I was five years old the first time I heard my father tell his sea monster story. By now I have heard it a hundred times, and it never loses its thrill. If you ask him to, he’ll describe the scales on the creature’s arching neck and the serpentine intelligence in its eyes. He’ll explain the way its enormous face hovered for just a moment above him, watching, with a vividness that will set your heart racing. “Did he really see his serpent?” someone will always ask. I don’t know, and I never cared. When you come from a family of storytellers, you know that “facts” are not the only path to truth. You know that the stories we tell are their own way of knowing.
I admit that my father’s sea serpent changed my approach to swimming that summer. Our deep farm pond no longer seemed like a place nature had carved out for my cousins and me, a place obviously intended for us to play in, despite the annoying accidents of fish and itchy weeds along the edge. It seemed suddenly and strangely thick with weird kinds of life. The bullfrogs croaked out messages I couldn’t understand; turtles sized me up as they sun-bathed; the thin dark snakes slithered off with their own secret purposes; the algae that coated my shoulders after a swim felt newly alive. It was, in Sigmund Freud’s terms, uncanny: both familiar and entirely unfamiliar, both home and un-home. My backyard pond vibrated with mysterious riches that rivaled those of a dark, expansive sea. I had the unshakeable sensation that they, too, were watching me, and finding me as incomprehensible and unavoidable as I found them. That summer, my cousins and I still swam in the cool green water, but I never lost the shock, the delight, or the wonder of the realization that “our” pond was longer (and had never been) only ours.
I often think of my father’s monster and the ecological education his storytelling began. It planted in me a fascination with deep waters, and it introduced me to a terrible, beautiful paradox of human and nonhuman coexistence. We share a planetary house with crowds of human and nonhuman others; most of these others we’ll never know, none of them we’ll completely understand, and yet each of us is always intimately affecting every other. We’re entangled in what Timothy Morton evocatively calls the “mesh” of “strange strangers.” Such curiosities tend to send our human minds whirling; strangeness seems to cry out for explanation. After all, science and philosophy, Aristotle tells us, begin in wonder. If only we would allow ourselves to linger there a bit longer—to allow wonder and weirdness to offer their own kind of knowledge. Environmental feminists have argued for years that the desire to understand such strangers entirely is also the desire to master them. Again and again, stories of sea serpents and their ilk offer me an uncanny shiver of wonder and humility. I do not own the pond alone. I should tread carefully.
* * *
Whenever I move to a new city, I orient myself by researching restaurants, cat sitters, and the neighborhood water monsters. I have always found a monster.
When I first moved to Madison, Wisconsin, however, I worried I’d be disappointed. Due to the long time success of University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Limnology, Lake Mendota is widely known as one of the most “studied lakes in the world.” Would strange stories shrivel under such intense scientific scrutiny? Would those who studied the lake and its lifeforms claim for themselves the one “real” way to truth? Would there be room for stories?
As it turns out, the Center for Limnology has not had much to say about Lake Mendota’s monster. Yet the important work done at the Center for Limnology is not antithetical to wonder. Take a moment to look at the photographs of the invasive spiny water fleas they’ve recently discovered in the lake, or read a brief article on how local farming practices contribute to toxic algae blooms. You’ll find no lack of weirdness to wonder at. If fact, you may even find an invitation to do so. The more we know about the lake, it seems, the more vibrant with strangers it becomes. And there is plenty of room for a sea serpent.
The earliest stories of monstrous creatures inhabiting Lake Mendota come from the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) people. Ho-Chunk stories tell of a band of wak ‘tcexi (variously translated as “water spirits” or “water panthers”) who make their home in an underwater den near Governor’s Island, inciting unexpected upsets like dangerous whirlpools and upturned canoes. According to Charles E. Brown’s 1927 collection of Lake Mendota Indian Legends the troublemaking wak ‘tcexi control the lakes, while their counterparts the Thunderbirds control the air. Water spirits cannot be controlled by human forces, although they can sometimes be appeased with offerings of tobacco. Humans rarely see the wak ‘tcexi, and when they do, it is only in glimpses. Yet a human can know them through their effects—churning lakes, sudden whirlpools, flipped and sunken canoes—as well as through the legends told about them and the ways their presence affects everyday life. As religious and ecological systems of knowledge, tales of the wak ‘tcexi offer both a world view and suggestions for how humans might live entangled with unpredictable and very strange strangers.
Brown cautions readers against confusing the Ho-Chunk’s water spirits with the “sea serpent” stories Anglo-Americans will later tell. While the tales are certainly not the same and are undoubtedly inflected by time, place, and culture, however, the similarities invite speculation. If we allow ourselves to move past the skeptic’s questions—is it real, can we prove it—we may very well find that all of these stories reshape the way we know the lakes and their denizens, and the ways we understand our relationships and responsibilities to them.
The written record of “sea serpent” sightings on Madison’s Lake Mendota and Lake Monona begins in the late nineteenth century. These first encounters present a rather combative monster, although the frightened humans tend to throw the first punch. Billy Dunn first claimed to have seen and battled an enormous serpent in Lake Mendota, frightening it away from the boat with an oar and a hatchet. After Dunn’s, a rash of sightings began. By June 12, 1897, sightings had become commonplace enough that the Wisconsin State Journal published an article entitled “Sea Serpent Appears Early This Year: Monona sea serpent has made its appearance about two months earlier than usual this season.” According to the Journal, Eugene Heath and his companions, Mr. Schott and Schott’s two sons, spotted a creature while fishing at night on Lake Monona. It was “roughly 20 feet long” and shaped like the “bottom of a boat.” After Heath fired two shots into the fleeing serpent, “it turned around and came back” toward them, terrifying all on board. The author vacillates between gentle teasing and faithful reporting of the tale as Heath and Schott tell it. After noting that the same creature is probably to blame for the recent disappearance of a local dog who had been “swallowed” while swimming, the author quotes Schott’s shaken insistence that “the thing . . . is not a joke or a creature of their combined imaginations.” Whether what they saw was “really” a giant log, an abnormally large sturgeon, or a figment of moonlight and fancy, their story tells its own reality. What happens when a familiar place is suddenly made strange? When the lake no longer appears a place made solely for humans to fish, drink, dump, and swim?
If one sees oneself as separate from a place (rather than entangled with it) and if one expects to learn that place entirely, then the impulse to lash out against the unexpected stranger makes a certain kind of sense. As white settlers had only recently driven out Ho-Chunk and Ojibwa inhabitants to claim the land as their own, the frightened men’s desire to control their relatively new environment by force follows a clear logic. This is not, however, the only option. Violence against what at first seems strange need not be the way our stories help us know one another.
After these early encounters, Madison’s monster proves to be more trickster than terrorizer. Folklorist and State Historical Museum curator Charles E. Brown wrote a lovely 1942 pamphlet entitled Sea Serpents, which chronicles (among other things) twentieth century sightings of Madison’s lake monster. Like the journalist above, Brown slips between faithfully retelling the reported sightings and offering tongue-in-cheek commentary.
The stories begin in 1917, with a UW student who finds a “very large object” resembling a fish scale on the beach at Picnic Point; the student diligently takes the strange object to an unnamed professor who, “being from New England and therefore familiar with the species,” confidently proclaims it to be the scale of a sea serpent. Brown goes on to list other 1917 sightings, including a fisherman who vividly describes witnessing a “large snake-like head, with large jaws and blazing eyes, emerge from the deep water” off Picnic Point. Certainly the most bizarre story belongs to a young woman (a co-ed, Brown calls her) who meets Lake Mendota’s monster while napping on a dock with her boyfriend. Twice she awoke to the sensation of something tickling her foot; the second time, she caught the culprit. A “snake or dragon” with a “friendly, humorous look in its big eyes” had peeked its enormous head out of the lake to “caress the soles of her feet” with its tongue. Brown’s pamphlet describes the lake monster as “a rather good natured animal, playing such pranks as overturning a few canoes with his body or tail,” chasing boats, and scaring swimmers on local beaches.
Unlike the violent tales of man-versus-monster we saw above, these stories come to know the “sea serpent” primarily through domestication—that is, they make its strangeness seem familiar. No longer a terrifying creature, it now resembles a big-eyed puppy or a friendly (albeit fire-eyed) cartoon dragon. While uninterested in violence, these stories do exert their own control, containing the monster by making it a caricature of itself. They do not yet linger in the weirdness or the wonder of existing entangled with such strangers.
By the 1940s, when Brown is writing Sea Serpents, the Mendota and Monona lake monster has already faded from the public’s view. In the final line of his pamphlet, Brown quips that “people use the lake more” now that the monster seems to have disappeared. Throughout the rest of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, Madison’s lake monster appears rarely, and then most often in articles intended to entertain. The inaugural issue of the satirical magazine The Onion chose our monster for its very first headline: “Mendota Monster Mauls Madison.” Such light-hearted fun is not, of course, the wrong way to tell a sea serpent story. But there are others at our disposal.
I propose this essay as a humble ode to the monsters of Lakes Mendota and Monona—to the wak ‘tcexi and the sea serpent in all its forms. As the summer days stretch out in front us and the cool lakes beckon us to their waters, let the lurking creature invite us to wonder. The lake is already strange with fish and frogs and plankton, and stranger still with toxic loads, agricultural runoff, and invasive spiny water fleas. Let this monster story remind us that the waters make a weird entangled crowd. Let’s tread lightly.
Featured image: Lake Mendota in Madison, WI. Photo by Ivan Babanovski, 2015.
Addie Hopes is a Literary Studies PhD student in the English Department at University of Wisconsin Madison. Her current research focuses narratives of toxicity, extinction, and multispecies communities in contemporary American fiction. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Orange Review and Word Riot. Contact.