Jackalope hops into the heady world of official myth

 

The Wyoming Legislature is coming close to declaring the jackalope the state's official mythical creature. A ferocious jackrabbit with horns, the jackalope was first portrayed by taxidermist Douglas Herrick in 1939, and now adorns gift shops and tacky postcards all over the state.

An eight-foot jackalope statue greets entrants to the Wyoming State Fair, and Wyomingites love to tell stories of tourists who think the animals actually exist.

A proclamation, already passed by the House 45-12 and headed for the Senate, would make it official. Wyoming would be the first state to have an official mythical anything — just the sort of frivolous exercise I can see legislators around the West getting behind.

For example, any number of states could name an official mythical hero, the cowboy. But in an age where most cattle tenders use pickup trucks and four-wheelers, we could also name an official mythical mode of transportation, the horse.

Here in Montana, some economists are always trying to point out that our economy no longer depends on logging and mining, and so we should stop giving those industries such huge handouts. But if we declared them Montana's official mythical economy, we could demonstrate the irrelevance of the economists' arguments.

Arizona could find an official mythical irrigation source. Colorado could issue paeans to the official mythical native Coloradan. Idaho could declare the Democrats their official mythical political party. In South Dakota, Sturgis could name the biker both its official mythical villain and its official mythical savior.

As drought continues, numerous states could identify official mythical streams and lakes. They would be filled with official mythical fish, which would be caught by people engaged in an official mythical pastime and discussed with an official mythical attitude toward the truth.

As global warming — er, "climate change"— continues, we could have an official mythical season (winter), featuring an official mythical form of precipitation (snow) and an official mythical rationalization ("but at least it's not a humid cold").

And once we identified the ranch as our official mythical home, we could feel free to move to the city where the salaries are so much better. Once we identified rugged independence and libertarianism as our official mythical philosophies, we could beg for huge government subsidies without hypocrisy.

Needless to say, I've always been skeptical of such "official" declarations. I can never remember whether the ponderosa or the cottonwood is Montana's official tree — and furthermore, I'm quite sure it's not going to affect my life. A plethora of more complex legislators' tasks, such as setting budgets and taxes, have far more impact.

Furthermore, isn't officialness the exact opposite of myth? By their very definition, myths are stories told informally because their explanatory power goes beyond literal truth. Indeed, the jackalope had been around for years as a campfire story before Douglas Herrick made it "real." How could a campfire story be improved by the government pretending we believe it?

On the other hand, as I cast about for these smart-alecky examples of myths to officialize, I realized I'd missed the purpose of not only official myths, but official anythings. They draw us together. They emphasize the commonality of experience within a state. Whether it's a ponderosa or cottonwood (I just looked it up: it's the ponderosa), the state tree reminds me of something special about Montana, what it means to be a Montanan. Not very important, maybe, but neither are pennies until you collect enough of them.

Though I grew up in Massachusetts, home to great symbolic stories about Pilgrims and the Revolutionary War, I never felt close to those myths, the way I feel close to stuff out west. You can go almost anywhere in Plymouth, Mass., without thinking about Plymouth Rock. But if you drive across Wyoming, you might think about jackalopes.

The West is full of such symbols, from cowboy gear to backpacker gear, hardpanners to gold panners, wild animals to imaginary animals. I think it's because nature is still so powerful here, with mountains and deserts always surrounding us, such that the stories explaining our place in it all carry much more weight. And maybe, in the end, that's not such a frivolous issue for a Legislature to discuss.

John Clayton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Red Lodge, Montana, where he is completing a biography of the journalist, novelist and rancher, Caroline Lockhart.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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