Akeley MN's friendly Bunyan (sculpture by Dean Krotzer).
Akeley MN's friendly Bunyan (sculpture by Dean Krotzer).

Paul Bunyan: Friend or Foe?

Paul Bunyan gets trees a lot of free publicity. But he is also famous for cutting them down in big numbers. Mythical, legendary, ugly numbers. Ecologist nightmare numbers. But there are few folk tales told about the adventures of a tree, or an ecologist, for that matter. Paul Bunyan is everywhere, and is much beloved.

His birthplace in Bangor, ME is marked by statue, but where you really fall all over Bunyan monuments are in the northern forests of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Minnesota offers big statues in Brainerd and Bemidji, which are also home to his axe, his phone, his pet dog, his pet squirrel, his toothpaste, razor and Zippo lighter. In Akeley, a twenty-five foot Bunyan bends down with hand outstretched, so that couples can sit in his palm for photos. Bunyan's girlfriend is in Hackensack, his anchor is in Ortonville, his rifle is in Black Duck, and he is buried (he died in 1899) in Kelliher. His epitaph: "Here lies Paul, And That's All."

1991: Slow-talkin' Paul at the Bunyan Center, Brainerd, MN. He no longer talks.
1991: Slow-talkin' Paul at the Bunyan Center, Brainerd, MN. He no longer talks.

A surprising number of Bunyan statues will actually talk to you. There's the slow-witted but likeable joke-teller at Brainerd's Paul Bunyan Center; the observer of the obvious at Trees of Mystery, Klamath, CA; and the French-ified Monsieur Le Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, in Ossineke, MI. In the fifties, Ossineke Babe had his balls shot off by a handgun that was used to murder a man the next week. Out of respect, Ossineke Babe's balls have never been replaced. (2002: reported no longer open to the public)

Michigan erected the oddest tribute: a 30 foot tall statue made entirely of parts from old Kaiser automobiles watched over Business I-75 in Grayling. It moved to the grounds of Alpena Community College in 1998.

Paul Bunyan never replanted, or worried about erosion or ecosystems. He probably took early naturalists by the head and used them to grease his mighty skillet. On the other hand, without Paul Bunyan statues and memorabilia pulling the tourists to these areas, they'd never get to see the trees that the ecologist works so hard to protect. Now that Paul is dead, and Saab-driving law school naturalists have nothing to fear, don't be surprised if the many Paul Bunyan statues start coming under fire, as teaching our children bad lessons.

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March 31, 2020

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