I owe so much to Last Podcast on the Left. If I hadn’t started listening to it, with its frequent hilarious dives into the world of cryptids, I never would’ve considered picking up a book about Sasquatch. Horizons, consider yourself expanded.
Journalist John Zada, captivated by Bigfoot since childhood, undertook an unusual quest with the utmost seriousness: tracking the Sasquatch legend through the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Using scientific and psychological data, he explores theories purporting to explain the mythical creature’s existence rationally, like that they’re a “surviving species of great ape.”
Or, fascinatingly, the results of pattern matching, when an eyewitness thinks they’re seeing an unknown creature but is experiencing a mismatch. He analyzes belief and perception and “cognitive mistakes” in interpreting “sensory inputs,” offering possibilities on how reality can be (mis)perceived in eyewitness accounts of alleged sightings. This was illuminating, as I appreciate anything that employs skepticism healthily and doesn’t automatically lean on the lazy crutch of being inexplicable, so must be otherworldly.
There has to be a way to make better sense of the phenomenon: one that doesn’t just rely on ready-made positions rooted in unquestioning belief or disbelief; one that moves past the pop-culture veneer and rhetoric of opposing camps and into the more nuanced territory where psychology, culture, history, literature, and indigenous experience overlap. If primeval nature and collective memory are places where the Sasquatch continues to thrive, where better than the Great Bear Rainforest, and its deep-rooted communities, to go in search of it?
Zada does due diligence in exploring both the science and psychology that debunks as well as myth and lore in favor. That should be the go-to approach yet it’s often not, I was impressed with his efforts here.
Why are many otherwise normal people from different walks of life seeing giant, hair-covered humanoids? And why do scores of others who haven’t believe in them anyway, with an unshakable conviction?
And he does accept the possibility of unexplained phenomena, but with an interesting twist incorporating the long, storied history of the Sasquatch across different world cultures. Making a good case that “North America too has its far-flung, otherworldly realms,” he highlights some surprising stories from US history, like that “Theodore Roosevelt mentioned the creatures in his 1892 book The Wilderness Hunter. He described a story he’d heard about a woodsman who, reputedly, had been killed by one of the animals.”
The historical element was a major highlight, because I knew nothing about how wide-ranging this history was, having always automatically relegated it to the tinfoil-hat fringes in my own thinking. Did you know the Nazis believed in a “proto-Aryan race of giants” and Ernst Schäfer, a German zoologist and “erstwhile Nazi SS officer” spent nearly the entire 1930s in the Himalayas on Heinrich Himmler’s orders trying to prove their existence?
Eventually the animals sighted there were determined to be Tibetan blue bears, but that was kept under wraps out of fear of execution, “since it contradicted notions at the time that Yetis were Aryan ancestors.” I learned so much here. It’s also one of those books with not-to-be-missed stories in the footnotes, like that “Mount Saint Helens, an active volcano in the Cascade Range in Washington, has long been considered an important node of Sasquatch activity.”
Zada’s journey spans contacts with investigators in the field of what he calls “Sasqualogy” (a word I never thought I’d write), who have devoted their lives and work to proving its existence– as yet unsuccessfully– and often in the face of professional ridicule. He examines the most common arguments in favor, like presence in North American aboriginal folklore, and the different camps of beliefs investigators fall into (extraterrestrials, humanoids, etc.). He also covers obsession, a topic that never fails to mesmerize.
He travels to aboriginal locations where the Sasquatch is deeply rooted in lore, with an ecological message that explains a lot about the persistence of belief in a wild mountain man as nature is further encroached by modern life and technology. According to a member of the Heiltsuk nation, from the island community of Bella Bella in British Columbia:
Our culture really reveres the Sasquatch because it’s a reminder that at one point in time, we were living in the same way that they’re living. It’s also a reminder of our connection to the land and everything that exists in our territory. It’s not something to be afraid of. It’s something that teaches you things.
I’m torn because the book veers wildly between writing that’s lucid and engaging and writing that’s weak. His nature writing is lush and descriptive, evoking the Great Bear Rainforest and the foggy harbors of the Pacific Northwest vividly, and he’s impressively adroit in covering science and psychology. On the other hand, in the advance copy (could’ve changed by publication) there were 17 instances of people nodding. Five were the sentence, “I nod.” It’s annoying; I see why Benjamin Dreyer specifically warns to be careful with nodding.
Still, the glimpses into First Nations communities are sensitively done and informative, and his research into psychology and brain function and how this ties into belief in cryptids was fantastic. I think if there’s any decent, serious book about Sasquatches (Sasqueetch? nothing sounds right for this plural), their cultural significance and relationship to the diminishing natural world and its remaining unknowns, this is it.
In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond:
In Search of the Sasquatch
by John Zada
published July 2, 2019 by Grove Atlantic
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.