Arkansas Folklore and Folkways

It was nearly hundred years ago, they say, that an unlucky woodcutter in the Ozarks had his first encounter with a hoopsnake--a reptile remarkable for its method of locomotion and for the poisonous stinger in its tail. The woodcutter promptly lit a shuck, that is, he started running. The snake tucked its tail in its mouth and rolled along in pursuit, like a wagonwheel bouncing downhill. While the panting woodsman was praying for his second wind, he came to a large white oak; here he took roundence. The snake, instead of swerving, rolled into the tree and accidentally buried its tail deep in the wood.

Talented as it is in some ways, the hoopsnake cannot pull out frontwise from anything it has stuck its tail into. The serpent began drilling backward through the tree, and the woodcutter ran for an ax. When he returned he saw that the poison from the stinger-tail had already got into the wood: dead leaves were sifting down like falling snow. The snake finally worked half its length from the bole, and the woodcutter chopped the writhing body in two.

Last spring when the woodsman was again cutting sawlogs in the same patch of timber he came upon the white oak. Though it had been dead, the wood appeared to be sound enough for lumber. The woodsman cut it down, then rested on the fallen trunk while he ate his lunch. Without thinking, he yanked a splinter from the stump and picked his teeth. The hoopsnake's poison, which had long since penetrated every fiber of the tree, had never lost its strength. The woodcutter died before sundown.

When that yarn is told on the porch of a country store or around a campfire at night, it may be followed by the one about the exceptionally clever joint snake.

A farmer who found a joint snake in his barnyard whacked it with a stick. True to tradition, the serpent flew into several dozen pieces. After remaining scattered long enough to convince any ordinary observer of the snake's annihilation, the segments warily began to reassemble. The farmer, however, knowing the habits of joint snakes, had hidden one of the middle pieces in his pocket. For several minutes the completed front and rear ends of the snake searched for the missing link. At last, apparently deciding that the joint was forever lost, the snake coupled in a corncob instead, and glided away, darting out its tongue in high dudgeon.

That episode brings up the question of the whipsnake, which is accused of wrapping itself around a victim and fatally lashing the unfortunate person with its tail. The only way to escape, old-timers insist, is to keep cool and back up to a tree, against which the snake will flail itself to death.

And speaking of escapes, nearly every farm boy knows how a fox rids himself of fleas. With a piece of wood in his mouth, the fox wades slowly into a creek. As the water comes up to his body, the vermin climb to avoid getting wet, first to the neck of the fox, then to his head, then out onto the piece of wood. When only the tip of his nose remains above water, the fox darts down and swims away under the surface. The chunk of wood floats away laden with outsmarted fleas.

If mosquitoes become a subject of conversation, some member of the crowd may tell of the swarms that once attacked him on a froggigging trip. The hunter at first defended himself with a paddle, then with a shotgun. Later he went back to the swamp and caught one of the insects in a bear trap, intending to train it to bore wells. He shackled the mosquito in a mule's harness, but it broke away. Seizing a cow in its mouth, the mosquito flapped heavily away through the treetops. That, of course, is an exaggeration. Generally it takes two swampland mosquitoes to fly off with a cow.

The Arkansan has no monopoly on tall stories that deal with hoopsnakes and other fabulous fauna. Similar yarns are to be heard all through the Southern mountains and, for that matter, throughout the United States. Countless Arkansans, however, seem to have been blessed with an ability to concoct variations of the standard stories. These solemn fantasies (called "so-tales") occupy a prominent place in the State's folklore. More of the stories seem to have ripened in the hills than in the Delta, and nearly every upland county boasts of a citizen with a reputation for telling whoppers. Perhaps it was the isolation of the Ozarks and Ouachitas during the nineteenth century that nourished the imagination of mountaineers.

Almost as interesting as some of the tales is the etiquette that is observed in a story-telling session. For example, a veteran member of the circle once in a great while will voice a mild doubt as to the truth of a yarn, but an outsider who is fortunate enough to be listening in must never indicate skepticism. More than that, even the presence of an outsider may shut off the flow of so-tales. This kind of story is best told to a trusted audience, and it isn't told lightly--the mood and setting must be just right for the narrator.

When gristmills were found at regular intervals along the streams, they were ideal spots for storytellers, and many a myth was created by men who loafed while waiting for their corn to be ground. It might have been to the accompaniment of a turning mill wheel and the sound of running water that the legend of the Arkansas razorback was born. Like all true folk-myths, the razorback stories have an unknown origin. Assume that someone commented on a temporary scarcity of acorns and the consequent thinness of his hogs. A second man would agree, saying that his sows were able for the first time to squeeze through the garden gate. A third would testify that he could now hang his hat on the hips of his hogs. The next would aver that his swine had to stand up twice in order to cast a shadow. One man was almost bound to swear that his hogs were so desperately starved he could clasp one like a straight razor and shave with the bony ridge of its back.

Outside the imagination, a true razorback probably does not exist. There is no flesh-and-blood counterpart of the little bristle-backed emblem of the University of Arkansas football team, and a State official once vainly offered a reward for a genuine razorback, dead or alive. It has been said by some historians that De Soto's men brought hogs with them when they crossed the Mississippi into Arkansas. Some of these animals strayed into the woods and became gaunt, savage beasts living on mast. That was a long time ago, however, and the truly wild breed, if there ever was one, has forever disappeared. Though many farmers let their hogs forage in the forest for a good part of the year, the swine resemble those to be found in all parts of the United States.

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