This May Go Back Centuries
Locals call them “cat face trees.” Certain older pine trees in North Florida bear a distinctive scar, two bulging slashes angled down toward the centerline between them, resembling the eyes of a cat. I’m here outside Cross City, inland from the curve of the panhandle, to see where Zora Neale Hurston gathered stories and songs from Jim Crow-era workers in the turpentine industry. These cat eyes were cut by those men, a century ago, into every tree, for turpentine: V-shaped wounds to draw the sap and guide it into terra cotta catch-pots. The pots are long gone now, and the cuts have hardened into slanted bulges in the bark. When the light is right, if you stand back and look at a mass of these trees at once, it looks like a forest full of cat eyes looking back at you. But these are scars staring back at you, the scars of trees, their suffering and the suffering of those from the labor camps who cut them.
Since Hurston’s time, we’ve learned that trees are sensitive creatures. We’ve also learned that they’re not individual creatures, but parts of a living system with emergent properties. They communicate through mycorrhizal networks that link nearly every tree, passing on information about disease, insects, sending alarms and sharing resources. We know that trees separated from this network are much more likely to die, that older trees pass down information to the younger trees, and that before it dies a tree will often pass on its carbon holdings and other nutrients to its neighbors. Trees exhibit signs of self-protection when encountering someone who has harmed them. In Irish mythology, trees have a power that’s hard for us mere humans to comprehend, operating with methods barely detectable to human perception. Even today, in Ireland, certain very old trees are considered portals between the worlds of human and faerie, and people fear the upset of old trees because of the powers they possess.
THE SWAMP IS ME, I AM THE SWAMP!
The ancient woods of Florida are haunted, not just by the cat-ghosts of the turpentine business, but by all the various histories the land has endured. The land we now call “Florida” has been the site of almost endless violence since Ponce de Leon landed here in 1513. First, there’s the violence exacted on native people over the ensuing centuries of invasion, war, theft and displacement. Remember, Andrew Jackson got his start in Florida. By the time the Trail of Tears began, a ragtag group of native survivors had formed a new nation, “The Seminole,” hiding out in the woods, determined to fight for the right to their land until the end, but were ultimately pushed further and further south into the Everglades. Survivors of the Rosewood Massacre hid for days and nights, freezing in the surrounding woods just thirty minutes south of where I’m standing.
Then consider the violence exacted on the ecosystem by the many industries that have cut, tapped, poisoned, choked, and hacked trees and forests everywhere across the state, from the cedars of Cedar Key, felled to make pencils of their soft, non-splintering wood, to the entire Northern Everglades filled and leveled first for agriculture, then for real estate, now home to strange American nature simulacra like Sea World and Gator Land. And that’s not even to mention the depth of harm done to the workers in these industries, whose only choice of livelihood was to be the bodies physically carrying out these ecological harms, or to mention all the wildlife forced to flee into tighter and tighter quarters as development shrunk their world.
In 2014, in the woods near Cross City, the old cat face trees still stand in their ancient columns, gigantic. Surveying the scene, my perception feels more like ghost photography, there’s a thin film over everything, a thickness to the atmosphere that isn’t the humidity, shimmers in the periphery and sounds of distant movement, subtle winds in the left ear. The forest feels haunted. I communicate to the trees with everything I can muster that I’m sorry for their pain, and open to their guidance.
When I first arrived in Florida in 2013, following the path of Hurston’s work, I was already expecting its forests to be full of hidden creatures, waiting to exact revenge on human society for what we’ve done. Creature from the Black Lagoon, one of the first creepy films I watched as a kid, was filmed about two hours west of Cross City, in Wakulla; the creature is sluggish and slimy, with a menacingly dumb and heavy gait, and all he does is stalk around after a young woman, in a film whose palette is mostly stagnant gray water and shadows. Then there’s the TV version of Swamp Thing, which I watched religiously in the ’90s. It was filmed a few hours south in the swampland surrounding Universal Studios Orlando. Swamp Thing is the revenge fantasy of a secret Everglades-dwelling creature whose existence unites hominid with forest in defense of the forest. It began as a DC Comics series and has been adapted into several film and television versions. I came to it first through television. Episode One of the series from the ’90s opens with these lines: “The swamp is my world. It is who I am; it is what I am. I was once a man. I know the evil men do. Do not bring your evil here, I warn you. Beware the wrath of Swamp Thing.” These lines often loop in my mind when I’m traveling in Florida.
These forests are also home to a mythical, Florida-specific creature, the “Skunk Ape.”
My connection to television’s Swamp Thing runs deep. A few minutes into the first episode, Swamp Thing meets Tommy, a boy on his way home from getting groceries. Swamp Thing is reluctant to be too honest with Tommy about his real identity, but then Tommy says “I’m used to strange things, I’m from Philadelphia! You see, I got this thing where I love to wander around different neighborhoods late at night. I sneak out after my mother goes to bed, you’d be surprised, some of the things I’ve seen.” As a native Philadelphian, I find it hilarious that this is what convinces Swamp Thing that Tommy can be trusted. Swamp Thing then reveals himself to the boy, exclaiming:
THE SWAMP IS ME, I AM THE SWAMP!
For me the Philly connection here feels spooky and meaningful. The late nineteenth century capitalist whose idea it was to drain the Everglades, hoping to profit from the sale of lumber and real estate, was a prominent Philadelphian named Hamilton “Ham” Disston. The name Disston appears across the header of my aunt’s mortgage in the neighborhood of Tacony, in Philadelphia; my father grew up on Disston Street in the neighborhood of Mayfair. The show writers made being from Philly evidence of a certain readiness to understand the Swamp Thing, his mission and his plight. And Swamp Thing chose a Philly boy, out of everyone, to reveal himself to. I wonder if the writers are playing on the Disston connection. In this version, maybe the Swamp Thing wants Philly to know what has gone down.
These forests are also home to a mythical, Florida-specific creature, the “Skunk Ape.” Sometimes jokingly called “the Swampsquatch,” the Skunk Ape is a hairy humanoid who has been spotted from Ochopee in the Everglades to Apalachicola in the Panhandle. Sightings describe a creature who walks rapidly on two very long legs, upright, and otherwise generally exhibits the posture of a human. It is also said to be covered in long brown human-like hair, to have pronounced ridges on the forehead, and to leave behind a foul odor like rotten cabbage.
We are not the only human species ever to live on this planet, others came before us by at least seven million years. We’re relatively new to Earth, and there’s no promise that our stay will be long. But what if other humans already exist, an alternate path for the species, beings more sophisticated at dwelling with the ecosystem?
In October 2018, I learned of a backyard museum dedicated to proving the existence of the Skunk Ape. Obviously, I went. I didn’t know much yet about Skunk Apes, but I wanted to learn. It felt odd and meaningful that Florida would have its own Big Foot. I was imagining it as a folkloric manifestation of the same revenge-of-the-forest mythos we find in Swamp Thing.
The Skunk Ape Museum is in the backyard of a somewhat isolated old cracker-style house. A hand-carved wooden sign reading “Skunk Ape Research Headquarters” sits above the entrance. The museum itself is a patchwork of corrugated aluminum shed materials, bolted together to form several separate rooms, all contained inside a ten-foot-tall chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The gentleman walking toward me seems to notice that I’m looking at the barbed wire and says, “Can’t let anyone steal my museum! Anyone tries to get in here, gonna get cut.” He has a huge, charming smile.
“Bob Dodd, crypto-zoologist.” He extends his hand. We shake, and he says, “Entry is by donation.” I give him $20. He asks where I’m from; we chat a little. When I tell him I’m a writer, his eyes light up a little, he smiles gently and reaches his arm out ahead of us and says, “let me escort you then, writer.” He’s so charming I worry he’s going to hit on me. Older men in Florida hit on me constantly when I’m down here. They are an old-school kind of brazen about it, a casual hand on the leg or bold wink approach that feels like it’s coming from another world. . . . I assume they hit on everyone. It’s like they think they’re going to die soon so they’re just going for it, no holds barred.
The museum is an archive of Skunk Ape sightings: mostly framed news articles, but there’s one shed of amateur photos from sightings. All the photos are blurry, but together they suggest a tall, thin, stick-legged creature with long brown hair, moving through a forest clearing. A few of the images capture the face of the creature in partial profile, and the face does seem to be shaped like a monkey’s. But every photo is identical in some important ways: clearly taken in the same place and from the same angle, though from different distances. I inquire about the source of the images and Dodd exclaims, “Me!” Turns out these are all stills from a video he captured the day he saw the Skunk Ape while on a hike in the woods, “That’s the day I became a believer,” he says.
I don’t question any of it. I’m not here to debunk, I’m here to observe. As a writer, my approach to Florida is don’t overprepare, have no expectations, just go where the place and circumstances carry me. Florida never disappoints. And with regard to the Skunk Ape, I don’t know which I want more: that it’s all true, and mysterious swamp people live among the trees, or that Dodd is making it work as a slightly mad huckster-curator. Either way, he’s a genuine artist. An outsider artist is an artist. No distinction should be made there. And if he truly believes, I don’t mind. Strange beliefs are full of possibility. New species are discovered all the time, and we rediscover ones we thought were extinct, even species large enough that you wouldn’t think they could effectively hide. In 2008, a group of Javanese Pygmy Elephants, believed for decades to have been extinct, were discovered hanging out in the mountains of Borneo. So why not take a chance on a Florida Swampsquatch? If elephants can hide, so can the Skunk Ape. If we believe humans can evolve, why not imagine them already evolving, into a whole other path of the human family, a creature who lives so well with nature that they’ve been here all along, under our noses, and we were too urbane and navel-gazing to notice. Perhaps the Skunk Ape’s notorious bad odor is a boon; a creature who smells bad enough can ward off false friends right from the jump, and we are those false friends.
Dodd shares his theory that the Skunk Ape is related to an extinct ape called Oreopithecus, an enigmatic, hairy, upright creature known for dwelling alone in swamps. He says Oreopithecus has “thrown off paleontologists for decades,” then goes on for ten minutes about metatarsals, lumbar curves, lines of leverage, and how the study of skeletons tells us which animals walk upright and which don’t.
“Bob Dodd, crypto-zoologist.” He extends his hand.
Dodd continues talking at me, but not really noticing me or attending to me, so I look up what he’s saying on my phone. A quick Google search tells me there is limited agreement on the timing of bipedality in human developmental history, but that many believe Oreopithecus was standing on two legs generations before any other ape. Dodd believes the Skunk Ape could be a relative, “or maybe it’s still Oreopithecus, been hiding out all these years.”
He goes on: “There’s evidence this may go back centuries. The Seminoles and the Miccosukee tribes have old stories about a tall hairy creature who lives in the swamp. It’s the Skunk Ape. And it’s always been elusive.” He escorts me to a frame containing two pieces of paper with no citations, seals, or watermarks, which read:
In 1718, on a mission to convert the Timucuan, missionary priest Juan Quintana wrote that the native people observed a local spirit named “Itora,” which translates to “grandfather,” described by tribe members as an ancient ancestor who merged with a nearby tree and now has many generations of children, all named Itora, who can disappear into the plants and trees and live as one with them, remaining mostly hidden from humans. Quintana dismissed the accounts of his native informants as “animism,” until other white settlers spoke of seeing a tall hairy man with very long arms and legs skulking in the forest, who smelled of rotted vegetables.
I ask Dodd where he got this artifact. “Showed up in the mail! People just send me things. I don’t want to hide it ‘cuz I don’t know what it is, you know? I think it’s from a person in science or a professor who doesn’t want to be known. But they know, and they want me to know. So, for me, it seems like we should consider that this could be another one of those situations where, here is an animal we think is extinct, but it isn’t, it’s been here since 1718, probably before, it may be ancient. This happens all the time. Someone’s just gotta get out there and look. But most of the establishment is pretty stuck on what they think is how things are, so they can’t imagine it.”
I have a recurring dream where I discover an intricate underground world of tunnels and caves, a beautiful, intimate world of secret passageways and hidden connections, where sunlight dapples everything but it’s hard to establish where it’s coming from because we’re so deep underground. It’s a series of caves and crafted, carved out spaces, waves of tile patterns, gorgeous fabrics, and rock formations. People are happy and close to the earth. Clothing is hung out on laundry lines everywhere.
This secret land of my dream is also home to strange, fairy-like but formless creatures that can’t be seen if looked at directly, only in my peripheral vision. They kind of flash and dart from place to place, a half-teleportation, barely a flicker, then a trail of trans-iridescent blue-green shadow-light. Though I haven’t seen them directly, somehow I know—the way in dreams you just know sometimes—that they are something like the messages of plant roots, and not the ordinary roots but the roots beyond the roots, nano-roots, not detectable to the homo sapien eye.
What is human has changed and will continue to change.
I’ve been having this dream most of my adult life, but with long absences between appearances. It’s one of my favorite dreams, a place I love to visit. Maybe it’s been laying the groundwork for me to be open to these ideas of possessed trees and forest fairy-apes living in secret parts of my world, which is also their world. I call my friend Elae, who I know will happily talk me through the possibilities of a hominid-swamp-spirit or fish-tree-monkey-being. And they do. They tell me to read Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, so I do, and happily find that it includes a species of beings who give primacy to the forest over everything, and who communicate with each other through the ecosystem, suggesting not only that they are completely enmeshed and in tune with it, but that the ecosystem itself communicates and all kinds of beings are privy, except for the shitty violent ones.
Several of LeGuin’s descriptions of the forest-world and of these tree-sensitive beings remind me of the weird lighting and intricate pathways of my dream world: “No way was clear,” she writes, “no light unbroken, in the forest. Into wind, water, sunlight, starlight, there always entered leaf and branch, bole and root, the shadowy, the complex. Little paths ran under the branches, around the boles, over the roots: they did not go straight, but yielded to every obstacle, devious as nerves.” My dream world adheres to the un-straightness of roots and branches.
Dodd’s evidence of a native origin story for the Skunk Ape was suspicious, but it stays with me. I’m always looking for more evidence. I found, in the Bartow Public Library, Creation Myths and Legends of the Creek Indians by Bill Grantham. Various tribes from Florida live under the Creek Confederacy, a loose band of smaller tribes which includes the Alabama, Muskogee, and Koasati. Pertaining to the skunk ape/tree-being question, Grantham writes:
Alabama and Muskogee mythology provides an entirely different account of the origins of the first human beings, that of emergence from underground. [. . .] According to the Alabamas and Kosatis, the first people were created underground, some say from clay, where they lived for a while before emerging onto the surface of the land. Some myths account only for the emergence of the Alabamas, while others describe how the Alabamas and Koasatis emerged together at the same place. [. . .] there was a tree at the mouth of the cave where they emerged, the Alabamas emerging on one side of a root and the Koasatis on the other, which accounts for slight differences between them.
The Skunk Ape somehow thrives in the forest undetected, only occasionally getting caught while walking across a field. This entry from Grantham has me imagining Skunk Apes waiting underground, in the same place that birthed the Alabama and the Koasati, for the right conditions under which to fully reveal themselves.
Dodd told me about a cult that existed in the 1970s in South Florida that worshipped the Skunk Ape. They called themselves the Soma Brotherhood of the Skunk Ape. They believed that they could coax the Skunk Ape out from hiding. They believed that humans needed to access the Skunk Ape inside themselves, that this would be the conditions under which the Skunk Ape could emerge. The Brotherhood believed the Skunk Ape was more evolved than humans, but that humans could evolve into Skunk Apes. They just didn’t realize it yet. They were a small group, says Dodd, one that got together to take a homemade “bathtub version” of the shamanic drug “soma.” They claimed to travel to other dimensions within themselves, where they communed with their full potentials. They said that when they were in these altered states they could communicate psychically and across dimensions, and they found that each of them had “their own inner Skunk Ape, just yearning to come out.”
Dodd says he thinks the members haven’t exactly given up on their quest, but that they’ve succumbed to the pull of the drug experiences on the bathtub soma. “Their parties were once legendary,” he says, rolling his eyes and smiling.
What is human has changed and will continue to change. And while I doubt I’d join the Soma Brotherhood, I appreciate their suggestion that humans have the potential to perceive more than we currently do, and that we could probably do more as a species to tap into it, like our own equivalent of a mycorrhizal network. Maybe we are, as the Human Potential Movement once said, hackable. Though when it comes to the body, I suppose that is an unfortunate word. Same can be said for perception, I think—about the potential, not the hacking. What can be perceived and known also changes. I like to think that instead of going extinct, humans will evolve into the kind of being that can live more interdependently within an ecosystem, like in the decentralized, intuitive societies of Le Guin’s tree people, absent all selfish intent, in accordance with the needs of every other being, never to act against the earth, because earth is life itself.
I hope that there is some kind of future, maybe like a Skunk Ape future, a tree people future, some kind of alternate path for life on earth to thrive, and that whatever place the humanoid has in it, that it will take up this kind of aspiration.
As I write this I can feel somewhere the assemblage that is my “self”—and it is 98 percent emptiness, and on top of that emptiness, parts of cells surrounded by more emptiness, and on top of that emptiness, an assemblage we call a cell, and from there across a great expanse of more emptiness, another cell, and in between that emptiness, more emptiness, and every communication between cells is like a mission to Mars, it’s so far across the vast emptiness, and in between all the multibillions of planet-cells and the emptinesses of the mostly empty universe between them, where appearances, like shields protecting a starship, go up, and create forms in the perceptual fields of other collections of cells and emptinesses, the shields are appearance and the starship is emptiness, and of the many assemblages like this, not only is this how it is with cells, but at another level we call a body, one of which I refer to as mine, though its exact boundaries and coordinates are unclear from the standpoint of emptiness, which is no standpoint at all, but the point of vanishing, what is left at the end of life, and given that, what I call “mine,” and have been taught to think of as part of “me” is more like a connective platform through which stimuli pass, an eardrum of all existence, but which eventually disintegrates, and the stimuli are unaffected, as they are mere shields of emptiness—things happen, multiple, nonhierarchical systems of interconnection through emptiness pass and temporarily entangle, yes—and among them all there is a part that is or is at least partially connected to the potential we call “Skunk Ape,” because emptiness is pure potential, and every possible form, every possible appearance, because every possible possibility, is a reality from the perspective of emptiness, which is what is the fabric of existence, and there is always in life a resonance with taking the form of a living that lives in potentia, as the question of what could be, just as there is with anything that hasn’t appeared yet, one that almost did and then didn’t, or one whose appearing was limited, just as there is possibly one that lives in the trees, or lives in the chamber beneath the earth, or hovering in the air waiting to dart open, and is so adaptable and interconnected, and feels and thinks and perceives and moves without ever harming—