasizes Bigfoot’s terrestrial animal nature, in which he eats roots and rodents, is afraid of electric lights, and is shy and sometimes aggressive toward humans. Linda Milligan has shown that the two legends may sometimes even coexist unchallenged in the same person.

What is the significance of this new legend? UFO religions such as Southern California’s Unarius Academy of Science often hold fast to a sort of flying-saucer eschatology. Unarian devotees stand waiting for the “Space Brothers” to return to earth and establish universal peace and a highly advanced Atlantean civilization. According to the new Bigfoot legend, he is sort of like one of the Space Brothers: enlightened, benevolent, even sublime.

This brings us back to the Virgin. As a conduit of the divine on earth, she is uniquely placed to aid the communities that invoke her. Simply recall the near-political role of La Virgen de Guadalupe in many Mexican-American communities. And in medieval and early modern contexts in which Christianity came into contact with other faiths (in Spain or the New World, for example), the Virgin became the prime protectress of her ‘friends.’ As such, she came to symbolize and embody the Christian community as it related to other communities. She was Christianity’s standard-bearer, at the forefront whenever culture conflict took place, because God had infused her earthly flesh with divinity and she had kept that flesh tightly enclosed, fortifying her virginity against attack.

Thanks to the new legend, Bigfoot is also now a meeting point between the terrestrial and the celestial, with full eschatological implications. Bigfoot is now regarded with affection, even devotion. The statues of powerful serenity that keep faithful watch over the rural forest communities of Northern California, therefore, may serve to invoke his higher authority. Although statues such as the one in Willow Creek often become tourist destinations, the stoic unfriendliness in their faces and foreboding monumentality may belie their original intention: they are called upon, perhaps, to actually guard against outsiders, or even ever-encroaching urbanity. This may be one reason why he is always placed at doorways and gates, or standing sentinel facing the highway.

But affection never completely replaces fear. The Klamath River Resort Inn beckons to tourists--“it is a great place to stay while on vacation or doing research”--but simultaneously invokes the region’s fearsome guard: “Many times we have walked or hiked in the local forests and have gotten that primordial chill down the spine or hair standing on the back of the neck due to a[n] instinct that we were being watched.  It may have been a deer, mountain lion, or even a bear - but what if it was something more...” Potential visitors, it implies, may wish to think twice.

Even the original, terrestrial legend demonstrates Bigfoot’s significance to rural communities. Bigfoot belongs to the forest, he seems to embody it, or even to embody the fluid boundary between the human and the wild. And yet few can attest to actually having seen him; because he is supremely elusive, he is also untouched, and untouchable. His liminal, ambiguous nature, like the Virgin but unlike Yosemite’s bear, lends him the supernatural ability to embody communal or regional identity and guard it against the outside world.

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