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Natura ad Absurdum

A JACKALOPE
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Mounted specimen along side that of a run-of-the-mill cottontail.
With the growing interest in such fictitious animals as jackalopes, hoop snakes, snallygasters, squonks, etc. there arises a confusion between the beasts of classic mythology (dragons, unicorns, griffins, etc.), the speculative/hypothetical animals of cryptozoology (bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, chupacabras, etc.) and the former creatures of yet another tradition. There is, however, an important distinction to be made.

The very essence of an animal that might be described as imaginary, yet not legendary, is not that of a fabulous beast but a parody of nature. These creatures are often conveyed in the form of practical jokes, tall tales or hoaxes. Futhermore, such animals, typically presented as if they were factual, are concocted simply as a ruse on the unsuspecting and are neither legendary in scope nor ever intended to be taken too seriously. These extraordinary animals are known in North America as “fearsome critters”; however, in order to accommodate comparable traditions overseas, such as the Australian drop bear or French dahu, as well as inanimate things, such as treacle mining in England, we have placed them under the banner of natura ad absurdum, “nature towards absurdity.” Like other traditions, natura ad absurdum has unique characteristics all its own. As well natura ad absurdum may also encompass stories of otherwise ordinary animals that act in ways contrary to nature (I.E. fish that swim backwards to keep the water out of their eyes or snakes that suckle cows dry of their milk).

Thus for clarification:

Legendary creatures are comprise of animals that some use to believe in.
Cryptozoology comprises of animals that some might believe in.
Natura ad absurdum comprises of animals that no one should believe in, unless hoodwinked into doing so and often is the case.

Paul Bunyan Natural History pamphlet by Charles E. Brown describing the “wild animals” of the old time logging camps.
    
The turn of the twentieth century, especially, saw a peak in such “peculiar imaginings” on the order of improbable animals, nonsensical geology and other plays on the natural world. These absurdities took their inspiration from a renewed interest in natural history that was firmly embedded on the popular consciousness of the time. But while science took a serious route towards investigating the natural world, a curious inclination sweep through the masses and, whether intentionally or inadvertently, almost immediately took to parodying it.

Natura ad absurdum has many influences such as modernism, nonsense literature as well as some cues from classic mythology, but perhaps most consequential of all is a rich tradition of naturalistic parody intermixed with the more fundamental campfire story. Lumberjacks who labored their winters away in logging camps were isolated from mainstream society for months at a time. In passing their downtime, lumberjacks would combine a knowledge of nature with imagination and enthusiasm for a good story to produce a saga of strange animals that were often more curious than haunting.

A prime example of this kind of spin on nature can be found in the 1910 work Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods, With a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts. The book was authored by William T. Cox, Minnesota’s first state forester, who is remembered for his contributions to forest conservation and serious naturalist writings. This little collection relates careful descriptions of incredible animals that only ever existed in the jokes and tall tales of forest tradesman. But what separates Cox’s work from the realm of mythological bestiaries is that it echoes a naturalist’s tone and realistic-style approach. Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods is ripe with detail and includes much of the features one would expect from any serious zoological work. Cox’s animals are presented with latin classifications and he offers specific ranges for each creature, while detailing their the behaviors, habitats and characteristics.

Illustration of the bat bass and ball fish as orginally published in The Seattle Star circa 1913.
    
As well a contemporary practice known as “nature faking” helped further expand the scope of this tradition. The phrase received much press after it was infamously used by American President Theodore Roosevelt in a 1907 interview in Everybody’s Magazine. In the interview, with Edward Brayton Clark, Roosevelt denounces nature writings that are frequently more sensational then factual. This inspired such quips as, “Wonder what Col. Roosevelt, the despiser of nature fakirs, thought of the Emperor of Austria with a two-headed eagle on his coat of arms!” or “Far be it from me to butt in on this nature story. I'm not going to run the risk of being denounced as a ‘nature fakir’ by the strenuous gentleman whose knowledge of animal and bird life is confined to the butt end of a repeating rifle or shot-gun.” Later the phrase became a reoccuring joke and writers hastily invented absurd nature stories to their amusement and the president’s dismay [SEE “The Alligator and the Boots”].



While Lumberwoods may dabble in legendary creatures and cryptozoology it is for this tradition this site was originated. To get a better feel for natura ad absurdum check out our eLibrary or look over some examples below:

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The Helena Independent reported in February of 1892 that a “big flow of vinegar” had been struck in Beaverhead County, Montana. Not only did the newspaper depict the report with all the serious of any real discovery it even mentioned the officers of the newly incorporated “Vinegar Mining Company” by name. Among other things the account reported that the vinegar would be used for “irrigating purposes” and that, in fact, it would be possible to “pickle the cucumbers right on the vine” as well devise a, “new method of making sauerkraut, by irrigating cabbage patches with vinegar.”

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THE ALLIGATOR AND THE BOOTS
[self-explanatory]

Here is a story of a disappointed alligator:

“The fisherman was fast asleep on the river bank when the alligator crawled up and tried to swallow him, but only succeeded in swallowing his boots, in which were so many snakes that the gator turned from the river and took to the woods, where in a vain effort to climb a tree he was shot by a nature faker and sold to a college museum as a hitherto unheard of specimen of the saurian family.” — Atlanta Constitution.

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From Wisconsin comes stories of a more frightful variety. The hodag (bovine spiritualist), as told by lumberjacks, was a monstrous, hairless ox possing bulging eyes, sharp teeth and a row of spikes down its back. Former logger Luke Sylvester “Lakeshore” Kearney related that the hodag was born from the body of cremated oxen. Back when oxen were used to pull log sleds, the unfortunate creatures lived a miserable life. They were regularly whipped, overworked and subjected to much profanity by the ox drivers. When they died and were cremated and out of their ashes the accumulation of years of abuse and mistreatment took the form of a dreadful monster— the hodag.

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The Day Book, a daily newspaper, ran a regular column entitled “Ain’t Nature Wonderful?” subtitled “Unnatural History by Gene Ahern” that comically relates natural phenomenon and reduces it to the form of nonsensical ramblings. Here is a sample:

Bonehead penguin
THE BONEHEAD PENGUIN

Dear little children, now we show the Sphenisus Demersus, bone-head penguin. It is always to be found on top of some high mountain. How it ever got up that high will always be one of life’s mysteries.

It is closely related to the penholder and pen-wiper, but is no relation to the pig pen. Nobody knows what it eats so we picture an arctic mosquito hovering over his dome. The penguin’s eggs are shaped like a brick, and have little anti-skid chains on them so they won’t roll down the mountain.

The high altitude makes the penguin light-headed, and maybe that’s why he’s so carefree.

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OHIO MAN SAYS THAT HE WALKED ON CLOUDS. (March 31, 1908)
Tom Conner Should Take All Prizes as a Nature Fakir—Says That He Hesitated to Tell of Strange Experience for Fear He Would not be Believed—Story Should Have Been Held Until Tomorrow.

Thunderopolis, C., March 31.—Thomas Conner, who had such a narrow escape from death yesterday, hesitated to tell your correspondent the thrilling details, because he thought some persons might not believe him. “I went to the mountain top,” said Mr. Connor, “to gather arbutus, and was so busy that I did not notice a storm gathering. I had not observed that the storm had driven the clouds into the valley and packed them so tightly that they formed a vast plateau.

“I stepped off the mountain and started to cross the valley on the top of the clouds. It was soft, but it sustained me until I got to a spot where there was a rift in the clouds. One stop more and I would have tumbled off the edge of the clouds and fallen a mile to the earth below.

“By this time the sun was beginning to come out and the vast plain commenced to melt. At one time I sank to my waist in the white and only after the most strenuous efforts did I drag myself out and reach a cloud that was a trifle harder.

“Before I reached the mountain the whole field began to break up, and several times I was compelled to jump from cloud to cloud like Eliza crossing on the Ice. When at last I reached the mountainside, I was faint from exertion and terror.”

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RATS EAT DYNAMITE AND CAUSE BIG SCARE (May 22, 1909)
Rodents Fill Up On Deadly Explosive, Then Hasten to Jersey Capital.

Trenton, N. J.—Trenton has only just recovered from an awful fright, due to the visitation of the imaginary Jersey “devil bird,” when a new scare is caused by a plague of explosive rats which has been infesting the Meren county workhouse, a few miles from this city.

Exploding rats.
The workhouse warden discovered that a sack of dynamite, used for quarry purposes, had been broken open and most of its contents carried away. A thorough investigation showed that none of the officials at the Institution had removed the explosive, and the Mercer County Board of Freeholders began to fear that Black Handers plotted to blow up the buildings.

A loud explosion occurred within a few feet of the administration building early the other day, and the noise brought the terror-stricken officials to the scene. One of the guards, believing that an attempt was being made to blow up the buildings, wanted to release the prisoners in order to give them a chance for their lives, but cooler counsel prevailed.

The only thing that could be found about the premises which indicated the cause of the explosion was the badly mutilated body of a rat, and it dawned on the officials that rodents might have eaten the dynamite. The body of the dead rat was examined and some unexploded dynamite was found in the stomach. The discovery created terror, for it was known that the simultaneous explosion of a dozen rats charged with dynamite would destroy all the workhouse buildings and kill the inmates.

Guns were fired off, powder was burned and other ways to force the rats to vacate their strongholds were resorted to, and met with much success. Thousands were seen running in the direction of this city, and while the workhouse people sighed with great relief this city is now terror-stricken.

It is realized that it would be impossible to drive all the rats out of a city of 100,000 inhabitants without risk of something happening that might cause several of the loaded rodents to explode.

Housewives have unbaited and locked up the rat traps and cats and dogs are being kept under restraint.

It is feared that the rats that left the workhouse and came to Trenton will probably remain together, so that if one should explode the others would follow suit. Extra firemen and policemen have been put on duty, but just what part they are to play to avert a catastrophe will have to be determined by developments. Steps will likely be taken to prevent a rat disaster.


SOURCES
Clark, Edward B. “Roosevelt on the Nature Fakirs.” Theodore Roosevelt Collection. Harvard College Library. June 1907. Web. 9 March 2017.
Cox, William T. Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods Washington: Press of Judd & Detweiler, Inc., 1910.
Kearney, Luke S. The Hodag and Other Tales of the Logging Camps Madison, WI: Democrat Priniting Company, 1928.
“Ain’t Nature Wonderful! An Unnatural History by Gene Ahern: The Bonehead Penguin.” The Day Book. 25 Mar. 1916: 14. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress. Web. 9 March 2017.
“The Alligator and the Boots” St. Johns herald and Apache news. 28 Oct. 1909: 4. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress. Web. 19 March 2017.
“A Puzzled Friend” The Commoner. 27 Sept. 1912: 13. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress. Web. 19 March 2017.
“Wonder What Col. Roosevelt ... ” The Greenville journal. 28 Apr. 1910: 4. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress. Web. 9 March 2017.
“Ohio Man Says That He Walked on Clouds” The Marion Daily Mirror. 31 Mar. 1908: 1. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress. Web. 11 June 2017.
“Rats Eat Dynamite and Cause Big Scare.” The Charlevoix County Herald. 22 May 1909: 2. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress. Web. 11 June 2017.

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Created 3/9/2017, Last updated on 6/11/2017
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