Book Review: ‘Appalachian Bestiary’

Posted by | September 6, 2013

At first blush, its delightful illustrations by Mandy Newham-Cobb (which channel both Dr. Seuss, and Don Martin of Mad Magazine fame) suggest that Appalachian Bestiary will offer up a visual dictionary of fanciful creatures aimed at young children.

But author Gary Carden, who collected the ‘critters’ over a fifteen year period from a broad swath of folkloric sources, is quick to point out “In many ways, it is a deadly serious book…with footnotes, already!” His title selection is the first tip-off: the bestiary (a collection of notes on the habits of certain animals) was a familiar type of medieval literature. Furthermore, Carden’s title choice directly echoes the geography based titles of two of the most well known medieval bestiaries, Aberdeen Bestiary and Rochester Bestiary.

Appalachian_Bestiary

The bestiary writer usually attempted to draw some moral conclusion from his observations of animal life—which were not always first-hand. From the naturalist’s point of the view the information is far from reliable!

Leonardo da Vinci amused himself in his old age by composing a bestiary — our notion of ‘crocodile tears’ shed by a hypocrite comes directly from this little gem. Many more modern animal superstitions (such as the belief that a bull is infuriated by the color red) can be traced to bestiaries.

Some of the references Gary Carden has unearthed for ‘Appalachian Bestiary’ stretch back as far as John Larson’s “A New Voyage to Carolina,” from 1714. Carden also draws on Cherokee mythology and more recent western North Carolina folk anthologies for many of his critter stories, but “some of them are imposters.  They are not Appalachian born and bred, but came here with the lumber companies,” he explains.

The book opens, for example, with the tale of the Agropelter, found in Paul Bunyan literature. From the lumberjacks of Pennsylvania’s hemlock forests comes the creature known as the Squonk, a perpetually unhappy bird that sniffles and whines [it became the Squont by the time it migrated south]. And loggers in Arkansas river country spun yarns about the Clew-bird, or Milermore. The Milermore could whistle loudly through its rectum, and could be heard for a ‘mile or more.’

“I heard stories about Milermore birds when I was growing up,” says Carden, “the ones that blew for work shifts on factories. But when the lumber mills left, so did the Milermores. The same with the Squont.  After a while, the stories stopped.”

Gary Carden

So one purpose of bestiary tales as found in Appalachia might be to relieve workplace stress by parodying the boss [Milermore birds] or by commenting about complaining co-workers [the Squonk], in code form.

Hunters turn up quite often in the telling of Appalachian bestiary stories. The Agropelter mentioned a moment ago loves sitting high in trees and pelting the unsuspecting hunter walking below it with pine cones or bark. The poisonous Hoop Snake forms itself into a sort of wheel by seizing the end of its tail in its mouth, then rolling down the mountain in pursuit of its victim, the hunter. There’s the Cirqulous, a large round bird which was supposed to be an easy target for hunters, “but since the dead bird rolled away when it fell, hunters were often unable to retrieve it.”

Sort of like the fisherman describing ‘the one that got away’ as he spreads his hands apart showing how large the durn-blasted thing was. It would seem that a hunter who returned from the forest with a less than stellar haul had better at least have some entertaining stories to share.

Well, so what about children? Do any of Appalachia’s bestiary tales speak directly to them? Here’s where the desire to make a moral point turns up. Carden shows us the Booger (Bogie) Bird, which flies backwards. “It seems to have no interest in where it is going, but is very interested in where it has been.” Problem is, in always looking the opposite way from where it’s headed, it ends up banging into trees and other objects, never quite getting where it wants to go.

Then there’s the King-doddle, incorporated into a comic sermon, which was then quoted by folk musician and collector Bascom Lamar Lunsford.

Uktena

“A nocturnal creature who lurked about barns and houses,” says the book, “the King-doddle was feared by small children living on farms who were occasionally sent outside at night by their parents to perform chores they had neglected to perform earlier.  When children come awake at night to the sound of chickens cackling, the cow bawling, the pigs squealing and the dog barking, there is a good chance that there is a King-doddle outside. Disparate pieces, which, when fitted into the shape of the King-doddle, are sufficiently disquieting to encourage any farm child to get all the chores done before dark.”

‘Appalachian Bestiary’ is approachable enough to be thoroughly enjoyed by the layman, but sufficiently girded by footnotes and a comprehensive notes section at book’s end to pass muster with folklorists looking for scholarly heft.

Carden begins his notes section by saying that there are 36 additional creatures he’s identified in his research that have not been presented in this tome. Which means his devoted readers will no doubt be looking for a volume 2 sooner rather than later!

Gary Carden received the North Carolina Award for Literature in 2012 and the 2006 Brown-Hudson Award from the North Carolina Folklore Society, and holds an Honorary Doctorate from Western Carolina University.

Mandy Newham-Cobb is an illustrator of children’s books and a member of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators. She received her MFA at UNC Greensboro and lives outside Philadelphia. She also works as an illustrator at Smoky Mountain Living.

“Appalachian Bestiary” ($20) is available directly from the author, and will be sold at Mountain Heritage Day, September 28, on the campus of Western Carolina University, by the Mountain Heritage Center.

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