Of Hippos and Submarines

When Lugne Mocumin decided to serve with St. Columba in his mission to spread Christianity to the Picts of Northeast Scotland in the middle of the sixth century, he may have gotten a little more than he bargained for. While on its way to visit with the leader of the Picts, a fellow by the name of Brude, the missionary party headed across Loch Ness.

During the trip, the missionaries spied a group of men on the shore engaged in burying a fallen friend, a victim of the ferocious beast that lived in the depths of the lake. Naturally Columba wanted to help in some way and so he ordered Lugne (who truthfully no one in the group really liked that much anyway) to swim out to retrieve the victim’s abandoned boat.

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Not surprisingly the monster of Loch Ness rose up to attack, but Columba was prepared for that. He calmly made the sign of the cross and said: “Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.” At these words, the monster shrugged and swam away with his serpentine tail between his flippers.

This is the earliest known record of the famed Loch Ness Monster and it comes from Adomnán, the 9th Abbot of Iona who wrote his account about a hundred years after the alleged event. That Adomnán’s distance from the event should be considered when determining the reliability of his account is something even most Nessie enthusiasts (sometimes known as “crazies”) will grudgingly admit.

But the same problem can’t be attributed to the next reported appearance of the monster. After Columba it seems no one heard a peep from the fearsome creature of Loch Ness until just eighty years ago on May 2, 1933 when the Inverness Courier broke the story that a couple of highly reliable witnesses driving a newly completed road along the lake edge had seen, well, something.

The report attracted a great deal of interest (mainly from “crazies”) and soon big game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell was on the job. Hired by the London newspaper Daily Mail, Wetherell soon discovered a set of large footprints. Unfortunately for Wetherell and monster enthusiasts everywhere (still known up until 1959 as “crazies”), the prints belonged to a hippopotamus foot umbrella stand.

Shamed by the exposure of the hoax, Wetherall didn’t give up there and in April of 1934, Colonel Robert Wilson, a respected British surgeon, took a stunning picture of the beast, or perhaps of an otter, or maybe a log. The picture, though hardly conclusive evidence of the presence of a lake monster, appeared authentic and it wasn’t until 1994 that the photo was entirely exposed as a hoax perpetrated in part by Wetherell.

Christian Spurling - Loch Ness Monster (1934)
Christian Spurling – Loch Ness Monster (1934) (Photo credit: luvi)

With the exception of a few cryptozoologists (a term coined in 1959 because nobody could get “crazyologist” to stick) who don’t find this whole hoax theory at all credible, the world was shocked when it was revealed that instead of a genuine lake monster, the picture actually showed a plastic mold mounted on a toy submarine.

So, then, what do we make of the story of St. Columba’s redirection of the murderous beast and Lugne Mocumin’s narrow escape? First, I think we need realize that encounters with toy submarines sprouting plastic heads were most likely an uncommon and alarming sight in the sixth century. Second, from some perspectives a hundred-year-old tale of an encounter with an otter or perhaps a log, paired with an untimely death, can look an awful lot like a lake monster. That is if you happen to be a “crazyologist.”

LOOK!  THE LOCH NESS MONSTER!
LOOK! THE LOCH NESS MONSTER! (Photo credit: Extra Medium)

French Fashion Accessories: They’re not just for English Nannies Anymore

Jonas with his brolly
Jonas with his brolly (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In October of 1750, Englishman Jonas Hanway had the nerve to walk through the streets of London carrying an umbrella. To be clear this was well before the umbrella became the preferred mode of transportation for magical English nannies. Though the umbrella had been introduced through much of Europe at the time, it’s most notable use was as a favorite accessory of the more fashionable ladies of France.

Anything that can be referred to as a bumbershoot is probably a little funny anyway. And it certainly doesn’t take much imagination to conclude that an otherwise well-respected Englishman walking down the street sporting the latest in 18th century French ladies’ fashion might draw some attention and (possibly deserved) ridicule.

But why would someone carrying an umbrella in 21st century Oregon deserve a similar reaction? When we relocated to Salem, Oregon a few years ago, we knew that with a 2000 plus mile relocation would come a few small cultural differences. We expected that we might pick up a few new bits of slang in our vocabulary, learn some variations on well-known songs, and maybe stumble on the recipes of some local specialties.

One thing that did surprise me, though, was when I was warned that in this region in which it rains pretty much from November to July, I could expect to be mocked if I used an umbrella. It made a sort of sense, I suppose. Salem rain most often consists of tiny little droplets that swirl around in the air and are more likely to coat than douse and so are difficult to stop with a traditional umbrella.

Still, even when the rain came down harder, more similar to the sheets that fall in the Midwestern springtime, the Oregonians merely pulled their rain jackets tighter, and ran a little faster. Few were willing to take a cue from 18th century French ladies’ fashion. Or common sense.

So now I’m back in St. Louis and it’s April, which means it is storming. The rain comes down in sheets (like rain is supposed to) and when I venture out (and I’m not cowering in my basement under a tornado warning) I carry an umbrella. Because it’s the sensible thing to do. It would have been the sensible thing to do in Oregon as well, but I am sad to say I wasn’t bold enough. When the rain came down in sheets, I pretended to be a native Oregonian and simply pulled my rain jacket a little tighter and ran a little faster.

As for Jonas Hanway, he stayed the course, determined that the umbrella (used by many ancient civilizations) was a sensible and worthwhile idea. Come rain or come shine, he stubbornly carried his favorite and slightly silly-looking accessory through the city streets for nearly thirty years. Eventually the idea caught on and soon enough the men and women of London began carrying umbrellas (for a long time referred to as “hanways”), though it would still be a few years before the bumbershoot would catch on with practically perfect nannies.

Mary Poppins: Umbrella
Mary Poppins: Umbrella (Photo credit: jpellgen)

Fat Guy-Sized Footprints in the Sands of Time

The morning of March 22, 1882 dawned crisp and clear as a grief-stricken woman followed a slow procession from the London Zoological Gardens to St. Katherine’s Dock. She carried a mug of beer as a small goodbye token for the gentle giant who would depart that day.

After nearly seventeen years in London, Jumbo the elephant was beginning his trans-Atlantic journey to join Barnum & Bailey’s famous show. Jumbo enjoyed his beer,  and though it was a little bit of a struggle (likely because he’d heard that P.T. Barnum had a strict policy against inebriated elephants), allowed himself to be crated and taken to a boat from which he would later be placed onto the large ocean vessel, Assyrian Monarch.

Werbung von Barnum und Bailey
Werbung von Barnum und Bailey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thousands of fans waved and cheered him, causing Jumbo to become agitated, shifting his weight back and forth, the fortunately heavily ballasted boat swaying right along with him. This marked the end of a battle for the English public which had been outraged over the Zoo’s sale of Jumbo to P.T. Barnum. The February announcement of the sale was followed by a huge surge in visitors to the zoo, people (with their eyes popping out) flocking to see one more time, the nearly 12-foot tall African elephant that had given gentle rides to countless English children over the years.

A letter writing campaign both to the zoo and to Queen Victoria, whose own children had been passengers on the elephant’s back, began almost immediately with irate English citizens demanding that Jumbo remain in London. Jumbo’s biggest fans began a fund to try to save Jumbo from his fate as a circus attraction and soon launched a lawsuit against the sale claiming that it contradicted the Zoo’s bylaws.

Despite these efforts, Jumbo made the journey to America and through the aggressive promotion efforts of Barnum and associates, became an immediate star. Posters and handbills showed Jumbo standing head and shoulders above buildings and allowing wagons to comfortably pass under his belly. Barnum’s advance agent insisted that Jumbo stood 13 feet, 4 inches tall and claimed (oh so elegantly) that his trunk was “the size of an adult crocodile, his tail as big as a cow’s leg, and he made footprints in the sands of time resembling an indentation as if a very fat man had fallen off a very high building.”

Elephants performing at the Ringling Bros. and...
Elephants performing at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course he wasn’t quite that big (though I think you’ve got to admire the salesmanship, examination of the elephant’s skeleton reveal that he was actually 10’9”), but Jumbo proved even more popular on tour in America than he had in London, his name (again thanks to Barnum’s masterful promotion) even seeping into the English language as a descriptor for all kinds of large things (jumbo jets, jumbo-drinks, and jumbo-size packages of disposable diapers to name just a few).

Jumbo captured the public’s interest for a couple reasons. Obviously, he was well-promoted (I imagine if Jumbo were alive today he’d probably have his own twitter account: “ If one more kid tries to feed me a peanut I swear I will step on his foot #elephantskeepingitreal”).  But that’s not all there was to it, because Jumbo was not the first elephant to be shipped to the US and he was certainly not the first to make a lot of money for his owner. People loved elephants. And we still do.

Several weeks ago, my family and I visited the Oregon Zoo in Portland. We headed that way to view the annual Zoo Lights display, but we decided to go early. Actually, that sounds too casual. We rushed to get there in the early afternoon because on Friday, November 30, the zoo had welcomed a new baby Asian elephant who had finally been named (Lily) by public vote and was now on display for brief windows of time.

Lily at the Oregon Zoo
Lily at the Oregon Zoo. So stinkin’ cute!

Because captive elephant breeding programs are not widely successful (though the Oregon Zoo has been more successful than most), Lily’s birth was a big deal. We stood in line a long time to meet her and just before the docent let us in to see her, the keepers took mama and baby out to clean up a bit. That meant we got to enter the building in time to see Lily, a rambunctious 300-pound toddler, rush into the indoor enclosure to find fresh popcorn scattered between the glass from behind which we viewed her, and the bars that provided a walkway for keepers.

Mama (named Rose-Tu) lumbered in after her baby and reached her trunk through the bars calmly sweeping up the popcorn and dropping it into her mouth. Lily mimicked her, though Rose-Tu was pretty deft at sweeping the popcorn away from her baby. Lily’s little trunk (actually much smaller in proportion to the rest of her than you find in adult elephants) wasn’t quite coordinated enough to grab any of the popcorn, though that certainly didn’t stop her from trying.

I laughed (we all did) because not only was it just about the cutest thing you’d ever want to see, but, I think, because any of us who’d ever seen a human baby reaching and grabbing for something they shouldn’t have as Mom or Dad holds them close and keeps them out of trouble, recognized the actions we were watching.  It was undeniable in that moment that this nearly 300 pound creature was, in fact, a baby, in need of protection.

Lily has enjoyed her fair share of promotion just as Jumbo did, but I think we are drawn to elephants for more than just the fanfare (though I guess it is convenient that they come complete with their own trumpets). Our fascination, I think, stems from the fact that this giant among creatures is actually one of the most vulnerable animals on the planet and it needs our help if it is to survive both in the wild and in captivity. What’s more is that elephants, despite their size, are not overwhelmingly aggressive animals and, in fact, with caution, can establish lasting friendships with people (who they believe are people, no matter how small) and have been known on occasion to share their ice cream with small pigs. They also make very faithful babysitters, provided they stay away from the beer.

Horton Hears a Who
I wonder just how much helium it takes to make an elephant float.