and their inhabitants
The wapaloosie is among the smallest and least threatening of the Fearsome Creatures. It resembles a cross between a dachsund and a pine marten, with claws like a woodpecker’s on each foot - two forward, two back - and a sharp tail-tip like the spike of a miniature peavey. It eats lichen and shelf fungus from trees, the higher the better, and can climb literally anything. In fact, its drive to climb is so strong that it has been reported to climb imagined trees when nothing real is available.
There’s a story of a fellow who made himself a pair of wapaloosie-hide gloves, but then when he picked up his axe they’d climb up to the head or right off the end of the handle, depending on which was higher at the moment. He made the mistake of laying his hand on a tree trunk and the gloves took off up the tree with him still wearing them; he barely got out of them before getting too high to climb back down, and they were last seen waving from the top.
This song is a celebration of the wapaloosie, with other animals (including another Fearsome Critter, the hugag, who has a cameo elsewhere as well) looking on and commenting on its climbing exploits. I don’t think the mouse is impressed.
(Illustration: Coert du Bois)
The Tote-Road Shagamaw is the only known reversible biped (unless you count people who have learned to walk on their hands). As if that weren't odd enough, it appears to be a strange hybrid of bear and moose, with bear characteristics dominating the front half and moose the rear - all of which means that it leaves either moose or bear tracks, depending on whether it's walking on its hind hooves or forepaws. Some shagamaws have been reported to reverse and change tracks at precise quarter-mile intervals.
The song is set to the tune of a sea shanty (Ratcliffe Highway); shanties and other worksongs circulated and were freely adapted by lumberjacks - or, as they were also known, shantyboys - to suit their inland surroundings.
Working in the woods was risky business in the best of times, and aside from lumberjacks who met with accidents felling trees or clearing log jams, there were always those who went into the woods and never returned. The hidebehind may not have been responsible for all of these, but if you’ve known the sensation of being watched in the woods by something that can’t quite be spotted, you may agree that it must have made off with some of them…
The song is a cautionary tale about someone who really should have known better than to taunt a Hidebehind.
(Illustration: Margaret Ramsay Tryon)
If this Fearsome Creature been known in western Europe, then the battering ram would have been known as a splintercat.
The splintercat resembles a lynx, but its skull is armored like a woodpecker’s, and for similar reason. We’ve all seen trees where the top of the trunk looks like it exploded in all directions, or maybe got twisted off. The common idea is that wind or lightning is responsible, but that notion doesn’t take the splintercat into account. Its preferred food is honey, and hollow tree dwellers such as squirrels, possums, and raccoons make up the rest of its diet. In order to get at this food, the splintercat climbs to a treetop, chooses a nearby target - a beehive or occupied hollow - and then launches itself headfirst, shattering the tree it hits. But like anyone, a splintercat sometimes makes a mistake, and when it’s dizzy from hitting a solid tree by accident, its judgement isn’t the best - leading to clusters of damaged trees. Along the north shore of Lake Superior you can see whole stands of birches where this has happened.
The song is a worksong, and just might be the most fun to sing of all of these.
(Illustration: Coert du Bois)
The hoop snake is one of the few animals known to have independently invented the wheel. (Why slither when you can roll?) It is unique among snakes in that its venom - so toxic it causes massive swelling even in inanimate objects - is delivered by a stinger at the tip of the tail. Known methods of evading a hoop snake include dodging behind a tree and - if one has the chutzpah and coordination - jumping through the hoop, at which point the snake becomes confused, unrolls, and slithers off.
This song chronicles an infestation of hoop snakes that occurred just at the end of the 19th century. The snowstorm in the first verse places it in one of several logging camps near Duluth, Minnesota, and the end of the song features the snake’s nemesis, Todd Menton’s ‘.22 Man’ character (and Todd Menton's singing).
Shep and the Hodag
This song’s story centers around Eugene Shepard, a local character - almost a P.T. Barnum type, fond of practical jokes - and how, with the help of a Hodag, he and his friends helped the town of Rhinelander, Wisconsin through the difficult transition from a lumber-based economy to an agricultural one. A lot of lumber boom towns died when the mills moved on, but Rhinelander’s Hodag brought people in from elsewhere, and many of them came back to stay after seeing the area’s beauty.
James Leary, folklorist at the University of Wisconsin, pointed me to a Hodag poem by Billy Allen (also known as Shan T. Boy), who wrote ‘The Shanty-boy on the Big Eau Claire’ and numerous other lumberjack songs. This poem portrayed ‘Silent Cal’ Coolidge rusticating in the Northwoods and imagined what would happen if he met up with a hodag, playing off Coolidge’s famous comment on seeking reelection in 1928; my song refers to Allen's idea that Coolidge would ‘choose to run.’
Shepard’s compatriot Luke Kearney - mentioned in the song by his nickname, Lake Shore - published this poem in his book,‘The Hodag and other tales of the logging camps,’ which incidentally includes a graphic description of the Hidebehind’s habits.
The hodag was feared and famed in the lumberwoods long before Shep dreamed of capturing one. Variously considered to be a dragon, a dinosaur, or even the reincarnation of a lumber-camp ox, it was given a wide berth by prudent shantyboys, who nonetheless cheerfully claimed the trees it knocked down.
(Illustration: Margaret Ramsay Tryon)
The ever-tearful Squonk entered lumberjack lore in the often-gloomy tamarack forests of Pennsylvania (the Tamarack Squonk, specifically), but the Common or Bog Squonk has been found in damp and dismal surroundings across the continent. There are even reports of squonks nesting in storm sewers. The squonk is about the size of a large muskrat and is highly self-conscious, owing to having a skin that fits about as well as an elephant’s. It is perhaps unique among Fearsome Creatures in that, as we destroy its favored habitat, we create other places in which it can feel at home.
J.P. (John Philip) Wentling, who was born in Pennsylvania and learned squonks’ habits there, settled in St. Anthony, Minnesota at the beginning of the 1900’s. He is one of the few who have been willing to report the results of capturing a squonk without special precautions. His work at the University of Minnesota, doing research on local trees and wood, often placed him in squonk territory; he once followed a squonk’s frozen tears on a cold night and thus caught the creature, but not realizing the depth of its fear and misery, neglected to reassure it as to its fate until it was too late and he found that the sack in which he was carrying it held only tears.
This song details one method of avoiding such an occurrence, which just might be applied to more than just squonks.
The Sidehill Gouger’s asymmetrical relatives are found all over the world, from the so-called Wild Haggis of Scotland to the Dahu of the French Alps. Their defining characteristic is an adaptation for steep hillsides: the legs on one side, which may be either right (clockwise) or left (anticlockwise), are substantially shorter than those on the other side. This allows them to hug the slope to an uncanny degree, but presents a problem if there's a need to turn around or, worse yet, navigate flat terrain.
Voyageurs were particularly fond of Gougers, as their appearance and vigor reminded them of the Dahu and thus of home; the song, with its nonsense-French chorus, reflects this.
There are two unrelated types of snow snakes. One is a pre-Columbian game that’s made a comeback among tribes in snowy areas across North America, and its distinctive sporting equipment; you could think of it as a distant relative of curling. The other is a Fearsome Critter with a rather wicked sense of humor. If you’re ever walking through undisturbed snow and you lose a boot, you can bet that a snow snake got it and is having a chuckle nearby. They have not been known to bite at such times, but they are said to be venomous and have been known to amuse themselves by chasing people up into trees and waiting at the bottom for some time before growing bored - and where the Hidebehind is repelled by alcohol, the snow snake is powerfully attracted to it. Thus, it was not uncommon for someone walking home after an evening out to be treed by snow snakes and arrive home half-frozen in the wee hours of the morning.
Being treed by a snow snake on the way home sounds like the setup of an Ole and Lena joke, so it seemed fitting to set the song to a traditional långdans melody from Sweden.
Creatures and songs alike are often considered to have families and relatives. So also are stories, and the tale of the Tailypo is one such. Its cousins are a group of yarns with the unlikely designation of ‘Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 366,’ which includes the well-known ‘Teeny Tiny’ as well as a variety of more frightening stories.
As for the owner of the voice and the tail, perhaps it’s best to leave it in its native shadows rather than trying to classify or even describe it.
Old man Stone is based loosely on several backwoods people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing - none of whom, to the best of my knowledge, have shared his misadventure.
This is a traditional song and comes with a game, similar to tag. Players choose one or more hunters, and the rest are squirrels; the squirrels dance through the first four verses (peep, run, jump, and fly), and on the fifth, the hunter or hunters join the game and it resembles tag, with caught squirrels either gathering in the center or becoming hunters themselves and rejoining the chase.
Squirrels and possums aren't fearsome, you say? Well, I'll give you squirrels, but not so fast with that possum. After all, it has fifty teeth - every one of them sharp and pointy - and a smell to rival the hodag itself!
This was a song written in collaboration with my young daughter; she provided ideas, and if a verse made her giggle, it was a keeper. This may or may not explain the level of humor found within. (May not be suitable for all parents.)
This song was written by Hecky Krasnow (the discoverer, but not the writer, of the infamous 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,' as it happens) for an obscure 1957 recording to which it lent its name. Its sense of offbeat fun illuminated my first encounters with fearsome critters and served as a guide of sorts for this project, so it's lovely to be able to include my own interpretation here.
So many critters! So little time!
This song is a selection of additional critters, most of whom didn't end up with songs of their own (yet...) but who had to have a place here. The song itself is constructed much like a joint snake; if you don't like where I started and finished it, you can start wherever you like and sing until you're ready to stop.
Cast of characters: Hugag (the kneeless wonder); Snow Wasset (weaselish, but the size of a polar bear; seldom seen until it's too late); Gillygalloo (hilltop-nesting bird, provider of hard-boiled dice to loggers); Sidehill Gouger; Cactus Cat (possibly the inventor of mescal); Whintosser (triple wolverine on gimbals, with legs every which way); Roperite (wielder of a lasso-like beak); Tripodero (a critter like an air rifle on a telescoping tripod); Gumberoo (like a roundish black bear, but extremely elastic and bouncy); and Whirling Whimpus (spins at tornado-like speeds; likely the true species of a certain cartoon character who purportedly hails from Tasmania). Whew.
(Illustration: Coert du Bois)