The Tale-Telling Days Are Over
Whatever happened to an outdoorsman’s sacred right to exaggerate? In the age of digitized adventure, the fish that got away is gone forever.
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A truth about the outdoors is that it causes people to lie. Strange forces out there in the wild have always conspired to corrupt human honesty. Over time, intelligent listeners and readers came to accept that an adventurer’s reports would not consist of one-to-one representations of fact but instead would contain exaggerations, distortions, omissions, additions, events that foolish people wanted to believe had happened but hadn’t, and deliberate, implausible, fantastical lies. Maybe that was even a reason the restless and sketchy among us ventured into the wilderness in the first place: because if we claimed we did or saw something amazing there, who could prove the contrary? Returned from our journeys, we could brag all we wanted without fear of contradiction. An enormous attraction of far places has always been that no one else was inconveniently in the neighborhood to check.
“Here Be Monsters,” the old maps announced, next to drawings of walking Leviathan-fish with huge maws and claws and fangs. The pictures must have been accurate; how would the mapmakers have known what to draw unless eyewitnesses had told them? Somewhere out there, travelers said, lived blue-eyed Indians who spoke only Hebrew—a Lost Tribe of Israel, miraculously transported to remotest Asia or the American West. Those who revealed this discovery had not, it turned out, met the blue-eyed (blue-eyed?) Hebrews themselves but once crossed paths with parties who had. Inventive wanderers said they had seen snakes that had bit their own tails and made themselves into hoops and rolled across the ground, cannibals with three heads, Arctic dwellers who covered their ears against the sound of the sunrise, and beautiful Amazonian women warriors who held healthy young men (often the wanderers themselves) captive for sex. Explorers claimed they had climbed mountains they hadn’t climbed and had reached the North Pole when in fact they never reached it. Apparently sober individuals gave firsthand accounts of seeing yeti in the Himalayas and Nessie in her loch and jackalopes on the prairies. Old-time sailors boasted of sleeping with beautiful mermaids, annoyingly omitting the precise physical details, and according to certain fishermen, mermaids offering to grant them three wishes had come up in their nets. The words fisherman and liar are linked in our brains for good reason. And in the interest of brevity, I will pass over the many stories involving logging roads, elk hunters, space aliens, and intergalactic crossbreeding. There are some doors man was not meant to open.
Lies made the wild scary and alluring. When I was a boy, local places I knew about buzzed excitingly with crazy tales. In rural Illinois, Argyle State Park was said to be inhabited by a creature called the Argyle Monster—a huge cougar that had lost its front feet in a trap and ran through the forest on its hind legs at dusk and “screamed like a woman.” Or so said Billy somebody, who told his friends, who were friends of mine, who told me. I never saw the Argyle Monster myself, but it ran on its hind legs through my imaginings and colored the dusk of this unremarkable state park a deep and thrilling sepia when I walked back to the picnic area after fishing. It’s been decades since I went there; I regret that I quit being afraid of the Argyle Monster long ago.
More recently, as a grown-up supposedly immune to phantasms, I learned from Russians when I was traveling in Siberia that somewhere in its remotest parts is Coca-Cola City (Gorod Koka-Kola), which was built during the Cold War as a reproduction of an American city. The residents of Coca-Cola City speak perfect English and use American products and behave like Americans, providing a realistic setting in which the Russian spymasters can train special operatives who will be sent to the U.S. Coca-Cola City is alleged to be the topmost of top-secret sites, and it is closed, of course, to all visitors. I’m not sure if that’s why I never could pin it down on the map. I suspect that it does not exist and never did—but who can say? The rumor of it made Siberia more Siberian for me.
YOU MIGHT NOT THINK that any human creation as hardy as lies could be in danger of dying out, but I’m afraid that, at least outdoors, they are. Nowadays, a good outdoor what-if story has a much smaller chance for survival. Some years ago, you may remember, observers in the deep woods of eastern Arkansas said they had seen an ivory-billed woodpecker, the wonderful and near mythic bird that black people called Lord God Bird because of its soul-shivering appearance. There had been no confirmed sightings of the ivory-bill in decades, and its possible extinction was and is bad news. The observers who said they had seen it weren’t trying to deceive, just being wishful, and because they recorded it with a video camera their wishfulness was eventually dashed—close analysis of the video revealed that the bird was not an ivory-bill.
It would have been nice to think that the bird still survived someplace far away in the forest. But truth is always better than error, I suppose. Consider the recent case of the giant wild hog Hogzilla. A Georgia man said he had shot it while it was running around someplace in the woods, and he posted pictures of it online. This eight-foot-long, 800-pound animal was as monstrous a creature as the Georgia swamps had ever seen. The man added that he had buried the hog in a grave marked with a cross (though feral, it had been a Christian hog, apparently), and because of the excitement stirred up on the Internet the man eventually had to submit the corpse for examination. Through DNA testing, experts determined that it was a mix of wild hog and domestic pig. Its size suggested it had eaten a lot of hog feed. Such a disappointment—Hogzilla, a pen-raised fake. How much more stimulating to believe that there are 800-pound wild hogs infesting the swamps of Georgia. One hates to think what a radio collar and a wildlife-management team would have done to William Faulkner’s bear.
The Hogzilla debunking was another example of the pesky trend toward factuality currently sweeping the out-of-doors. Technology, of course, is at the root of it. The global landscape used to be a theater of various shadings—sunlit fields and canyons of dark obscurity, trackless jungles, and misty Shangri-las. Now the whole world is like a cineplex when the lights have come on. Almost no place on the surface of the planet is really obscure anymore. Satellites watch it all and can let you know to the millimeter how far continental drift moved your swimming beach last year. What’s up along the banks of the great, gray-green Limpopo? How’s traffic on the road to Mandalay? What’s the snowpack like across the wide Missouri? The Internet or Google Earth will tell you.
Traveling in Siberia a decade ago, I thought I was pretty much beyond the reach of checkability; in fact-checker shorthand, anything I wrote would be “O.A.,” which stands for “on author,” meaning “unverifiable by anything other than the author’s say-so.” I did not need to worry that any checker would visit where I had been, nor was it likely that an irate reader would write in claiming I had got something wrong about the tundra zone of the Chukchi Peninsula, given the difficulty of getting there and the absence of any reason to go. But then time and advancing technology proved me wrong. During the many years my Siberian research took, satellite imagery of the earth’s surface became available online, and my claims about the lay of the land in Siberia proved to be checkable after all. Even in far-flung places, descriptions could be verified. If I said there was no bridge over a remote Far Eastern river that I had crossed by ferry, the checker could look on Google Earth and see that, in fact, no bridge showed up in the satellite photo, and a small boat much like a ferry could be seen crossing there.
Today the adventurer’s tale-telling days are over and his crooked ways have been made straight, and every untruth can be revealed. No point in lying: we’ve got it all on tape, as the TV detectives say. If you claim you drove to Nunavut and we think maybe you didn’t, we’ll just look at the E-ZPass records for the toll roads along the way. And if they don’t tell us, the cell-phone towers will. Formerly, a cell-phone tower could follow a phone only when the phone was on, and smart criminals knew to turn it off before committing crimes. Now phones ping the towers and the towers record the presence of the cell phones in the vicinity, often whether they are on or not, and to escape the network’s observation you must remove the battery entirely. Almost everywhere, some degree of electronic connection can be assumed.
I never took much notice of the satellites going over constantly until I was out in the night in Siberia, with its grand darkness. In the middle of the Barabinsk Steppe or some other nowhere, I always studied the night sky before getting into my tent. Amid the stars’ wild randomness, the little dots of light crossed the heavens on routes as purposeful and direct as a cue-ball shot. I carried a satellite phone myself. Sometimes I would pick a likely-looking satellite and shoot a call to it (I thought; actually, the link was more complicated, and to a satellite I didn’t see) and then do something ordinary like make an appointment with my dentist back in New Jersey or talk to my daughter about her week at school. And all this from a region where exiles in former times used to disappear, never to be heard from again.
A favorite word for the technological fishbowl effect is transparency. Anything you do in far places, and anything that exists out there, can, in principle, be seen. Transparency is one of those words whose real meaning is its opposite, the way that countries with ministries of culture haven’t any. Of course, all the technology known or yet to be known won’t see even a part of everything or stop people from making things up. It’s just that the realm of colorful prevarication has moved inside, where the heart does its sneaking. Most of the gods and demons and fairies and windigos who used to inhabit their own particular outdoor places died off long ago, and modern technology has zapped the survivors. If you want to spin a yarn, it will be about something inward and private, like whether you took steroids.
During the days when the Argyle Monster still seemed a possibility in my mind, one of the books I liked to read told about the life of a German hunter and sportsman named Baron Münchausen. This baron lived in the Black Forest in some former time—the stories date to the 1700s—and journeyed through the fastnesses of the forest having adventures. A typical one was his encounter with a young stag he surprised one day in a dark glen. Grabbing his rifle, the baron found he was out of bullets, but he happened to be eating a cherry at the time, so he spat out the cherry pit, loaded the rifle with it, and fired, hitting the stag squarely between the eyes. The stag fell down but then quickly leaped up and ran away. Years later, the baron was again in that part of the woods. All at once, to his astonishment, he came face-to-face with a huge stag that had a small but healthy cherry tree growing between its antlers.
As a boy I did not believe that had really happened, but I kind of suspended final judgment, because maybe it could, you know? Because it was cool, I didn’t altogether rule it out. Today the baron would be a video game. Progress has cleared the outdoors of its tall stories and imaginary beings and redeposited them on screens. Cyberspace is full of invented monsters, and movies seem to be about nothing but winged horses and multiheaded dragons and rivers of snakes. In the first Harry Potter movie, a “full-grown mountain troll” appears in a Hogwarts bathroom and tries to smash Harry with its huge club before Harry manages to kill it by sticking his wand up its nose. Not too long ago, many people believed there really were such things as trolls in the mountains. I mourn the loss; the mountains are poorer without their trolls. As far as I’m concerned, not every last troll has left, and a stag with a tree growing between its antlers is an unlikely sight, but not out of the question completely.
The point is, wonders are out there still. If you don’t on some level believe that, you’re going to stay home with the TV, and “remote” will be what’s lost between the cushions. Technology or no, I expect to see miracles and portents anytime I leave the pavement. A while ago, I was fishing for snook in the Florida Everglades. My guide and I had made our way far back in a gin-clear avenue between stands of mangroves when two manatees swam right beneath the boat. I had never seen a manatee before. They went past faster than Usain Bolt and executed a right turn with marvelous agility and were gone, and I swear I saw mermaids. Naked, brown, extremely sexy mermaids, like the fishermen said.
Contributing editor Ian Frazier's first novel, The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days, was published in October.