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Big Liars and Big Lies

Although only incidentally raconteurs and fablers, travelers and naturalists like William Bartram and John James Audubon testify to the thin line that separates nature lore from folklore. For, like the early chroniclers, they dealt in a truth that was stranger than fiction or “fiction in excellent disguise,” especially as the marvels of natural and “unnatural” history strain both credibility and credulity.

Similarly the narrator of yarns and tall tales has “seen a heap of strange thing” in his time; and they grow “curiouser and curiouser” with the telling, as facts are stretched into invented and exaggerated instances.

“Artistic liars” may be divided into two classes: those who boast of their own prowess and exploits; and those who elaborate on rumors and the erroneous perceptions of another person, preferably “a person who is not known directly to the narrator, but who is well known to a close friend” – thus disarming skepticism.

As the type and symbol of the “unnatural” natural history tall tale beloved by the liar of the second class, one may take the joint “snake”. This is not a snake but a degenerate, legless lizard, which can escape its enemies with the loss of its tails and later acquire another by regeneration. “A careless or excitable observer, having killed a joint snake with a stick and of course, having broken off the tail in doing so, goes back and sees the dismembered tail wriggling in the grass, whereupon he rushes off to tell that he saw the severed tail making an effort to find the body.”

Hence stories dealing with frantic attempts of disjointed snakes to put themselves together again and to find substitutes for missing parts.

From these hills there comes a story of the woman who say a joint snake while killing her lone rooster for the inevitable preacher’s visit. She hacked the snake to pieces and threw them into the pig pen. While the family and the preacher were eating the noonday meal, a rooster started crowing. On investigation she found that the joint snake had tried to gather itself together again and, not finding its own head, had put on the rooster’s head and was crowing fit to kill.