Do you believe in Santa Cla -- er, Bigfoot?

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Ok, another Bigfoot sighting - ho hum. In fact, two sightings have come to light recently, one in Minnesota, the other in Texas. Is there anything to them? Is there any chance we've finally stumbled on the real thing? Wrong question, says Joshua Blu Buhs, author of "Bigfoot:The Life and Times of a Legend," published in May by University of Chicago Press. What's the right question? Hint: It's not, Buhs explains, Does Bigfoot own a car?

GUEST BLOGGER: Joshua Blu Buhs

Bigfoot's been sighted again!

This time, the legendary creature has been spied by a homeless couple in San Antonio, Texas, and caught on film by a trip-wired trail-cam in Minnesota.

Neither story is particularly substantive or convincing. The photo snapped in Minnesota quite clearly shows a man in a rain suit. The Texas story is not so easily dismissed -- at least the beginning part. The couple called 911 to report that a six-foot tall hairy creature was dragging a deer carcass. Later, more calls of reported sightings came into the police and local news. Likely, these were misidentifications, but one never knows.


A man in an ape costume is seen outside a hotel where a media conference is held announcing the claim that a deceased bigfoot or sasquatch creature has been found in Georgia in Aug. 2008, in Palo Alto, Calif. (Ben Margot/AP)

As the story evolved, however, it pushed the bounds of believability. Muddy handprints were found on a dumpster at a body shop. A video of the beast was subsequently released, although, as is so often the case, it was murky, and raised more questions than it answered: such as, Does Bigfoot own a car?

More seriously, though, we might ask another question: Why are such reports so common? Why is it that Bigfoot has been sighted again? And again? And again?

There are a couple of answers ready at hand. First, people keep seeing Bigfoot because there is a Bigfoot. As a Bigfooter said about the San Antonio incident, "If one sighting is real, then that means something is out there."

The second answer is the opposite: that there is no such thing as Bigfoot. "Personally, I don't buy the fact this thing exists," said Blane Klemek, assistant wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "All organisms die; they don't just go away. You'd think someone someday would find one."

From this point of view, the repeated reports are indictments of the American science education's sad state, media irresponsibility, and public gullibility.

I'd like to suggest that there's a third way of answering the question. Bigfoot sightings are constantly reported because they are fascinating beyond the debate over the beast's existence: the stories fulfill a cultural role.

In everyday talk, we use the word legend loosely, as a rough synonym for myth or fairy tale or untrue. But folklorists have a more precise definition. For them, legends are propositions for belief -- something that may not be true, but could be.

In other words, they are ways of plumbing reality, and exist exactly because they raise questions. The reason, then, that stories of Bigfoot persist is that they force us to ask questions -- including why these stories persist, but certainly not limited to that. Are there indeed, more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamed in philosophy?

Bigfoot also raises more obscure, and contentious questions. Bigfoot entered the public mind in the late 1950s, and since that time experts have had increasing amounts of control over our lives, recommending what we eat, how fast we drive, how we should raise our children. We all must decide how much of this expert advice to heed -- decisions that are often fraught with anxiety.

Stories about Bigfoot bring this anxiety to the surface, asking, Do scientists know everything about the world? Who can credibly speak for nature? Is it the wildlife biologist, who has gone to college, read books, and spends some part of his days out in the forest? Or is it the homeless couple, presumably less educated, but also living in a way that makes them more vulnerable to -- and aware of -- unusual experiences?

Given the season, we might compare the interest in Bigfoot to affection for Santa Claus. Not strictly a legend -- no one seriously argues for the existence of him -- Santa Claus is still related to Bigfoot. Both are wildmen, part uncivilized, part human. Santa lives in the inhospitable North and is often decked in garlands of holly but is comparatively domesticated, his rough edges hidden behind a great white beard and cherubic cheeks. We tell stories about Santa Claus not because we believe in him, but because those stories convey messages we want shared -- about generosity and pure love and respect for others.

And that's why we tell stories about Bigfoot. Not only to argue for and against the existence of the Big Guy, but because through those stories we come to understand more about ourselves, our neighbors, and our place in this world.

By Steven E. Levingston |  December 18, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Steven Levingston
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Comments

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Personally, I thought I saw the image of the Virgin Mary in the footprint. You?

Posted by: jsmith33351 | December 18, 2009 1:46 PM

I think these animals exist and are much more intelligent than we think they could be.
There are too many credible people who have reported sightings of these mammals/animals.

Posted by: JimW2 | December 18, 2009 2:26 PM

Greetings Steve,

I'm entreched firmly in that "non-believer category" with respect to Bigfoot (and, the fellow with the quote in your blog), but I believe you nailed it.

Whether we're talking about Bigfoot, Yeti, Loch Ness, Easter Rabbit, space aliens, Tooth Fairy, or what have you, they're all fascinating legends beyond the debate.

Let these debates persist, I say. It's fun and no harm's done.

Merry Christmas,
Blane Klemek

Posted by: bklemek | December 25, 2009 9:09 PM

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