I brace myself as I open my email: another note from someone who listened to my Bigfoot podcast, “Wild Thing,” and felt compelled to write me. Most of the time, it’s a nice fan letter. Every so often, it’s an angry diatribe. And then there are letters like this one: “I know they exist — beyond a doubt, I have been physically touched on the shoulder by one on a mini-expedition in northeast Washington state. … They are good folk, the Sasquatch people — they are so much more than a Wild Thing in the woods.”

I’m relieved it’s not hate mail, but the letter leaves me asking why, exactly, I got myself into this. I spent the last two years researching and reporting a podcast on America’s greatest myth, mainly in an effort to understand why a relative of mine, a professor of anthropology, became obsessed with Bigfoot, putting his reputation on the line in his search for the creature. Now I wonder if I’ve jeopardized my own reputation as a serious journalist who has worked for NPR.

I’m not crazy. And I’m not alone. From the dawn of human history, we’ve shared stories about creatures outside the bounds of civilization, avatars of the wild: Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s wild companion in the Mesopotamian epic; the Australian yowie; the Himalayan yeti. Bigfoot first appeared under its Salish name, Saskehavas, Sasquatch, in modern literature in 1929. Maclean’s magazine described the Sasquatch as “strange people, of whom there are but few now — rarely seen and seldom met … ‘the hairy mountain men.’ ” Tribal nations of the Pacific Northwest used stories of Sasquatch to educate their children. How better to personify the unpredictable nature of the wilderness than with a mysterious, unpredictable wild thing? A creature like us — but not us. By the 1950s, Sasquatch was fully appropriated as Bigfoot, becoming an American icon. Hundreds of books, countless TV shows … and my own podcast. Why?

“I think we need [Bigfoot] in a deep-seated psychological way, because of our evolutionary origins,” Robert Michael Pyle, a lepidopterist, naturalist and poet, told me in an interview late last summer. “I think it goes all the way back to what we came from.”

Half-wild creatures have been feeding the human imagination for thousands of years. We have evolved with them, and away from them. For Bigfoot to exist, even in our imaginations, we need a landscape that can carry him. In a modern world that is so tamed, we are losing something that has long been with us and defined us. “Frankly, I think if we lose our connection to the wild,” Pyle said, “we’ll be far less human, less animal.”

We live in an era of data, formulas and algorithms. We fantasize a future of super computers and robots, self-driving cars and delivery drones. Soon, we may never need to leave the house, let alone the city. But what’s the cost of this severed connection with our animal selves? We’d do well to remember that we are not far removed from all life on Earth, even if we like to pretend we are. Bigfoot — that tether to a primitive state — is a reminder that the world is big, wide and wild.

In fact, cryptozoology (the study of animals whose existence is unproven) shares a common goal with its vaunted academic cousin: conservation. To search for Bigfoot is to identify and protect biodiversity and habitat. “The raison d’etre for any bigfoot research group is the ulterior motive … which is conservation and preservation,” John Kirk told me at a Bigfoot symposium in Willow Creek, California. “That’s what I’m doing it for. You have to prove they exist before you can save their habitat.” Kirk, a policeman and the president of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, said he’s firmly in the “Bigfoot exists” camp, but to him, that’s beside the point.

“I think habitat’s worth preserving, plain and simple,” he said. “But if you can put a biological rarity into that equation like they did with the spotted owl, goodness gracious me — that’s the only reason I would ever want to show the world [Bigfoot] existed.”

Last June, I took a trip out to gated private timberland on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. For months, I’d been hearing about some giant ground nests out there, discovered by the owner of the land and now being studied by a Bigfoot research group, the Olympic Project. I was surprised by the 10-foot-diameter ground nests, woven as intricately as a bird’s nest, and deep enough to hold a full-grown human. For the first time, I found myself more convinced of the possibility of Bigfoot than I’d ever been. The idea energized me; it felt electrifying and full of potential. What if, for all these centuries, people had been seeing this creature? What if it really did exist? What would this mean?

Some of the world’s great conservationists have been interested in cryptozoology, including World Wildlife Fund founder Peter Scott. Bigfoot enthusiasts are, at heart, naturalists. Like fishermen and hunters (many Bigfooters are both), they’re keen to protect wilderness — a place where the unexplained still happens.

In October 2017, at a Bigfoot conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Patterson-Gimlin film (the famous minute-long clip allegedly showing a Bigfoot walking away through the woods), I met biologist John Mionczynski. Decades ago, as he was doing a wildlife survey in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, he had a hair-raising nighttime encounter: “This shadow came over the top of the tent, and it was a silhouette of a hand that was about twice the width of mine with an opposed thumb and hair between the fingers. Bears don’t have that kind of a paw. And it was bigger than a bear’s paw and it didn’t have claws, it had fingers, with an opposed thumb,” he recalled.

Mionczynski lived to tell the tale, but the encounter has eluded explanation.

Others have experienced something beyond their understanding, and they just have to figure it out. Bigfoot makes outdoor enthusiasts of people who might never have taken an interest. If the natural world needs anything right now, it’s more people taking an interest. Does it matter how they get there?

For Bigfooters, DNA is the next great hope. Many see it as the key to finding the physical Bigfoot evidence that has been sorely lacking. The tools available to scientists have become so powerful that they can sequence DNA with just a few skin cells — perhaps the very thing you might find in a giant ground nest out on the Olympic Peninsula. As I stood, mouth agape, staring at those nests last summer, the Olympic Project had already sent samples out to New York University, where a molecular primatologist analyzed them to see if they contained any unusual or unknown DNA. The results showed evidence of bats, shrews, humans, bears, deer and coyotes — but no Bigfoot. Disappointing, to say the least. So when the primatologist told me that the nest samples were pretty degraded, that they weren’t ideal, I began hoping that newer nests would be found and, with them, evidence of Bigfoot.

Yet all is not lost. For me, Bigfoot provided a better understanding of human evolution, DNA analysis, the psychology of belief and the basics of field biology — topics I might not have explored otherwise. Yes, finding a giant, undocumented primate in the North American woods would be unbelievably exciting. On the face of the current evidence, however, I do not think that Bigfoot exists. But that’s not the point.

Even Bigfoot researchers have their doubts. And yet, the fascination persists. Why? Because even if he isn’t real, we really, really need him. I spent the last two years chasing a shadow, suspending disbelief to imagine a world wild enough to hold something as extraordinary as Bigfoot. I didn’t expect to find the idea of Bigfoot so integral to what it means to be human. But that electric, alive feeling I get when I look at the black wall of wilderness beyond the campfire light — that’s Bigfoot. To look at the stars and wonder what’s out there; to gaze into the ocean and imagine its depths; to imagine a better future for our planet, and come up with solutions — that’s Bigfoot, too.

If we can’t imagine something like Bigfoot, if we can only envision the obvious answers, we risk being mired in our own limitations. And one other thing: No one has proven that Bigfoot doesn’t exist. So keep your eyes open, just in case.

Laura Krantz is the host, creator and producer of the podcastWild Thing.” The views expressed here are solely her own. This story was originally published by High Country News (hcn.org) on April 1.

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