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I have two distinct impressions of Paul Bunyan from my childhood reading: Steven Kellogg’s illustrations – more specifically, Babe the Big Blue Ox’s somewhat dopey anthropomorphized grin – and a scene from another book I had, in which Paul Bunyan’s camp cook greases a griddle by strapping bacon to his feet and skating around its surface. Why? Because Bunyan is so big, he needs a football field-sized flapjack to get going in the morning.
When he was born, it took five storks to carry baby Paul to his mother’s arms. His childish laughter broke every window in the house, and he got an early start logging when he sawed the legs off the kitchen table. He was no less remarkable when he grew up: at least seven feet tall, with practically superhuman strength and a tendency to attract equally eccentric men to his logging camp. And of course there was Babe, giant and jovial and blue, who got the felled logs where they needed to be, every time.
Bunyan and Babe left their mark across North America, from Mount Hood (created when Paul piled rocks on his campfire to put it out) to the Grand Canyon (dragging a giant axe along behind you has a certain effect on the geography) to the Great Lakes (a big ox needs a big drinking trough, after all). Tales of the giant lumberjack are told from Montana to Quebec. But in fact, Paul Bunyan and Babe have a special connection to Northern Michigan: the first time a Paul Bunyan story appeared in print was in Oscoda County in the early 1900s.
Michigan has embraced the legendary lumberjack as our own. You may have seen the statues in his honor in St. Ignace and Ossineke, or perhaps you attended the Paul Bunyan Parade and Fair in Union Lake, Oakland County, before it was cancelled in the 1990s. Governor Jennifer Granholm even declared August 10th to be Paul Bunyan Day in 2006, the centennial anniversary of his first publication.
There’s something enchanting about the tall tales of Paul Bunyan and his ilk – Pecos Bill, Calamity Jane, Johnny Appleseed, Davy Crockett. They were heroes, but in a quiet way. Men and women of the earth, who knew their way around trees and farms, axes and ploughs. There’s something, too, in the sidelong glances that accompany their stories, which always have the ring of authenticity. Now, I might not have seen this myself, but it’s coming from a reliable source. Would you doubt me? It’s easy to tell that they came from the oral traditions of an earlier time, with their gentle humor and the way they make the listener feel like an insider.
Sadly, ‘from an earlier time’ may be an increasingly apt descriptor for these tales. I did an informal poll of the seven-year-old I babysit and some of her friends, and not a one of them had heard of Paul Bunyan. Is this a generational gap? A cultural one? I grew up in a rural part of Antrim County, where people who worked the land on a daily basis were not an uncommon sight. These children live in the suburbs and their gardens are summertime experiments. Is that why they haven’t heard these stories, or is it merely the changing face of pop culture at work?
It’s interesting to note that among people my age, there’s a pretty serious back-to-the-land trend that goes beyond the flannel and beards of your average college campus. We’re relearning how to interact with the land, whether it’s as simple as heading to the farmer’s market for our produce, or – in the case of a young homesteader I know Up North – bringing home a roadkill whitetail and tanning the hide ourselves. I myself spent an extremely satisfying August weekend splitting wood at a friend’s farm. And I do want to make sure that the stories that cherish these skills live on; that my kids grow up hearing ridiculous stories of rattlesnake belts and loaves of bread as big as houses, and the more serious ones about cold winters and deep lakes.
I think Paul Bunyan would be proud.
Read more Paul Bunyan tall tales here.
–Nora Stone genuinely loves wearing flannel.