Looking For Ugly

By Karen Weyant

The squonk is the ugliest animal in Pennsylvania’s hemlock forests.
Described as a round ball of sagging skin and drooping warts, this creature is fully aware of its own ugliness and spends its time hiding and weeping in the deepest woods. Stories say this animal will cry so hard that it will melt and disappear in its own tears.  In fact, it is rarely seen, only heard, by those who look to capture this rare creature.

I first learned about the squonk when I read the 1957 collection, The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges. Buried in the stories of mythical beings from the around the world was a creature who was supposed to have lived in my own backyard of rural Pennsylvania. Besides briefly describing the strange animal, Borges also tells about a hunter who captures a squonk by imitating its cry. Lugging the sobbing critter home, the hunter is shocked to find only his wet, burlap bag: the tiny beast had dissolved in its own tears.

Borges gives credit to his original source, 1910’s Fearsome Creatures of The Lumberwoods: With a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts by William T. Cox and illustrator Coert DuBois. Cox and DuBois not only tell the tale of the squonk, but also rehash legends of the hugag, the hodag, and the whirling whimpus. The collection is fully illustrated by DuBois, who offers a sketch of the squonk. His rendition looks a little like a saggy Tasmanian Devil of Looney Tunes fame. Still, while the depicted creature is awkward looking, I’m not sure I could call it ugly.

 The squonk gets a new story in an updated book, written by Hal Johnson and illustrated by Tom Mead. In this version, the squonk looks a bit more disturbing.  The creature is hunched into a ball, with seeping warts and eyes. Yet, when I take a closer look I’m still not sure if the squonk deserves to be called ugly.  The animal only looks miserable.

In other folklore collections, I have seen no mention of the squonk except for those aforementioned forlorn sources, and sightings of this beast in popular culture are sparse. There are a few places, however, where it rears its miserable (ugly?) head.  For instance, it appears in a song by Genesis where a young Phil Collins croons in the opening lines, “Like father like son, not flesh or fish or bone. A red rag hangs from an open mouth. Alive at both ends but a little dead in the middle” before introducing the hunter who trails into the forest determined to hunt down the sad creature. Alas, Genesis’s song, like the original tale itself, ends with a soppy bag of tears.

Genesis’s song, like the original tale itself, ends with a soppy bag of tears.

Why did the squonk consider itself ugly? What did the squonk compare itself to in order to make this judgement? Beautiful trees or graceful white-tailed deer? Or other living organisms that many might find appalling such as fungus,  mushrooms, and slugs clinging to the forest’s natural dampness? Furthermore, the deep shadows of hemlock forests have no places for reflection. There are trickles of creeks and even puddles, but these same forests are also known for being dark, so dark that the forest floor rarely catches enough sunlight for new growth.  There are few natural mirrors.

Without any kind of reflection, natural or otherwise, why did the squonk think it was ugly?

The first time I heard the word ugly was in the fairy tale “The Ugly Duckling” by Hans Christian Andersen – a story read to me by my mother when I was a child.

What I remember most is the illustrator’s interpretation of this classic. The so called ugly duckling was larger than the rest of the ducks, its sooty-gray fur spiky, its bill and eyes dark. While I realized this particular image was juxtaposed next to five or six soft yellow ducklings, their down drawn like soft fur, I didn’t think that the single gray duckling was ugly.
Later, the word ugly would infiltrate other childhood stories. Stepmothers found in many stories were ugly. The beast in “Beauty and the Beast” was ugly.  Witches, especially The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, was ugly. In mythology, Medusa, with writhing snakes for hair, was ugly – so ugly that could turn men to stone with her stare.

But at that ugly duckling moment, even as a four year old, I knew that being ugly was something to be avoided at all costs — which is why my older sisters worried about their weight and my mother rolled her hair in curlers.

Ugliness, I was later taught, was a word that wasn’t supposed to be used to describe someone’s appearance. Ugliness was a description reserved for things – ugly dresses, ugly color for a baby’s room, ugly shade of lipstick. Still, one could be ugly on the inside, my mother explained to me, and I remember thinking of a person’s physical insides.

Blood. Lungs. A beating purplish heart– all images found in children’s books to explain the body.            

Yes, I agreed, that would be ugly.

I was 13 and wrestling with puberty when I first saw the movie Mask, starirng Cher, Sam Elliott and Eric Stoltz as a boy who had craniodiaphyseal dysplasia.  This rare condition, sometimes called lionitis, is caused when calcium builds up in the skull, disfiguring the face but also causing blindness, paralysis, and excruciating headaches.  The movie, based on the real life of Roy “Rocky” Dennis, was Stolz’s claim to fame before he became the hero in Some Kind of Wonderful.

As was the tradition of any teen girl in late 80’s, friends and I rented the movie, slipping the worn, but well loved, VHS tape into the VCR. We watched in awe at the strength that it took Rocky to survive in such a harsh world.  We cried at the end of the movie when Rocky died in his sleep.

I don’t remember any of us mocking his appearances or even wondering out loud how horrible it would have been to navigate society with a face like Rocky’s.  Any mean words would have been left unsaid mostly because we had been taught better, but also because all of us were growing into bodies that seemed liked foreign shells. Yes, we all could be reasonably certain that we would not look like Rocky, but other body changes were seemingly out of control: thin buds emerging on our chests, lines of pimples on our foreheads, and hair sprouting up in uncomfortable places.

An Old Woman (The Ugly Duchess) Quinten Masseys, 1531

Many years later, as a college professor, I would look out into a room of students on the first day of class to see a young woman who reminded me of Rocky. Her forehead pushed over her right eye and her cheeks and smile sagged, as if her skin was starting to melt. I tried not to stare and instead gave my class a writing prompt about a time they met a personal hero.

After class, she handed me her paper. She paused, as if wanting to tell me something.

“I met Cher once,” she said.

I struggled not to imagine a Cher in one of her famous fishnet stocking outfits. “Really? Where?”

“At a concert,” she said. “Backstage. Cher is a spokeswoman for the Children’s Craniofacial Association.”

 I nodded, thinking back to the movie Mask.  “So what did you think of her?”

My student seemed to smile, the right side of her mouth straining, tilting upwards just a little. “I liked her. She gave me a hug.”

Ugliness and voyeurism go hand in hand.  We stare at those who look different, even for a seconds, before we turn away. We know better, but we do it anyways.

In 1834, Julia Pastrana, later billed as the ugliest woman in the world, was born with a condition that caused thick course hair to grow all over her body. Also called “the apewoman” she spent her life as a circus performer.  Putting herself on public display may be appalling by today’s standards, but what is even more disturbing is what happened after her death. Pastrana died giving birth to a baby, who also died three days later.  Then, her husband had both his wife and his infant son mummified and displayed to the public. It has only been in the last few years that Pastrana’s body has been able to rest in peace in her home country of Mexico.

We like to believe that we would not gawk at someone who could be billed as the ugliest human being on earth.  Yet, in more recent years, this type of voyeurism has taken to the Internet, and attention has shifted to others deemed ugly by those who feel the need poke fun while hiding behind anonymous posts!

Case in point: Lizzie Velasquez was born with marafanoid-lipodystrophy syndrome, a very rare disorder that gives her a thin and aged look. Skin seemingly shrunk to her face, and with one cloudy eye, Lizzie has never weighed more than 64 pounds. A victim of bullying for years, it was in high school where she discovered a Youtube video of herself labeled “The Ugliest Woman in the World” with millions of hits and comments saying that she was “too ugly to live.” Because of her struggles, Velasquez is now a motivational speaker, encouraging others on the importance of true beauty.

Simply put: the world is fascinated by ugliness, often to the point of cruelty. This can been seen in both the stories of Julia Pastrana and Lizzie Velasquez, two women of very different time periods.  Others, however, believe that ugliness is a type of beauty.  Photographer Diane Arbus , whose career peaked in the 1960’s, knew this and she captured this fascination with her camera, focusing on subjects that were often seen as grotesque. Dwarfs, circus performers, transgendered people were just some of the marginalized populations she photographed.  If they had lived in Arbus’s time, I know both Pastrana and Velasquez would have been popular subjects for her work.

My students love dystopian books including Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies books, a young adult series that opens with a heroine named Tally who is counting down the days when she is whisked away to undergo the surgery that will make her pretty.  Descriptions of Tally make her far from ugly, yet she sees herself as a girl with a “wide nose and thin” and a “tangled mess of frizzy hair.” Instead she longs to look like the Pretties, those teenagers who have undergone their individual operations, merging with “big eyes, full lips, and clear skin” and all around “symmetrical features.” This same heroine, however, falls into a crowd that resists this process, and in doing so, they learn that the government, when altering the appearances of teenagers into picture-perfect characters also alters their brains, turning them all into simple, mindless beings that are easy to control.

I can see why this series has a wide readership. After all, today’s young adult audience lives in a world of social media pictures and selfies, and are forced to always seem appealing to the camera.

I have only read the first book in the Uglies series, and somehow, I was reminded of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, where the hero discovers a future where beings are divided into two societies: Eloi, pretty child-like adults and the Morlocks, dark ape figures who live underground. The Eloi are simple, so simple that they are resigned to be food to the Morlocks who raise them like cattle.

In these worlds created by Westerfeld and Wells, being beautiful is not a blessing, but a curse.

The natural world is beautiful. After all, the clichés of pretty butterflies, beautiful flowers, and splendid sunsets have to come from somewhere.

But nature has its ugliness too, or at least creatures and plants that may be deemed ugly.  Garden slugs for instance, or maggots. Snails. Some spiders. Certain moths. A quick Google search of the ugliest things in nature brings up pictures like the Blobfish or the Star-nosed mole.  The vulture, a bird that is familiar to me because of its presence feasting on roadkill on the backroads of Pennsylvania, also makes these lists. There is even a plant named the Corpse Flower that looks unique, but reeks like a decaying corpse.

Yet, none of these organisms dissolve in tears because of their so-called ugliness.

The squonk was born in a world that was scary to early settlers. Hemlock forests were truly frightening. A single hemlock tree bears single flat needles that taper to a dull point. These trees’ branches tend to droop, even without the weight of snow or rain. Hemlock trees do more than embrace each other in a forest; they clutch at each other, casting deep, moist shadows in the woods.  Naturalists estimate that in hemlock woods, less than one percent of the sun reaches the forest floor. Thus, little grows beneath these trees as they tend to smother smaller plant species.

Still, naturalists love hemlock groves, mostly because of the number of animal species that take shelter in their comforting shade. White-tailed deer especially love hemlock trees because even in the deepest of snowfall, they can find some shelter from the harsh winter weather. Even further below the branches, salamanders love the moist ground and so do mushrooms and tree fungus.

Pure Hemlock forests in Pennsylvania are hard to find, as most of the virgin timber has been cut down. Still, there are a few patches near where I live. When I venture into a hemlock woods, I can feel the moistness below my feet. Indeed, the ground is so wet that in many places, I almost sink. I see nothing scary about the darkness, but instead, find these patches of woods soothing, as they seem to capture silence in the same way that they devour light. Yes, I hear the scurry and scampering of chipmunks who delight in dodging through the fallen trees that are now covered in moss. I also hear the chatter of birds, especially cardinals and bluejays. The air is almost always thick with moisture, so even if the rest of the forest is perfectly still, I can hear the dripping of water and the trickle of creeks that creep through the woods.

In these moments, I always think about the squonk. I don’t see anything ugly here, although I am sure that if I were an early settler of Pennsylvania, miles upon miles of such deepness would have been frightening. This is where the concept of ugliness plays out, in dark places such as this, where we are faced with an environment that is not our own or when we are confronted with a person who looks so different than our expectations.

That is our ugliness.

When I catch a glimpse of drops of water glistening on a mushroom cap, I can imagine they are tears.∎