Where Is Paul Bunyan?

Where Is Paul Bunyan?

Where Is Paul Bunyan?
Photo by Yevhen on Adobe Stock

I stared at a room full of strangers, students, when my heart most recently shattered. The scattering of its pieces on the classroom floor can be attributed to the following four words: “Who is Paul Bunyan?”

As an instructor, I fully suspected there would be a few lost eyes. Those who were foreign to the United States or those who simply hadn’t come from the same educational backgrounds. The tall tale about the giant man and his equally giant ox was, after all, an American classic, a story that required one to dust off a bookshelf and dive into a world of embracive learning. One of those stories that you may not recognize by name, but a story you recognize in your heart when one tells you about it. A story of the magic that still exists in our country. A story about progress. About expansion. It was our story.

Or so I thought. Not a single person in the room had heard of Paul and his ox.

Now, maybe you never heard this story. Maybe you read what it was about and thought “well, it’s probably outdated anyway.”

There are two flaws to this retort.

The first is the ever-increasing assumption that old equates to trivial. This simply isn’t true. When did we quit looking to our elders? When did we start equating past thoughts as bad thoughts?

If you still are not on board with the tale’s importance, let me note that the class was a mythology class. A goal of this class is learning about preserving history and culture. It is about saving the stories and values, the myths, of cultures. Most people, regardless of background, agree on this preservation. So where did our American myths go? Why is nobody trying to preserve these? When did we become okay with being split so far apart?

Not one person in that room had the shared childhood experience of that story. No two people in that classroom streamed the same television show before coming into class when they should have been completing their homework. No two people used the same streaming service. No two people used the same device. Even as we sat in the same room waiting for 1:00 P.M. to hit, with all students laden with smartphone, no two students would have the same TikTok feed.

The implications of division in this country are dire. We live in a world of curation. In a world of separate experiences predicated on independence. Only fifty some years ago, this would have been a luxury reserved for the wealthy. “I want that horse” or “I only eat meals from 5-star venues.” Ironically, the current narrative is that we do not like the overtly wealthy. If such is the case, then why do we strive to shield ourselves under their grand umbrella?

Paul Bunyan’s story is forgotten because it is deemed a story unworthy. It is deemed a forgotten relic. It is deemed as old and antiquated, imperfect.

Thus, bringing me to my other contention. The story of Paul Bunyan is antiquated, and it is imperfect, and there is nothing wrong with that. The myth is about a man who chops down lumber and shapes the land with his ox. If you did not know, oxen have “disappeared” from the U.S. If you also didn’t know, chopping down every living tree is not the best thing in the world when it comes to maintaining naturality. I get that, and you get that.

That is not the underlying purpose of the story, however, nor is it the underlying significance of its telling. The story is about having a shared pretend figure that we all know about. A figure that is a friend to all of us. These bonds are important; I cannot tell you the number of people I have instantaneously latched to over the shared friendship and adoration of fictional Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. We bond over similarity; we bond over story. We bond over shared experience. This is fundamental to the understanding of what drives culture and society.

So, let’s break apart this notion of “old is bad.” Without breaking into the political or into the religious (while both certainly could be linked, it is not my intent to further divide the American populous), consider the current attraction to Japanese culture in the U.S. Japan, a nation of a smaller size, smaller population, and quite value-driven society, has recently become a pinnacle of youth-based interest.

Why is it that a friend of mine, twenty-six, frowns upon anybody over the age of forty in the United States, calling that person worthless, while worshipping a culture that values the advice of elders? Could it be ignorance? Just an unjustified anger that needs displaced somewhere, and elders are the easiest? I have no direct answer to this question. And one is not needed, as this should be treated on a case-by-case basis.

Questioning the actions of one person and attributing those actions to a collective population is the fundamental root of the problem. We, as an American culture, have adopted habit in replacement of shared experience. We want to make assumptions to achieve understanding. We want to be scientists in every facet of our lives. We are focusing more on analyzing than experiencing. America’s bad habit is driven by our unrelenting desire to make sense of the world, and this habit is tearing us apart.

But we have seemingly grown past judging other groups based on difference, right? Wrong. We still haven’t achieved a “utopian society” rooted in embrace and equality. Not only is that because living in such a society would ultimately be impossible and detrimental to our species, but because we have now created broader distinctions between unclassified groups that are not so easily traceable in our world of algorithms and AI.

We now have complex stereotypes. We base whole groups on intangible past perceptions rooted in personal experience. The individual is being used as fish lens through which we perceive all others, and this is a problem. As mentioned previously, our personal experiences are only growing further apart. They are also coming from a position of elitism, thus making us more selective and less cooperative. All of our lenses are seeing different realities.

 People have become a product of individualization to the point that they no longer can agree upon who is liked or who is disliked and for what reason. Instead of disliking white or black, we like white who only make jokes that do not offend 43.6% of the people around us when in public. Or we only like people who believe in the exact same five policies that we do; all else is unimportant. Or we decide whether we want to teach the story of Paul Bunyan not based on the simple categories of “fiction” or “entertainment,” but instead based on “environmental advocacy” or that “lumberjacks are physical labor jobs, and our society now places priority on technological and academic advancement.” None of these statements are inherently wrong, and it is okay to have relevant modern stories, but not everything needs to be viewed through a nuanced modern framework.

What happens when we stop being the moderation filter and instead ask what results non-moderation yields us? What happens when we reintroduce the tale of Paul Bunyan without trying to contextualize it? What happens if we just let students enjoy themselves sometimes? What would come of the adults these children turned into?

The amalgam of a separated United States only grows stronger as we fall under the façade of bonding under falsified and calculated illusion. Powers untouchable are taking advantage of this country’s innate human instinct to form bonds. How? We have recently seen stealthy slogans used from all sides and for a number of purposes. Again, I wish not to make political statements, but these real-world expressions we see aim to fish for this sense of human desire:

“We’re all in this together,” a slogan used during the COVID-19 pandemic by multiple sources.

“Make America Great Again,” a slogan used by former president Donald Trump.

“[Insert-identifying-term-here-often-including-others-who-do-not-want-involved]...community,” a slogan used by it-would-be-hard-to-name-them-all...people.

And “people” is what all of this boils down to. The above expressions have become some of the biggest talking points of the last few years. These crafty words play into the desire of belonging and community. I am not saying that it is wrong to use the above slogans; this is what the people want—people want to feel belonging—so it would be foolish for campaigns not to use them. But the underlying problem here is not any which cause; the problem is the absence of perceived community. The problem is a lack of a medium that everyone can share and a lack of one figure that everyone can bond over. We have somehow lost those days of everyone gathering around the television to share an experience. We have lost that something that not only entertains, that not only makes us feel comfort within ourselves in knowing there are select others out there like us, but that unifies us.

Our country is founded in this notion of “coming together,” of being “the great American melting pot,” yet another expression lost in time. We have become so focused on making everyone “feel” included, that nobody can bask in what we already share. We have individualized the experiences of every individual person who has moved to this country, but we are neglecting the dream we all shared in getting there: the promise of America.

And, no, the dream was not perfect. And, no, not every act conducted by the country was perfect. But like a few friends sitting together in a garage on a hot summer day, you reminisce and laugh about the experiences, good, bad, and ugly. You learn. You move on. You decide what you want to change. You decide what story you want to leave behind. And when you go back to your day job as a teacher for America’s youth, you tell a silly story about an unnaturally tall man named Paul and his blue ox named Babe.

About the Author

Christian David Loeffler

Christian David Loeffler is a fiction writer and teacher; he is also an editor for Curious Curls Publishing. Loeffler’s work is heavily influenced by interests ranging from science, literature, and philosophy to video games and anime. His favorite book is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and he will not stop talking about it.