Monday, April 14, 2014

Squonk: The World's Ugliest Animal


Few people outside of Pennsylvania have ever heard of the quaint beast, which is said to be fairly common in the hemlock forests of that State. (Honestly, I was born and raised in Pennsylvania and I had never heard of this creature.) The range of the squonk is very limited. It has a very retiring disposition, generally traveling about at twilight and dusk. Because of its misfitting skin, which is covered with warts and moles, it is always unhappy; in fact it is said, by people who are best able to judge, to be the most morbid of beast. Hunters who are good at tracking are able to follow a squonk by its tear-stained trail, for the animal weeps constantly. When cornered and escape seems impossible, or when surprised and frightened, it may even dissolve itself in tears. Squonk hunters are most successful on frosty moonlight nights, when tears are shed slowly and the animal dislikes moving about; it may then be heard weeping under the boughs of dark hemlock trees. - Fearsome Creatures Of The Lumberwoods: With A Few Desert And Mountain Beasts

Mr. J. P. Wentling, formerly of Pennsylvania, but now at St. Anthony Park, Minnesota, had a disappointing experience with a squonk near Mont Alto. Wentling who one fine day at the turn of the century hid near its home after observing it and laying a trap for it, he snatched it up into his bag. As he was returning to the local village to show his friends what he had found in the woods, he noticed the leather bag he was carrying dripping from several cracks in the bottom making it noticeably lighter and of a strange shape. As he set it down on the ground, the legend suggests he suspected some trickery, but as he untied the top a strange liquid very much like water (or tears) spilled onto the soil at his feet. Cursing his bad luck, Wentling returned back to the village with nothing but the tale of his adventure and a soaked bag. - Unexplainable.net


'The Squonk is probably the world's ugliest animal. So ugly, in fact, that it spends most of its life crying over its cruel fate. Eventually many squonks just dissolve into a puddle of tears.' - Mysterious Beasties of the Northwoods: Creatures from North American Folklore

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The Squonk (Lacrimacorpus dissolvens - comes from Latin words meaning "tear", "body", and "dissolve") is a legendary creature from the Hemlock forests of north-central and north-western Pennsylvania. The earliest stories about the squonk are lost to history, but the legend probably dates back at least to the late 19th Century, when Pennsylvania's importance in the lumber industry was at its peak, relying heavily on hemlock trees.

Squonks are very shy, very ugly animals. Their skin is ill-fitting, and covered with warts and moles. Because they know they are so ugly, they weep almost constantly, and try to avoid being seen.

The one well-known story about squonks has to do with how they are hunted. Apparently, squonk skin is valued by some, but they are very difficult to catch, because of their extremely retiring nature. They can be most easily tracked on nights with a full moon, when their tears form glistening trails on the ground.

Sometime around the year 1900, a man named JP Wentling was able to successfully catch a squonk. Mr Wentling followed a trail of tears, and when he heard a nearby squonk weeping under a hemlock tree, he lured it by imitating the creature, presumably by weeping. He caught the squonk in a bag, and carried it home, while it sobbed pitifully in his sack. As he carried his prize home, he suddenly noticed that the bag was lighter, and on opening it, found that there was nothing inside but tears and bubbles.


Jorge Luis Borges, the Nobel Prize-winning Argentinean writer, used Mr Cox's book as a source when compiling his The Book of Imaginary Beings This book has descriptions of 120 fantastic and legendary creatures from many different cultures, mostly European and New World.


In 1976, the band Genesis released their first LP after Peter Gabriel left the group - the first to feature Phil Collins as frontman. This album, A Trick of the Tail contains the song 'Squonk'. This song is basically a retelling of the story of Mr. Wentling, squonk hunter. That Collins is using the story as some kind of allegory seems clear, especially from the final verse:

All in all you are a very dying race
Placing trust upon a cruel world.
You never had the things you thought you should have had
And you'll not get them now,
And all the while in perfect time
Your tears are falling on the ground.


What Mr Collins is actually getting at is left to the reader to speculate. It is not known whether Genesis were inspired to find the story of the squonk by hearing 'Any Major Dude', or whether they discovered it independently, but the story in the song is clearly taken from Mr Cox's work, probably via Borges' book.

Squonks Today

At the time of writing of this entry (October, 2002), people continue to read Borges, and to listen to music from the 1970s. Squonks are being discovered by more and more people. The name turns up, here and there, as a username or domain name on the Internet somewhere, in the name of Squonk Opera, a performing arts troupe in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area, and in other unexpected and unrelated contexts. Perhaps we are standing at the threshold of a veritable squonk renaissance!

One shadow looms over this prospect, however. The squonk's habitat, in the hemlock forests of Pennsylvania, is severely reduced. Most of the hemlock trees were logged by 1915, and the species has become just an occasional sight in the area's hardwood forests. It is not known whether squonks rely on hemlock trees, but as their range decreases, it can only mean hard times for any surviving squonk populations. The only hope for the squonk's survival may now lie in the imaginations of dreamers, poets, and those who treasure the legends of the past. - h2g2

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary

Giants, Monsters, and Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth

Mysterious Beasties of the Northwoods: Creatures from North American Folklore





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