The ride through the desert countryside is smooth and pleasant, and I try once again to take a shot of the arid landscape with my phone. It's my first visit the Southwest of the United States, and the novelty of the scenery feels almost dreamlike. Add to that the fact I'm riding shotgun with Greg Bishop, host of Radio Misterioso and author of Project Beta --who up until now I'd never met face to face, despite the fact we've known each other and interacted online for almost 10 years-- and that the two of us are driving to the 25th International UFO Congress, at the We-Ko-Pa Resort and Conference Center in Scottsdale, Arizona, to watch the Jacques Vallee --arguably the most notable figure in the UFO field living today-- make his first re-appearance at a public UFO event since who-knows-how-many years (last time he spoke at a public UFO event, he was literally booed out of the stage!) all while listening to Greg's curated collection of weird-ass music, and the surreality of it all reaches 'Fear and Loathing' levels; to the point I almost feel the pressing need to yell "we can't stop here! This is saguaro country!"
Well, the name of the game on this road trip is not Gonzo Journalism, but Guerrilla Advertising: One of the reasons Greg and I decided to travel to Arizona and attend the congress, was because we wanted to promote an anthology of UFO essays Greg had previously posted online on the now-defunct blog UFOMystic, which he's now self-published under the title It Defies Language! --Greg came up with the oxymoronic name, BTW, through the use of the cut-up technique created by William S. Burroughs, one of his personal heroes.
I became involved with It Defies Language! back in October of 2015, when Greg and I were chatting on Skype and I decided to show him some of the caricatures I'd doodled through the years of some of our mutual friends (Micah Hanks, Nick Redfern and others); it was then that Greg asked me if I'd be interested in doing some illustrations for his book, the same way Mike Clelland did for the late Mac Tonnies' The Cryptoterrestrials. Imagine you were the biggest Star Wars fan in the whole world, and then you received a call from J.J. Abrams inviting you to participate in the new trilogy. Of course he had me at 'Hello'!
Consider also how I was unemployed at the time and with nothing to do but worrying about my murky future, and you can see why Greg's invitation was a lifeline which helped me focus on other things besides my dwindling bank account and my self pity. He gave me absolute freedom and only made minor objections to my ideas a couple of times; in return I drew illustrations for every chapter, and even ended up designing the covers for the book. By then I was heavily invested in It Defies Language! and wanted to help Greg in any way I could to ensure its success. So when we learned Vallee was going to the IUFOC we saw it as the perfect opportunity for killing two birds with one stone: Meeting Vallee --whom he had been in brief contact previously, in a failed attempt to invite him to Radio Misterioso-- and attempting to have a private conversation, where we would give him a copy of the book as a token of appreciation; while at the same time preparing flyers, bookmarks and even a few posters I printed in Mexico, which we would use to promote the book among the other speakers and attendees.
* * * * *
Saying the International UFO Conference is the Comic Con of UFO-related symposia is a double-edged compliment. While it is true the IUFOC is the largest event of its kind in the world, its current number of attendees don't even come closer to what Sci-Fi/Fantasy events were gathering in the mid-nineties. And while those gigs keep getting bigger and bigger, it's not preposterous to presume UFO-related conferences are going the way of the dodo. On an article for New York Magazine in 2014, Marc Jacobson pointed out to the dwindling attendance and aging demographic found at the annual MUFON conference in New Jersey, "a far cry from the thousands who attended the MUFON conference in the late 1970s, after Close Encounters of the Third Kind introduced extraterrestrials to the mainstream moviegoer."
Where Jacobson was dead wrong in his piece, however, was in equating the disappearance of UFO conferences to an overall decrease of public interest in the topic, which couldn't be farther from the truth. As I pointed out on The Daily Grail's comment section, Jacobson failed to take into account the Internet's impact in the way people interested in UFOs go about finding new information. In the 70's or 80's, live conferences and the journals published by the civilian UFO organizations were indeed the only game in town when it came to getting the freshest news and updates from researchers; but in 2016, when you can find almost anything about the topic freely online, and researchers are regularly invited to podcast shows, many in the younger generations don't see the point in spending up to a thousand bucks and almost a whole week of their vacation time, so they can sit on an auditorium to listen to a speaker for 45-60 minutes --and without even the chance to press PAUSE in order to play a round of Candy Crush.
That's why online conferences and pay-per-view video streaming are more than likely the way these events will survive in the digital age; if at all. But here's the thing: When you come down to it, the reason why spending all that money and free time is worth your while, is because of what happens AFTER the presentations are over. Getting to see people in the field you always wanted to meet in person is something you will definitely NOT get from your laptop --or even your Oculus Rift.
On the list of people I'd never met before, there was for example ... Read More »
by Mike Jay
The first well-documented hallucinogenic mushroom experience in Britain took place in London’s Green Park on 3 October 1799. Like many such experiences before and since, it was accidental. A man subsequently identified only as ‘J.S.’ was in the habit of gathering small field mushrooms from the park on autumn mornings, and cooking them up into a breakfast broth for his wife and young family. But this particular morning, an hour after they had finished eating, the world began to turn very strange. J.S. found black spots and odd flashes of colour bursting across his vision; he became disorientated, and had difficulty in standing and moving around. His family were complaining of stomach cramps and cold, numb extremities. The notion of poisonous toadstools leapt to his mind, and he staggered out into the streets to seek help. but within a hundred yards he had forgotten where he was going, or why, and was found wandering about in a confused state.
By chance, a doctor named Everard Brande happened to be passing through this insalubrious part of town, and he was summoned to treat J.S. and his family. The scene that he discovered was so bizarre and unfamiliar that he would write it up at length and publish it in The Medical and Physical Journal later that year. The family’s symptoms were rising and falling in giddy waves, their pupils dilated, their pulses and breathing becoming fluttering and laboured, then returning to normal before accelerating into another crisis. They were all fixated on the fear that they were dying, except for the youngest, the eight-year-old Edward S., whose symptoms were the strangest of all. He had eaten a large portion of the mushrooms and was ‘attacked with fits of immoderate laughter’ which his parents’ threats could not subdue. He seemed to have been transported into another world, from which he would only return under duress to speak nonsense: ‘when roused and interrogated as to it, he answered indifferently, yes or no, as he did to every other question, evidently without any relation to what was asked’.
Dr.Everard Brande would diagnose the family’s condition as the ‘deleterious effects of a very common species of agaric [mushroom], not hitherto suspected to be poisonous’. Today, we can be more specific: this was clearly intoxication by Liberty Caps (Psilocybe semilanceata), the ‘magic mushrooms’ which grow plentifully across the hills, moors, commons, golf courses and playing fields of Britain every autumn. But though Dr.Brande’s account of the J.S. family’s trip would not be forgotten, and would continue to be cited in Victorian drug literature for decades, the nineteenth century would come and go without any conclusive identification of the Liberty Cap as the species in question. In fact, it would not be until Albert Hoffman, the discoverer of LSD, turned his attention to hallucinogenic mushrooms in the 1950s that the botanical identity of these and other mushrooms containing psilocybin, LSD’s chemical cousin, would be confirmed.
But if they were obscure to Victorian science, there was another tradition which would appear to explore the ability of certain mushrooms to whisk humans off to another world: Victorian fairy lore. Over the nineteenth century, a vast body of art and literature would connect mushrooms and toadstools with elves, pixies, hollow hills and the unwitting transport of subjects to fairyland, a world of shifting perspectives and dimensions seething with elemental spirits. Is it possible that the Victorian fairy tradition, underneath its twee and bourgeois exterior, operated as a conduit for a hidden world of homegrown psychedelia, parallel perhaps to the ancient shamanic and ritual uses of similar mushrooms in the New World? Were the authors of such otherworld narratives - Alice in Wonderland, for example - aware of the powers of certain mushrooms to lead unsuspecting visitors to enchanted lands? Were they, perhaps, even writing from personal experience?
The J.S. family’s trip in 1799 is a useful jumping-off point for such enquiries, because it establishes several basic facts. First - and contrary to the opinion of some recent American scholars - British (and European) magic mushrooms are not a recent arrival from the New World, but were part of our indigenous flora at least two hundred years ago. Second, the species in question was unknown at the time, at least to science. Third, its hallucinogenic effects were unfamiliar, perhaps even unheard of - certainly unprecedented enough for a London doctor to feel the need to draw them to the attention of his medical colleagues.
In other scholarly contexts, though, the mind-altering effects of certain plants were already familiar. Through classical sources like The Golden Ass, the idea of witches’ potions which transformed their subjects was an inheritance from antiquity. The pharmacopeia and materia medica of doctors and herbalists had long included the drug effects of common plants like belladonna and opium poppies, though mushrooms had featured in them rarely. The eighteenth century had turned up several more exotic examples from distant cultures: Russian explorers describing the use of fly agaric mushrooms in Siberia, Captain Cook observing the kava-kava ritual in Polynesia. In 1762 Carl Linnaeus, the great taxonomist and father of modern botany, had compiled the first ever list of intoxicating plants: his monograph, entitled Inebriantia, had included opium, cannabis, datura, henbane and tobacco. Slowly, the study of such plants was emerging from the margins and tall tales of classical studies, ethnography, folklore and medicine and becoming a subject in its own right.
It was as part of this same interest that European fairy lore was also being assembled by a new generation of amateur folklore collectors such as the Brothers Grimm, who realised that the inexorable drift of peasant populations from country to city was beginning to dismantle centuries of folk stories, songs and oral histories. The Victorian fairy tradition, as it emerged, would be imbued with this new sensibility which rendered rustic traditions no longer coarse, backward and primitive but picturesque and semi-sacred, an escape from the austerity of industrial living into an ancient, often pagan otherworld. Under the guise of ‘innocence’, sensual and erotic themes could be explored with a boldness not permitted in more realistic genres, and the muddy and impoverished countryside could be re-enchanted with imagery drawn from the classical and arabesque. Within this process, the lore of plants and flowers was carefully curated and woven into supernatural tapestries of flower-fairies and enchanted woods; and within this imaginal world of plants, mushrooms and toadstools began popping up all over. Fairy rings and toadstool-dwelling elves were recycled through a pictorial culture of motif and decoration until they became emblematic of fairyland itself.
This was a quiet but substantial image makeover for Britain’s fungi. Previously, in herbals and medical texts, they had been largely shunned, associated with dung-heaps and poison; in Romantic poetry the smell of death had still clung to them (‘fungous brood/coloured like a corpse’s cheek’, as Keats put it). Now, a new generation of folklorists began to ... Read More »
On Saturday the 2nd of April 2016 Calderstones Mansion in Calderstones Park, Liverpool was home to #SpiritsOfPlace. This was a multidisciplinary symposium with nine guest speakers, all of whom took their cue in one way or another from the Neolithic stones which give the park their name.
I was the organiser of the event and my talk "Invoking the Spirits of Place" served as a kind of introduction and mission statement for the day. Based in part on my earlier Calderstones article, a piece I wrote about the genesis of the event for #FolkloreThursday, and even in some small way something I wrote for WarrenEllis.com, I present here the full text of my talk.
Welcome to South Liverpool, to Calderstones Park, and to Spirits of Place.
South Liverpool is where I was born, where I grew up, and where I live still. It is a place full of green-spaces. Its abundance of woodlands, parks, cemeteries, playing fields and golf courses are linked by an intricate network of narrow, bramble-lined public footpaths and overgrown roadside verges. The more romantically inclined might be tempted to call them faerie paths, or corpse roads, and perhaps some once were; back when an Iron Age fort stood on top of Woolton's Camp Hill, or perhaps longer ago still.
The area is bursting with history to the point where many of its residents seem to have become immune to the strange sites and artefacts they pass every day. Many people are dimly aware that the ornamental lake in Princes Park is filled by one of the city's many “lost” subterranean rivers, the River Jordan. There is an extant 17th century chapel just round the corner from the same park where astronomer Jeremiah Horrocks was once schooled by a member of the Mather family who later emigrated to America and played a large part in the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Williamson's Tunnels - an uncharted labyrinth of vaulted, brick-lined tunnels constructed under the orders of an eccentric 19th century tobacco magnate - lay buried and largely unexplored beneath Edge Hill. There's a 15th century Holy Well in Wavertree, right next to a swing-park, which bears a Latin inscription translating to “He who here does nought bestow, The Devil laughs at him below”. Allthis is normal, commonplace stuff in South Liverpool, it seems. So much so that even more ancient monuments are sometimes taken for granted.
Robin Hood's Stone stands on the pavement at the junction of Booker Avenue and Archerfield Road surrounded by green painted metal railings. During term time in the summer months an ice-cream van is often parked next to it, ready to supply the kids from Booker Avenue school with frozen treats on their way home. Robin Hood's stone was given its name on account of a series of deep grooves in its surface once believed to have been used for sharpening arrowheads. The grooves are now considered to have ... Read More »