The Squonk (Lacrimacorpus dissolvens) is a legendary creature from the Hemlock forests of north-central and north-western Pennsylvania. The earliest stories about the squonk are lost to history, but the legend probably dates back at least to the late 19th Century, when Pennsylvania's importance in the lumber industry was at its peak, relying heavily on hemlock trees1.
Squonks are very shy, very ugly animals. Their skin is ill-fitting, and covered with warts and moles. Because they know they are so ugly, they weep almost constantly, and try to avoid being seen.
The one well-known story about squonks has to do with how they are hunted. Apparently, squonk skin is valued by some, but they are very difficult to catch, because of their extremely retiring nature. They can be most easily tracked on nights with a full moon, when their tears form glistening trails on the ground.
Sometime around the year 1900, a man named JP Wentling2 was able to successfully catch a squonk. Mr Wentling followed a trail of tears, and when he heard a nearby squonk weeping under a hemlock tree, he lured it by imitating the creature, presumably by weeping. He caught the squonk in a bag, and carried it home, while it sobbed pitifully in his sack. As he carried his prize home, he suddenly noticed that the bag was lighter, and on opening it, found that there was nothing inside but tears and bubbles.
Squonks will apparently dissolve completely into tears anytime they are cornered or threatened; this is the source of their scientific name, Lacrimacorpus dissolvens, from the Latin words for 'tear', 'body', and 'dissolve'.
Squonks in Literature and Music
William T Cox
William T Cox published a book in 1910, called Fearsome Creatures of the Lumber woods, With a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts. In this book, he described the squonk, telling the story related above. The book was an encyclopaedic collection of legendary animals from United States folklore. Sadly, Fearsome Creatures is out of print, and rather difficult to find.
Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Luis Borges, the Nobel Prize-winning Argentinean writer, used Mr Cox's book as a source when compiling his Book of Imaginary Beings in 19693. This book has descriptions of 120 fantastic and legendary creatures from many different cultures, mostly European and New World.
Borges opened the preface of his 1969 edition with a sentence that may resonate with some h2g2 Researchers: 'As we all know, there is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition.' His book has been illustrated and hypertextualized by students in Greece, and may be found here.
In 1974, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan released their third LP, Pretzel Logic. This album featured the song 'Any Major Dude Will Tell You', a bittersweet acoustic ballad, offering consolation to someone whose world seems to be falling apart. Fagen puzzled his studio musicians with the line:
Have you ever seen a squonk's tears? Well, look at mine.
People on the street have all seen better times.
Exactly why Messrs Fagen and Becker chose this image to use in this song is as mysterious as most Steely Dan lyrics, and as they typically refuse to answer questions about their songs, fans continue to speculate. It seems likely that 'The Dan' learned about squonks from Borges' book.
In 1976, the band Genesis released their first LP after Peter Gabriel left the group - the first to feature Phil Collins as frontman. This album, A Trick of the Tail contains the song 'Squonk'. This song is basically a retelling of the story of Mr Wentling, squonk hunter. That Collins is using the story as some kind of allegory seems clear, especially from the final verse:
All in all you are a very dying race
Placing trust upon a cruel world.
You never had the things you thought you should have had
And you'll not get them now,
And all the while in perfect time
Your tears are falling on the ground.
What Mr Collins is actually getting at is left to the reader to speculate4. It is not known whether Genesis were inspired to find the story of the squonk by hearing 'Any Major Dude', or whether they discovered it independently, but the story in the song is clearly taken from Mr Cox's work, probably via Borges' book.
At the time of writing of this entry (October, 2002), people continue to read Borges, and to listen to music from the 1970s. Squonks are being discovered by more and more people. The name turns up, here and there, as a username or domain name on the Internet somewhere, in the name of Squonk Opera, a performing arts troupe in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area, and in other unexpected and unrelated contexts. Perhaps we are standing at the threshold of a veritable squonk renaissance!
One shadow looms over this prospect, however. The squonk's habitat, in the hemlock forests of Pennsylvania, is severely reduced. Most of the hemlock trees were logged by 1915, and the species has become just an occasional sight in the area's hardwood forests. It is not known whether squonks rely on hemlock trees, but as their range decreases, it can only mean hard times for any surviving squonk populations. The only hope for the squonk's survival may now lie in the imaginations of dreamers, poets, and those who treasure the legends of the past.