My first personal introduction to a specific “critter” was while fighting fire on Attean Lake in 1908. Dick Fisher had landed me a summer job in the woods, but the cruising work had been suddenly interrupted, by the bad fires which broke out that year. I was utterly new and green; but it just happened that the principal introduçers, Sam Clarke and Walter Laurison (I wonder where they are now?) selected another youngster as a victim. This lad opened the way by remarking that on the trail back to camp that afternoon he had heard an extraordinary, screech-like cry which he could not identify. Given this opening, the teamplay developed between the two older men was simply marvelous. “How did it go?” inquired Sam, full of seeming fatherly interest. “Oh, I don’t think I could imitate it,” replied the lad. A moment’s pause. “Reckon it was one o’ them tree-squeaks,” put in Walter at the precise psychological moment ; “they’re common hereabouts in July.” “What’s a tree-squeak like?” asked the victim, deliberately putting his foot in the trap. ‘Wa-al—” drawled Sam, and the game was on. It was like watching two highly skilled btidge players. Sam would lead with a colorful bit of description, and Walter would follow suit with an arresting spot of personal experience, every detail being set forth with the utmost solemnity, and with exactly the correct degree of emphasis. At the end, so deftly had the cards been played that the listener was completely convinced of the animal’s existence. This method of presentation is widely used. For the best results, two narrators who can “keep the ball in the air” are necessary, and perhaps an occasional general question is tossed to someone in the audience, such inquiries being invariably accorded a grave, corroborative nod.
[ viii ]
The surprising number of helpful letters received brings out several interesting points. It is clear that nearly all these mythical creatures originated, and still flourish to a considerable extent almost wholly in the Northern Forests.
Despite diligent inquiry, I have brought to light very few Southern species. It is stimulating to speculate on the reason for this scarcity. Of course, woods labor in the Southern camps is chiefly colored. Isn’t it possible that the Negro woodsman or logger, while possessed of plenty of imagination, is perhaps not given to this particular form of mental horse-play? His imaginings art apt, I think, to follow more serious lines, with a considerable dash of definite superstition in the mixture, and such fearsome creatures as his mind may conceive are very likely to be accorded a firm belief.
Another point for discussion is the actual age of these tales. I must admit that thus far I have not found a satisfactory answer. Some of my correspondents hold that they go back over many years, perhaps a century or longer, while others, men who were working in the woods in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, state that they began to hear such yarns only along towards the end of the nineteenth century. It seems dear, however, that the Hodag, the Treesqueak and the Side-hill Gouger were well known in the Northeast fully seventy years ago, and have since migrated westward, exactly as the logger followed the virgin timber, across the northern tier of states to the West Coast. Granting the existence of these particular animals, it is not unreasonable to assume that they had various other companions. But whether they flourished as far back as the days when Thorea climbed Mount Katahdin I cannot say. It is a difficult point to prove, and perhaps I am yielding to the will to believe, but I do feel it to be more probable than otherwise that many of these tales are really quite old, and have been handed down verbally through the years, just as the old Scottish and English ballads have been passed on down
in the Southern Appalachians. It is common knowledge that America has grown at a tremendous pace, so rapidly in that much true folk-lore was born, lived and died with no chance of ever becoming a part of our permanent records. Without doubt this has happened to a good bit of woods lore. Things have just come about too fast.
[ ix ]