Our species' past or future is about an hour's drive, due east from Riverside, in the mountain hamlet of Idyllwild. There, the Idyll-Beast is said to exist -- a creature akin to Bigfoot, or Sasquatch.
This Inland Empire creature has been described as being between seven and 15 feet in height, weighing between 300 and 1,000 pounds, is usually seen as erect, walking with a swinging ape-like gait, and is covered in shaggy hair or fur. This description is similar to those of other Bigfoots throughout the country. However, in a brochure from a research center dedicated to studying the creature, "Idyllbeast: Myth or Monster?," purportedly issued by the San Bernardino National Forest San Jacinto Ranger District for the "Safe and Sane Behavior Around Native Non-Human Hominids," there are details described that are perhaps unique to the Idyll-Beast: "No one who looks an Idyllbeast [sic] in the face will soon forget its intense glowing eyes and sardonic smirk. On winter nights the call of the Idyllbeast echoes eerily through the quiet air, causing animals to whimper and humans to lock their doors and consult their [real estate] brokers. Sometimes the creatures are reported to have a curious garlicky odor."
Alright, I confess. The Idyll-Beast isn't real; but life is more fun when a myth is involved. The creature's originator is David Jerome, an Idyllwild musician and guitar instructor. He is also the director of the Idyll-Beast Research Center Museum and Gift Shoppe, which is housed in a side area of Steve Moulton's Bubba Books. Jerome's statements about the creature in print and on TV are elusive, though he retains a prankster's smirk. Whatever the original motivation, the Idyll-Beast has been embraced by the townspeople as a source of pride and tourist income. In an effort to protect the beast and the community's consensual hallucination, the aforementioned brochure states, "the Idyll-Beast is protected under the California Rare, Endangered and Imaginary Creature Act of 2005."
Just before entering Idyllwild, you may stumble across a yellow diamond yield sign with a silhouette of the beast made out of fur and can be found posted along Highway 243. But maybe you won't, because these Idyll-Beast signs have been snatched up by collectors. The beast, that is, a man in a Wookie-like costume, even appears at public functions, most importantly during the Fourth of July weekend parade, which includes an Idyll-Beast Festival. He also helps market the mountain community by attending events such as the Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival in Indio.
However, I'm less attracted to Jerome's, and the town of Idyllwild's, expressions of quirky, artistic, prankster sensibilities, and more interested in their seeming desire for the creature to exist. I'm interested with how this desire connects with a larger cultural expression that wants to believe that a wild side of humankind still exists, even if out there and not in us.
For me, the Idyll-Beast represents speculation on the ascent of man, a need to control the environment, and a comment upon human self-delusion about ignoring our loss of contact with nature. I think that the motivation for purporting the creature's existence comes from a larger desire to believe that there is a primitive side of us that is still alive and walking with an ape-like gait. I don't believe that the creature will ever be caught, whether in the Pacific Northwest or SoCal's Inland Empire, because it will mean that the last vestige of humankind's wildness will have been tamed and, thus, eradicated.
Perhaps, we all want to believe that there exists a "wild child," like Victor of Aveyron found in France in 1797 during Napoleonic times in south of France. He lived as a feral child, surviving without language or human agency. His feral state was fascinating, as evidenced by the numerous dramatizations and documentaries on Victor, such as François Truffaut's L'Enfant sauvage (1970). In fact, during Victor's time, Enlightenment ideas decentered the place of humans as special, viewing them as part of nature, rather than separate, whereby they could justify reigning supreme over the other animals and plants; a sentiment supported by the Bible, Genesis 1:26 (King James version), "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." It was thought then that studying Victor might detect the signs of that transition from proto-human to modern human.
But, over 200 years later, we are still very mannered. The impulse is to wear a nice jacket rather than a letting our body hair grown yeti-length like. Yet, we also want to believe still that some form of a wild child exits; one before language, reason, and logic infected our spirits.
What is the antidote to this unfulfilled desire? How do we live with our current definition of what is human from now on? Who decides what will become of these creatures? Are we present day humans disturbing the ecosystem of the Idyll-Beast? Do you stalk, leave it alone, observe from a distance, trap--what's to be done? The ball is in the court of the visitor to Idyllwild if they see a sighting. One's reaction will be a sign of one's moral character.
Bigfoot, as a larger cultural phenomenon, makes periodic appearances in popular media. In the past twenty-five years, a small sampling includes the comedy film "Harry and the Hendersons" (1987) and subsequent TV series of the same name (1991-1993), about a family who adopt a Bigfoot called Harry. Eventually, the creature's existence is exposed, but despite the family's fear that he would be taken by the government, he was embraced by the public and achieves some fame.
More recently in 2011, the cable channel Animal Planet, created the documentary series, "Finding Bigfoot." The show follows Matt Moneymaker, president of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, and three sidekicks as they investigate Bigfoot sightings all over the country, not just in the Pacific Northwest--the traditional stomping ground in our folk imagination. For the most part, the crew records only grainy, night vision images of other animals and distance sounds that are interpreted as Bigfoot calls. Perhaps the crew will come to Idyllwild?
This past April 2012, production began on the film, "Exists," headed by "Blair Witch Project" director Eduardo Sanchez. The film follows a group of twentysomethings who take a trip to a cabin deep in the wooded wilderness and are methodically hunted by a Bigfoot-like beast. In a recent issue of "Variety" magazine, Sanchez says, "The film is the first in a trilogy exploring and reinventing the Bigfoot myth." He goes on to say, "We all remember the terror of watching such classics as "The Legend of Boggy Creek," and I look forward to making Bigfoot scary again."
For me, "Harry and the Hendersons" represents an attempt to domesticate or suburbanize the beast, but twenty-five years later, the beast has been returned back to the woods in our imagination, open to be stalked by cameras again, as if hunting grounds have been restocked with deer--as if the American frontier has once again been closed. But, "Exists" takes the retreat further. Sanchez's desire to make Bigfoot "scary again" is a further distancing from our human nature. He makes the animal side of ourselves not only beastly but monstrous and terrifying, positioning us as the prey rather than the hunter. But of course we are only hunting down ourselves.
The Idyll-Beast is a rebuttal to the modern world, creating doubt about the path we've taken that seems to be heading towards singularity in which human and machine will merge. It is a reminder that we live with amnesia also, as if we cannot remember who we are really, or at least an important part of ourselves. It lingers out there in the woods, so close yet so far. It will never be part of our lives until we remember that we must find another way to live with the rest of the animals and the plants on the earth, although we try our utmost to deny this membership with a prankster's smirk. Idyllwild is not a "Jurassic Park," but perhaps it could be considered "Feral Park," a tourist zone for our imagination to reconnect with the primal.
One day, I may walk into the woods of Idyllwild, where my clothes will be ripped off by branches, my hair will grow long, my feet will swell from exposure (hence, the name Bigfoot) and, before I know it, little tourist children will see me in the distance, drinking from a stream, then run to their day tripper parents, both excited and scared, yelling, "It's the Idyll-Beast!"
I may never see the Idyll-Beast, Bigfoot, or Sasquatch, but I'm grateful that the creature is embedded in our cultural imagination as a counterweight to living in a right-angled, urban world. The lasting impression that this unseen creature leaves is more a question, which asks: Civilization needs the Idyll-Beast, but does the beast need us?