Greetings From the Land of the Make-Believe Species
Postcards provided proof of lake serpents, jackalopes and assorted curious monsters
- By Peter A. Smith
- Smithsonian.com, March 29, 2012
The postcard once provided a fast, reliable means of communication. The images on the cards carried strong implications of objectivity, underscored by concise captioning. Among these postcards emerges a unique flowering of the beastly taxonomic tree: dozens of distinctive, little-known species spotted by solitary farmers, hunters and fishermen, lurking all across the country, creatures that came alive through hyperbole, exaggeration and the perceived authenticity of postcards.
(Alaska State Library)
The flamboyant Alaskan newsman, Elmer J. “Stroller” White, a columnist for the Nugget newspaper in Dawson, Alaska, went out drinking one night, and, legend has it, he heard the snow squeak. His next column—January 20, 1906—recounted a meeting with a 125-year old “Canadian doctor” who collected and prepared soup from greasy little ice worms. White later elaborated, saying the worms appeared when blue snow fell and the mercury plunged to 74 degrees below zero. In 1911, poet Robert Service recorded an ice worm ditty; by his account, the temperatures had to dip to 99 below. Around then, Lloyd Winter, of the Juneau photographic studio Winter & Pond, created this image of a sourdough (a name for someone who spent the winter in the north and kept his sourdough culture alive by keeping it close to his body) picking ice worms. What’s most remarkable about ice worms: They actually exist. Italian explorer Luigi Amedeo di Savoia discovered real, live ice worms in 1887. Still, Stroller remained convinced that he made the creatures up. He told an interviewer for the book Alaskan All, “It did no good for me to assure [eager questioners] that the blue snow and the ice worms had no existence outside of my imagination.” In this case, though, the artful fiction unknowingly imitated life.