AFTER THE FALL: CHARLES FORT AND OUR STRANGE SKIES
Paul Thomas Anderson, in his movie Magnolia, with its climatic rain of frogs plummeting out of the sky and pummeling people, windows and automobiles, did more to memorialize the odd phenomena of “falls” than anyone since Charles Fort.
Still, despite this now iconic, onscreen moment, falls still qualify as perhaps the least well-known and most whimsical in the entire realm of the paranormal—a strange happening that lacks the rabid following enjoyed by ghosts and UFOs. And Fort, a kind of professional, philosopher-crank—a whimsical human being, it might be said—still seems similarly unable to get his due. For instance, in my proposal for Fringe-ology, I promised editors I would use Fort as a kind of launching point for the entire enterprise. That claim, on my part, received some gentle pushback. One editor in particular, who I shall not name, professed to “love Fort” but argued that he “was more a great personality and curator than a thinker.”
It is true that Fort’s reputation rests largely on his role as the ultimate chronicler of all things odd. But to me this pursuit to catalogue the strange itself reveals Fort to be a novel thinker—and moreover, committed enough that he built his life to accommodate his strange, singular passion.
For most of his young adult life, as the 1800s bled toward the 1900s, Fort engaged in menial day jobs and sporadic fits of journalism, breaking up furniture for firewood while buying armfuls of newspapers and scouring the stacks of the New York Public Library, making notes on “anomalous phenomena” at a time when literally no one else in recorded history had ever engaged in such a practice. Ultimately, a modest inheritance from an uncle allowed him to commit to writing and research, full-time. And the results, The Book of the Damned, Lo!, Wild Talents, and New Lands, suddenly and roughly formed the boundaries of what we now call “The Paranormal.”
Odd creature reports of humanoids and animals. Hauntings. Airships (which later came to be called UFOs). Psychic phenomena. All the biggies found their way into Fort’s pages. And yes, to that unnamed editor's point, those old writings admittedly did move in fits and starts. Fort was a passionate but often graceless writer, more bull than ballerina. But his efforts reveal a great depth of intelligence, and a unique, rigorously upheld commitment to, well, a lack of commitment.
Consider this passage:
“I’d not like to be so unadvanced as to deny witches and ghosts,” he writes in The Book of the Damned, “but I do think that there never have been witches and ghosts like those of popular supposition.”
Fort, as he often does, leaves this statement behind quickly, on his way to some other place. But the meaning of this passage is entirely clear once even a few whole pages of Fort have been read, pretty much no matter where one starts or ends: To Fort, nothing was worse, nothing betrayed greater intellectual dishonesty or emotional fragility, than dogmatism. Whether the dogma he confronted was religious or scientific, he had at it with a hacksaw. So, while he clearly held grave doubts about “witches and ghosts” he was simultaneously committed to maintaining an open mind on the subject and to considering all the possibilities.
The roots of all good scientific and philosophical thinking rest comfortably in this couple of sentences, I think. But there is something more in his books, besides: Today, skeptics cleave to explanations that generally reduce down to “superstition.” But Fort would reject that—rightly, I should think—as useless dogma. The way to address these topics is with a light heart, a serious mind and a willingness to hear out every possibility, no matter how outlandish.
Finally, Fort seemed to anticipate pretty much everything that has happened in this field since he began studying it in the late-1800s: Namely, that anomalies of various kinds would continue to keep cropping up; that believers would embrace them and define them without enough supporting evidence; and that skeptics draped in the mantle of science would simply deny them outright.
Given these facts, I’d argue that defining Fort as “more a personality and curator” than a “thinker” because he did not write in a traditional, philosophical form reveals a sorely limited perspective of what it means to “think” at all. Fort gets us to a place we need to be, at times by circuitous means, through sleight of hand and indirection. But he gets us there. And in the end, when I wrote Fringe-ology for HarperCollins, I stood on many pairs of shoulders. But in order to get started at all, I clambered upon the shoulders of Charles Fort.
I give you that background as an introduction to the 10th-ranked development in Fringe-ology because Fort and Falls shall remain connected, forevermore. A surprising number of unlikely things fall from the sky. And Fort had the temerity to not only capture them for posterity but to question the official explanation, which is that a whirlwind or storm picked the objects up in one place and deposited them back down in another.
I ran across reports of several falls this year.
Orange eggs fell from the sky in Alaska.
Fish seem to fall from the sky, with some regularity, in Lamanju, Australia.
Worms, last spring, In Scotland.
Apples in Coventry.
The worm fall, for starters, is instructive. The report described the fall of a great many worms from what the leading witness described as a “cloudless sky.” Teacher David Crichton was leading his class through warm-ups for a soccer lesson (they call it football in the article, of course), when they heard a soft thudding noise in their midst. Many worms were lying on the ground. As reported by STV, “the class then looked to the cloudless sky and saw worms falling on to them.”
Crichton subsequently collected many of the worms, tallying more than 100.
The phenomenon of falls has its own Library of Congress entry, which puts forward the tornado- or storm-based theory. But for another possibility I’ll refer to the inimitable Brian Dunning, of Skeptoid.
I praise Dunning in Fringe-ology, and he does his level best to explain falls while expressing grave doubts about the whirlwind or weather-based explanation.
If the wind is picking up animals, why is it so damn selective? Why just worms, and not dirt? Why just fish, or frogs, and not grass, sticks, twigs or other debris or… something of the same approximate weight and size?
In The Book of the Damned, Fort writes, more than a century before Dunning:
According to testimony taken before a magistrate, a fall occurred, Feb. 19, 1830, near Feridpoor, India, of many fishes, of various sizes—some whole and fresh and others "mutilated and putrefying." Our reflex to those who would say that, in the climate of India, it would not take long for fishes to putrefy, is—that high in the air, the climate of India is not torrid. Another peculiarity of this fall is that some of the fishes were much larger than others. Or to those who hold out for segregation in a whirlwind, or that objects, say, twice as heavy as others would be separated from the lighter, we point out that some of these fishes were twice as heavy as others.
So, let’s set aside the whirlwind explanation as insufficient in the judgment of the philosopher-crank (Fort), the skeptic (Dunning), and the journalist (me). But Dunning, in one of his podcasts, has offered up a separate answer. His thesis is that the animals in question were already there. Then something happens—like a rainfall—to draw attention to their presence. The problem, of course, is that Dunning’s explanation is refuted by numerous reports.
First, let’s turn again to Fort, who tells of fish found flopping “atop haystacks”, or covering the “roofs of houses”; of frogs “seen to fall”; of one frog-storm in Kansas City, Missouri, that was so great the frogs “darkened the air”; of frogs found in impossible places for a Dunning-like migration to be remotely possible, like the “city of London” and “a desert.”
This central mystery of Charles Fort’s work, all these years later, still holds up. And in the last year, since I finished my own book, falls continue to confound. Clearly, the idea that the insects or animals were already on the ground doesn’t fit Crichton, or his students, who observed the worms falling from the sky. It also wouldn’t explain the fish, in one of the other accounts I listed, which fell in the desert, hundreds of kilometers from water. One source in that story even claims the fish were alive when they hit the ground.
I am a fan of Dunning. But like many skeptics, in this instance he chose to interpret the data that most readily yielded to a simple explanation and simply ignored the data that didn’t.
This doesn’t, of course, mean UFOs are responsible. It also, obviously, doesn’t mean anything particularly outlandish has to be happening at all. In short, the lack of a great, definitive explanation or explanations that account for all the cases—like the fall of worms from a cloudless sky on a “clear, calm day”—doesn’t mean no such information will ever be found. But it does mean that, for now, we must give this victory to mystery.
Author’s Note: As the year wound down, I started thinking about the most important things to happen in the realm of the paranormal since I finished writing Fringe-ology in the late fall of 2010. I’ll post a new item here roughly every week, though many of my top 10 will only be found on my website, stevevolk.com.