March 18, 2010

Hibernating Hill Folk


Submitted for your consideration, the first commentary of my 2010 Commentary Series on public radio. If you prefer, you can listen to it on line. The URL is posted at the end.


Beginning this month I’m kicking off another series of weird Vermont stories, including ghost lore, monster legends, and historical oddities. And today’s tale is an undisputed classic.

It concerns the odd practice of “human hibernation", first publicly disclosed in a December, 1887 issue of The Montpelier Argus and Patriot.

The reporter had discovered information in an old diary written by his Uncle William. The entries focused on the efforts of a wretchedly poor and isolated family of hill farmers from up around Calais. Their problem was how to stretch a meager food supply through the long, cold winter months.

Yankee ingenuity led to a horrifying solution. Somehow they developed a process to literally freeze people alive. Like hibernating bears, they’d sleep the winter away.

This seemingly impossible (and decidedly inhumane) process began by drugging four men and two women. "[O]ne of the men," Uncle William wrote, "[was] a cripple about 36 years old. The other five [were] past the age of usefulness…."

When unconscious, the individuals were stripped and carried outdoors into the freezing mountain air.

Beneath the full moon their noses, ears, and fingers slowly turned white. When their upturned faces assumed a tallowy look, they were judged "ready".

Then they were packed side by side on beds of straw, and boxed-up to guard against predators.

Accumulating snow drifts buried the sleepers for one quarter of a year.

Just as the Green Mountains were beginning to warm up, Uncle William returned to the cabin to witness the sleepers' liberation from their icy crypt. Able-bodied men lifted their stone-stiff relatives into warm baths fragrant with a mysterious hemlock-based potion

Slowly, pallid faces began to brighten. Muscles twitched. Fingers flexed. Vitality returned. The six were carried inside where they were warmed by blankets, fire, and a hardy meal.

After this vivid account first saw print, the story of Vermont’s “hibernating hill folk” quickly spread around the world.

Newspapers, magazines and radio shows presented it as real.

Locally, it imprinted on our folk memory and was frequently confused with fact.

Having grown up in southern Vermont, I recall hearing this strange tale from old-timers who swore it was true.

In his book Inside New England, Yankee Magazine editor Judson Hale relates an anecdote that perfectly illustrates this strange tale's unique position between fact and fantasy. He writes, "I once asked an old Vermont farm couple in the Montpelier area if either one of them truly believed the [story of the hibernating hill folk].

"'Certainly do, the husband answered emphatically and without hesitation.

"Then the wife added, 'The only part I doubt is the thawing out.'"

The End


For your ears only: Listen...!

March 11, 2010

A SHORT INTERVIEW WITH LOREN COLEMAN

Here is a transcript of a brief interview I conducted in preparation for the series of blog installments that precede today’s entry.

In trying to make sense of an array of hundreds of alleged Bigfoot sightings, castings, and other evidence, I spoke with Loren Coleman, an internationally known anthropologist and Bigfoot expert from Maine. Loren is the author of, among other things, Bigfoot!: The True Story of Apes in America, (NY: Paraview Pocket - Simon and Schuster, 2003). And he is the founder and curator of his International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland.
I began with, “Here in Vermont we have Bigfoot sightings that seem to date back at least to 1759. Is there something about Vermont that might make it especially attractive to Bigfoot?”

Loren: There are several factors at work. Traditionally, most of the lore we get from Vermont is Native American and colonial, as there does seem to be a rich history in the state of Windigo folklore and encounters. As the land got cleared and the various First Peoples were displaced, you saw less and less sightings. Now we are back to the Green Mountain State again, and it is "green" because of all those trees. With more forest cover, more Bigfoot may be visiting the state again, as interlopers from Canada and passing through.

Joe: I think most any animal living here in Vermont can occasionally be found beside
the road, dead. Yet as far as I know, no Bigfoot body has ever been found there or anywhere else. What do you make of that?
Loren: Wildlife officers and hunters also tell me that they never find the body of a mountain lion or bear dead in the woods. Why do we find roadkill? Because those animals are not very bright. Yes, deer, moose, raccoons, and a few bear get killed on the roads, but if there are a few intelligent biped hairy hominoids out there, they appear to be too smart to be killed by a run-in with a car.

Joe: There seems to be enough evidence of Bigfoot's reality to convince a jury, but not a scientist. What's the problem?

Loren: Verification for zoology and biology must come with a live capture, and DNA/blood samples -- or a dead body. It's that simple. No body, not proof they exist. I understand that, but, of course, am in the "live capture" camp, as far as proving they exist.

JOE: Do you think Bigfoot has a home, or he/she/it more likely to be a nomad, in constant migration?
LOREN: It seems from the data, in Vermont and Maine (where I make my home), the population of Bigfoot may be very small or only nomads. The number of sightings every year is small. The reports often talk of lean, mobile, fast, male Bigfoot. That sounds like juveniles trying to find food, a mate, and/or a new home.

JOE: Would you care to predict the future? What do you suppose will be the final outcome? Will Bigfoot join Mountain Gorillas in the biology books? Or is it more likely to remain in the realm of folklore and cryptozoology?
LOREN: I sense that a new great ape, probably discovered in Asia or Oceania, will surprise us all in the next 25 years, perhaps on the island of Sumatra. But as far as the classic American Bigfoot, I think it might be another 100 years until they are discovered. We have to be patient. It took 60 to 70 years to discover and capture the first giant panda and the mountain gorilla. Bigfoot will be an even bigger wonder.

More to come. . .

March 4, 2010

PART 5: THE MARSHFIELD MONSTER


I’ll conclude the cluster of blog entries with a slightly more recent sighting investigated by Christopher Noel, a writer and teacher at Vermont College.

As an investigator for the national Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, Christopher has examined many Vermont Bigfoot experiences. “In May, 2006,” he told me, “two thirteen-year-old cousins, a girl and a boy, were visiting their grandparents’ cabin in Marshfield. While they were out on their ATVs traveling along a disused logging road, they were stopped by a fallen tree. As they were turning around, a figure they described as seven feet tall and hairy rose then dashed on into the forest.”

Christopher says, “Seven feet always seems to be a fallback height when describing these things.”

When he interviewed family members, the cousins’ uncle told of another dramatic encounter in the same general area, around 1980: “He recalled that when he was 19 he and a few friends were doing some night fishing at the reservoir. Someone or something in the bushes began throwing large rocks over their heads and into the water. It was as if someone was trying to scare them. This sort of thing has happened in many cases. It is not as if the rocks are aimed to hit anyone, only frighten them. It usually works.”

A MATTER FOR EXPERTS

There are hundreds of additional examples. One is either convinced or one isn’t. Having looked at some of the evidence – anecdotes, castings, hair, even scat – we still gravitate back to the pictures. Did Sanda Mansi photograph Champ? Did the Chittenden team bag the state’s first Bigfoot photo?

The latter is in no way a hoax. It was hushed up and kept pretty much a secret for almost 30 years. No one had anything to gain by concealing what may be the best evidence Vermont can offer about Bigfoot’s existence. We don’t even know why it was hushed up. To protect the photographer from inevitable ridicule? To preserve the Mountain Top Inn’s reputation as a safe vacation getaway as opposed to a preserve for unknown animals?

Mystery wrapped in mystery.

In trying to make sense of all this, I sought out an expert, Loren Coleman, an internationally-known anthropologist and Bigfoot authority in Portland, Maine. Mr. Coleman is the author of Bigfoot!: The True Story of Apes in America, (NY: Paraview Pocket - Simon and Schuster, 2003) and many other relevant books.

I asked him the obvious questions. For example, I said, “I think any animal living here in Vermont can occasionally be found beside the road, dead. Yet, as far as I know, no Bigfoot body has ever been found there or anywhere else. What do you make of that?”

“Why do we find roadkill?” he said. “Because those animals are not very bright. Yes, deer, moose, raccoons, and a few bear get killed on the roads, but if there are some intelligent biped hairy hominoids out there, they appear to be too smart to be killed by a run-in with a car.”

“Would you care to predict the future?” I asked. “What do you think will be the final outcome? Will Bigfoot join Mountain Gorillas in the biology books? Or is it more likely to remain in the realm of folklore and cryptozoology?”

He seemed to ponder the question. “I sense that a new great ape, probably discovered in Asia or Oceania, will surprise us all in the next 25 years, perhaps on the island of Sumatra. But as far as the classic American Bigfoot, I think it might be another 100 years until they are discovered. We have to be patient. It took 60 to 70 years to discover and capture the first giant panda and the mountain gorilla. Bigfoot will be an even bigger wonder.

“Verification for zoology and biology must come with a live capture, and DNA/blood samples -- or a dead body. It's that simple. No body, no proof they exist. I understand that, but, of course, am in the ‘live capture’ camp, as far as proving they exist.”

So the evidence gained thus far, whether anecdotal or physical, isn’t enough. And the “Chittenden Bigfoot Photo”, whether real, hoax, or misperceived shadows, keeps the mystery alive.

More to follow. . .

NOTES: The "Rain of Stones" illo is by Stephen R. Bissette from The Vermont Ghost Guide. Used with permission.

Christopher Noel's book Impossible Visits presents an interesting and controversial take on the notion of Bigfoots in America. Check it out and search for him on YouTube.