April 1st, is a storyteller’s favorite holiday. To be sure, storytellers are always happy to make up wild tales out of whole cloth. But on April 1st, the whole world is invited to get in on the act: to take an officially licensed stab at being a storyteller and create a fantastic alternate reality that people can (hopefully) believe in. The history of April Fool’s day provides irrefutable evidence of what extraordinary storytellers we all are. Here are a few examples of truly creative April Fools’ Day storytelling:
- In 1905 a German newspaper reported that thieves had dug a tunnel into the US treasury and stolen all of its gold.
- In 1977 The Guardian published a lengthy story about the fabricated mid-Indian Ocean country of San Serriffe
- In 1985 Sports Illustrated introduced the world to Hayden Siddhartha Finch, a Mets pitching prospect who could throw fast balls at 168 miles an hour
- In 2016 National Geographic announced that they would stop publishing pictures of naked animals
- The BBC has run stories about: the bad spaghetti harvest from Swiss spaghetti trees; smellovision; and flying penguins
- Not to be outdone, NPR has released April Fools’ stories on: the sale of Arizona to Canada, unemployment in the fondue mines of Wisconsin; and Richard Nixon’s 1992 run for the Presidency
And of course we regularly fall for these stories. We try to order Burger King’s “left handed burgers”. We become irate when we hear that Taco Bell has purchased The Liberty Bell, or that BMW has stopped manufacturing cars with turn signals because people aren’t using them anyway. We should forgive ourselves our credulity. Truth has a penchant for being stranger the fiction. The last four years were filled with headlines that any rational newspaper editor – or Hollywood script writer, for that matter – would have called ridiculously implausible. That is, before they actually happened. The biggest threat to the April Fools’ holiday is how weird the truth continues to get.
My post, two weeks ago on April 1st, about Lake Aagonweton, a heretofore unknown saltwater lake located in Washburn County was, as many of you know by now, an April Fools’ story. Any good hoax will have kernels of truth and I tried to put a few in mine. Aagonweton is indeed, an Ojibwe word. It means something like “don’t you believe it.” There really is a species of saltwater salamander in Laguna Alchichica, Mexico. There really is a 20 acre saltwater lake on the border between South Dakota and Minnesota. The most plausible lies are built around little bits of truth.
We do need to exercise our critical thinking skills more as we take in our news. Even – or maybe especially – when friends of ours assure us “it really is true.” That propensity – to believe what is not true – can lead to disaster, as we have, all too recently, been made aware. So yes, let us be skeptical. (I have a variety of April Fools’ stories for next year brewing in my head even now. Caveat Emptor.) But I, for one, do not intend to let my skepticism blind me to the possibility of surprise and wonder in the world. It’s out there in spades. April Fools’ Day reminds us that the line between the fantastic and the real is impossibly thin. Which is why I don’t look at April 1st as a holiday that highlights human gullibility. To me April Fools’ Day will always be a celebration of the human capacity to envision the impossible and somehow make it plausible.