Image Source: Myths Encyclopedia

Today’s tall tale features a lumberjack, a giant lumberjack.

In those days, when America was new, people had to cut down a lot of trees. They needed the lumber for houses, churches, town hall, ships, bridges, ballrooms, stores, pencils, wagons, and flag poles. Luckily, the trees were there, stretching in tall, wind-shining rows across America. The trees marched up mountains and down again. They followed rivers and creeks. They massed up together in purple canyons and shoved each other out of the way on the shores of lakes. They pushed their dark roots down into rock and their glossy branches into the clouds. (pg. 13)

I don’t want to get into forest management or clear-cutting, but I did just love that description of the forests of early America.

And what Paul Bunyan was good at was chopping down those trees. But Paul was lonely. He could cut down a hundred trees at once, but he still had to drag them down to the river, and it would be nice to have a strong friend to help him. Also he was lonely, being the only one of his size around.

Enter Babe, the blue ox. Paul found him during the Winter of the Blue Snow freezing to death. Paul nursed him back to health and he and the giant ox were inseparable from then on. They logged all over the northern timber country, from Main to Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

Together, Paul and Babe could do just about anything, but their biggest job was clearing North Dakota, making it nice, flat farming land for a group of Swedish folks to come over. When that job was finished, and he had proven what rich soil it was to the Swedish ambassador by growing a giant cornstalk, he looked around for a bigger job and headed out west. And then he just kept going.

“The last time anyone saw them they were up in Alaska. And people there say, when the wind is right, they can still hear Paul whirling his sky-bright axe and sending the shout of “T-I-M-B-E-R-R-R-!” booming across the air. (pg. 23)

This story includes a several incidents that change the shape of the landscape, typical of tall tales. Babe pulls a road straight in Wisconsin, along the St. Croix River. At one point Paul hauls water from Lake Superior in a big tank pulled by Babe. Babe’s hoofs sinking into the group and the holes filling up with water that leaked from the tank formed Minnesota’s many lakes. Then, when Babe slipped and the tank tipped over, the water that ran out started the Mississippi River. Even the Grand Canyon and the passes in the Cascade Mountains are due to Paul and Babe. On the trip west, Paul dragged his peavey, apparently some kind of pole with a spike at the end, carving out the Grand Canyon and Babe’s stomping through the hills made the passes.

I read “Sky-bright Axe” inĀ  Adrian Stoutenburg’s American Tall Tales that I borrowed from the library. I think I may have to pick up a copy for my shelves though. I like the way he retells the stories, he makes them touching and at the same time manages to highlight what makes tall tales a distinctive literary form.

Friday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook, but starting next week I’m moving it to Thursdays. I would love it if you joined me. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, share with us. If you have a link, please include it in your comment.


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