Sasquatch is probably its most recognizable name. In parts of Southeast Asia, it is Orang Pendek. In parts of the US, people call it Bigfoot. In Central Asia it is Almas or Yeti. Whatever its local name, it is like us in many ways, but unlike us in other ways that are both specific and disturbing. Just like us, it is unusual among mammals for being habitually bipedal. That immediately marks it as our close kin.
But while we live “in here”, whether “here” is the dwelling, the camp, or the village, it lives “out there”, in the forest. While we speak and depend on social interaction with our peers, it is silent, uncommunicative, and isolated. We have families. In most accounts, it is solitary. We recognize it as something closely related to us, but also as something deeply alien.
Meeting it in the forest is generally agreed to be a scary or disquieting event, not an experience to be sought out by most. It is often blamed for unusual goings on: Things that move around camp inexplicably, or that disappear. Unknown sounds heard in the night. Broken objects that were left intact in the yard.
My Cree friends in Eastern James Bay have told me stories of a human-like, hairy creature that lives in the forest, plays tricks on the unsuspecting, and even occasionally kills and eats the overly adventurous. Even there, it goes by many names. About four years ago, there was a rash of sightings around Wemindji. A truck driver working at the new mine saw it run across the road. They say he quit his job after that. The new cell phone tower on the hill above town kept breaking down that summer, and many said it was something out in the forest that didn’t want it there.
Sasquatch is real because it affects our lives, the way we do things, and the places we go. If you’ve ever spent a couple of weeks deep in the woods, you likely know what I mean. If you never leave the city, let me explain. The landscapes we inhabit are domesticated to various degrees. The town and the village are highly domesticated. We know them well, and we are confident walking them even in the dark or in bad weather. This is not where we are likely to encounter Sasquatch.
The cottage or the hunting camp are somewhat less domesticated. The area that immediately surrounds them is familiar, but that familiarity falls off rapidly as we reach the edge of the woods. The paths that connect the village and the remote camp are perhaps the least domesticated of the spaces we use regularly, and straying from them is uncomfortable. This is where Sasquatch watches us from afar, and where we risk sighting it in the distance. Sometimes we hear its unintelligible sounds.
If we throw caution to the wind and go “out there”, to a new place where we have never been, somewhere in the forest, we enter the undomesticated spaces where Sasquatch lives and where we risk a close encounter that is potentially dangerous, and at the very least unpredictable.
Our subsistence strategies, whether they involve goose hunting, clearing and planting gardens, or digging up old things in the boreal forest for grant money, require us to use various parts of our landscape. Since our landscape constantly changes, they require us to change the places we use and to explore new ones. Any successful adaptation to any environment will eventually become unsuccessful simply because the environment changes around us. The shorelines move, we overhunt or overfish a location, or the soil becomes depleted.
Too much change to a successful adaptation is just as bad as no change. What worked yesterday will probably work today. Just as biological evolution requires a balance between mutation and copy-fidelity, successful cultural adaptation to changing landscapes requires a balance between habit and innovation.
In forested environments, such as the Northwest Coast, the Canadian Shield, the Southeast Asian jungle, the Siberian plain, and many others, Sasquatch, whatever its local name, has evolved as a check on innovation in human subsistence strategies. It is a principle that keeps us close to home, with our own kind, in places that we have domesticated and where things are predictable. It gives a name and a shape to the risk of venturing out. It helps keep the balance between habit and innovation that helps us adapt in the long term.
The risk of encountering Sasquatch in the forest, out there, is not so great that we never try a new fishing hole, or never take a shortcut over that ridge where no one has been in living memory. For a few people, Sasquatch even encourages exploration, because they seek an encounter. Anyway, some people just don’t believe in that stuff, and they will gladly take the shortcut, even in winter and in the dark. Not surprisingly, some of those people are never heard from again. Sasquatch will do that.
Most of us will be judicious in our risk-taking when exploring new environments and unknown places, just in case. We will limit our rate of innovation. Most of us will continue doing what we have done unless it stops working. If we need to stray from the known places, we will be careful and tentative, always on the lookout, just in case.
After all, vaguely disturbing things happen. Barely identifiable sounds are heard, at the edges of our domesticated spaces, where the woods begin, just beyond the light of our campfires, just off the forest trail we’ve walked a hundred times, where the vision almost reaches, where the shadows want to make sense.