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OPINION | EDITORIAL: Don't believe the fake Bigfoots; Ozarks are filled with folklore

Only don’t believe the fake Bigfoots September 12, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

Some of it is wisdom, and some of it is nonsense, but all of it is fascinating. We speak of folklore across the Natural State, tall tales and old sayings repeated down family lines. Some folklore comes through song, others through stories.

Folklore is a living thing, and studying it can help Arkansans understand the changing culture around them. After all, no place in Arkansas is the same as it was 70 years ago (though time does seem to stand still over the border in Louisiana, this nation's only Mediterranean state).

Joshua Youngblood at the University of Arkansas Division of Special Collections is the head of instruction and outreach for special selections and also a rare-books librarian. He has a dream job. He's also a whiz at research. And one of the things he likes to research is Arkansas folklore.

Dream. Job.

Mr. Youngblood said he's a big believer in the importance of history and how places change, as well as how individuals fit into those places. He made the point that studying folklore can help one better understand a place as it changes and evolves.

It didn't take long after Mr. Youngblood moved to Fayetteville to get his first taste of folklore. He rented an old house downtown and discovered there were a lot of spiders to deal with. So people told him to cut up some horse apples and place them in each corner of the room, and that'll keep brown recluses away.

"It never worked," Mr. Youngblood said. But it's a good example of inherited wisdom. There are lessons about a place you might not find in a book.

And lots of folklore exists because of historical observations by our ancestors. Case in point, the researcher told us about another piece of wisdom he read in an Ozark Folklore Society newsletter from the '50s. It contained the advice that you shouldn't go swimming in creeks during the dog days of summer.

Seems like a cruel thing to tell sweating Arkansans looking for a way to cool off, but there's a good reason for it. Mr. Youngblood said we understand now that there are waterborne diseases you can get when the creek is low and not circulating. Harmful bacteria breed in the stagnant wet environment. That warning was captured in a newsletter because somebody heard it. And they probably heard it from someone who watched someone go swimming in a creek during the dog days of summer only to fall ill.

Arkansas farmers have their fair share of folklore. One tradition Mr. Youngblood told us about: When farmers first hear cicadas, they've got about three months before the first freeze. So they could start planning for it. Winds from the east, fish bite the least.

Doubtless in a few weeks Arkansas farmers will be checking their persimmons. You've probably heard this one. Split the seed inside the persimmon, and you'll have one of three general shapes. If you see a fork, tradition says to expect an easy winter. A spoon? You'll be digging out from snow. And a knife? Cold winds that'll cut you up.

Then there's some farming folklore that gets a little more wild, Mr. Youngblood said, like stories about how towns that have too many tomatoes in the late summer can be dangerous. The overabundance of fruit goes to peoples' heads or--as the researcher put it-- "somewhere else." Apparently it makes folks randy.

In that same department is wild ginseng, which has been harvested in the Ozarks for as long as there's been foragers. It supposedly helps men who want to be randy. And for ladies? They were told to eat raw chicken hearts. Sounds like the men got the better deal on that one.

What fun would folklore be without a couple tales about monsters? The real Bigfoot in the United States lives near Texarkana--the Boggy Creek Monster in Fouke. The other so-called Bigfoot "sightings" from Florida to the great northwest are either imposters or misidentified trees.

Mr. Youngblood mentioned a different monster spoken of in Ozark folklore called the "King Doodle." And before you giggle at the name, you should know the stories say it used to eat livestock. Joshua Youngblood knows things not even Google knows.

Also, folks used to trade tales about lizard people roaming the Ozarks. One might long for the day when that was the craziest conspiracy theory going around.

Over near the White River, supposedly there was once a beast called the gollywog, a giant salamander. But even that is based on a real creature in the Ozarks, the hellbender salamander, which folks also call a mudpuppy. It can reach two feet long, and grows in the cold waters of central and northeast Arkansas.

Unfortunately, mudpuppies are in danger of disappearing, Mr. Youngblood said. That's a living piece of Arkansas folklore we don't want to lose.

A sizable chunk of Arkansas' folklore can be found in Vance Randolph's 1951 book "We Always Lie to Strangers: Tall Tales from the Ozarks" (though don't go look at the price for that title on Amazon).

Fortunately, for folks who are interested in more Arkansas folklore, Mr. Youngblood said his department with special collections research is available to the public.

"Anyone can use our resources," he said.

The University of Arkansas also has the Arkansas Folk and Traditional Arts program, of which folklorist Virginia Siegel is the coordinator. She wrote the foreword for a recently published book titled "Ozark Folk Magic" by Brandon Weston, where she lays out her take on the importance of folklore:

"Folklore, at its most basic, is defined as traditions shared and learned within a community," she writes. "It is those practices we learn from our neighbors, friends and fellows--not in the classroom, but from observation and imitation. It is our food, stories, art, holidays, rituals, music and so on. It is our traditional belief system."

If that's not a grand enough vision of folklore to get folks to pay attention to it, we don't know what is. What we do know: These tales from the mountains are worth listening to. People like Mr. Youngblood would have you know folklore aids in understanding of changing culture. We'd simply have you know it's wildly interesting. These stories exist for a reason.

Print Headline: Mountain tales


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