“The consequences of an act affect the probability of its occurring again” – B.F. Skinner
Anomalists love quantum physicists. And it’s not just the short lab coats, particle accelerators, and mathematical minds, although those are admittedly a bit of turn on. Anomalists adore quantum physicists because they are the only mainstream scientists that end up sounding crazier than your average Fortean when they really get going. We love them for their multiverses, their strange observer effects, their spooky action at a distance, their uncertainty principles, and their undeniably weird thought experiments about murdering cats in boxes. But mostly we love them because they decouple subject and object, mocking the notion of causality in a universe that is increasingly looking like a twilight zone where everything relies heavily on the consciousness of the observer, and the logically impossible turns out to not only be possible, but actually happening somewhere else in the multiverse. Interestingly, despite anomalistic’s love affair with quantum physics, inquiry into strange phenomena remains deeply democratic. What do I mean? We love our “flaps”. The more people that can attest to having experienced a strange event, the more credence we give it. Thirty independent reports of a vanishing puma in Surrey carry more weight than a single encounter. And when we hear thirty reports of a spectral puma in Surrey over the course of three hundred years, we move into the realm of folklore, which is strangely comforting when juxtaposed with a rash of contemporary encounters with, say, black-eyed children that happened last Thursday at the Circle-K in Texas (not really, just making a point). Skeptics ultimately dismiss those things that do not fall within the realm of “acceptable” belief, regardless of whether there were 3 or 30,000 observers. Believers simply tend to believe, emphasizing that we must validate the subjective experience. While quantum theorists have given some credence to the perspective that the strange phenomena we encounter may be a kind of “bleed through” from other universes, governed by different laws, and populated by different creatures, we seem to have missed an essential point. If we live in a reality where endless universes are propagating based on probabilities, why then is there any consistency in anomalies. I mean, ultimately if “nothing is true, everything is permitted”. But this does not seem to be how the universe works. We see the same monsters. We experience the same phenomena. And a consistency is maintained across time. If we were to hypothesize that anomalies are unexpressed probabilities that have somehow made themselves apparent in our particular probabilistic version of the universes, the question remains of how any integrity of phenomenal experience is maintained. And the answer is the collapse of the probabilistic wave function. Before you call the authorities to take me into custody, bear with me.
Asking me about my underlying belief system is somewhat like asking me to describe my ideal woman. The answer in both cases is simply yes. What is important is that orders emerge, patterns repeat, and everything that is true today is not true tomorrow. This is the reality for the universe, society, and marriage as apprehended by conscious little monkeys like ourselves. Consider the possibility that our universe toddles along with a reasonable set of rules and comprehensible kind of organization that for most people, throughout most of history serves as an adequate guide as to what will happen tomorrow. Gravity isn’t just going to disappear on Tuesday (although I have to do some yard work, so fingers crossed). Occasionally, something intrudes and you have a dinosaur in Loch Ness, or a UFO over Aurora, TX, or a Jewish carpenter walking on water. These things happen and we tend to write them down since they are shocking and don’t fit the model. I would call this, understandably, the expression of the improbable. What is particularly interesting is that once the improbable has been expressed, in quantum terms, the probability wave collapses, and future expressions within our version of reality are more likely to fit within the dimensions of the original expression.
What does this have to do with collapsing probability waves? The quick and dirty interpretation is that in a quantum system (oh say, like the universe we live in), in the absence of measurement, stuff exists simultaneously in all possible states e.g. Schrodinger’s cat is both alive and dead in the box until we take a look inside. When the system is apprehended by the conscious observer, the theoretically possible configurations of the system collapse into a single configuration. So, imagine you’re strolling merrily through your happy world of classical mechanics, when improbability intrudes in the form of what we embrace under the umbrella term of strange phenomena. Some impossible thing has bled into our reality, and you the observer have interpreted it as an alien gray looking for a little dating action. Now I’m not particularly concerned with the particular interpretation. Forest for the trees, and all. Suffice it to say, something phenomenal, but anomalistic has emerged. Of all the possibilities, your observation collapsed the state of the phenomena into an alien encounter. For years after, people are getting propositioned by extraterrestrial swingers. Once seen, it cannot be unseen. Or rather, once improbability has expressed itself as a state, it is less improbable that it might be observed in the future.
Deep in the heart of darkest Arkansas is the Blue Ouachita Mountain, where strange things have been afoot for a few hundred years. Lots of UFO and Sasquatch sightings in the area over time. The thing about UFOs and your average Bigfoot is that they are pretty elusive. You catch a glimpse and they scamper off into improbability. As I was digging around looking for interesting monster stories from Arkansas (admitting I have a problem is the first step towards recovery), I ran into the odd correspondence between two independent folktales associated with the Blue Ouachita Mountain, one an old Choctaw legend about the end to an ancient conflict, and the other a mystery airship sighting in the same area in 1897.
In the mountains and the Hot Springs valley was the land of the Piowas, while below them twenty-leagues, to the margin of the blue Ouachita, lived the warlike Chocatacas. There was strife and hate between them, until at last, poaching upon the territory of each other, the snake-skin, filled with eagle’s feathers, was exchanged and the war-dance round the camp-fire was the signal for the conflict. In the valley and on the mountain flew the arrows and gleamed the knives, while the war-whoops and the charges drove the birds from out the forests and the game sought other country far away. Still they fought and the battle-grounds grew mellow, while the river changed its color to a wounded hue. Sorrow sat by every camp-fire and the wailings of the women, mingling with the stricken warriors, hurtled through the air like a besom of destruction. Thus the fighting still continued until famine came stalking like a wraith between them. Then the blazing eyes of anger dropped their light and became like ashes; the weakened hands unclasped their weapons and the ghastly stare of hunger was like a truce which stops a battle. Fain would they have drunk the blood of one another, but the veins became as sunken furrows, and the strength to kill and draw had vanished. Dimly now burned all the campfires, and the reeling smoke grew into spectres, while the weazened faces of the women wore the visage of the gnomes. Not a sign of game was visible, and the birds had flown affrighted from the tumult of the fights. The children wailed for food which was not, while the little papoose drew the dugs of its famished mother and, wisting not its portion, stretched its withering limbs and died. And the mother, without nourishment, but the instinct, threw her fleshless form upon the ground, and with fingers clenching the hard earth tried to suck the grasses and the gravel and to blow the life again into her famished babe.
The very air seemed sick with hunger, for it lingered through the branches like a drowsy beetle in the winter, and the clouds above were motionless as the sea that awaits the storm burst. “How slowly death comes to the tortured,” this was all the armies uttered, and the waiting still continued. On the seventh day of this dreadful famine above the mountains rose a black cloud, but the lining was of tinselled silver. Moving slowly like the cohorts of an army came the cloud until it rested and blew its shadow over the famished camp and camp-fire.
Then from out the lowering vapor across the tinseled border appeared a woman clothed in sun-rays, so bright that it closed the eyes from weakness. In her right hand she held a tray of silver, and in her left a cup of gold, while from her lips she flung the breath of life. Slowly she approached the quiet armies, and passing softly among the dead and dying, from the tray she ministered food, and from the cup she gave sweet water. And thus were fed the warriors and the women, but still the store of food was not exhausted.
For many days did the sun-clothed spirit move among the stricken armies, until famine had departed, and the red Ouachita ran its blue threads again along the grass-grown margin, till the game and forest warblers came speeding back to the peace-hushed country whence they left.
Then breaking a cleft from the lime-stone, the Spirit fashioned it into a peace-pipe, and fixing a stem from the fire-tree, she filled the bowl with the leaves of the woodland, and drawing the smoke like a whirlwind, she scattered its wreaths till the cerulean cloud covered all the people. And thus spake the Spirit of Peace ere she took her departure : “The Great Father bestows his gifts alike upon all ; He gives you the sun in whose light you may see His blessings; and the moon that you may never be cast into darkness. The forests are filled with your food, and the water flows free to your uses. Why seek you strife when peace clothes all things with happiness? Why grieve the Great Father with your anger when He visits you alone with compassion? The phantoms of those gone before you, now at peace in the hereafter, are moved with sorrow at your fighting. Now build you a pyre for the dead and make a peace-offering to the Great Spirit; let your tears of contrition fall like the showers of the springtime, that love and forgiveness may rest with you forever.” Then slowly ascended the spirit, but dropped from her hands the silver tray and the golden cup, till gathered in the vapory clouds she disappeared from their vision (Buel, 1880, p37-42).
Now, it would be a mistake to suggest that angels are airships are flying saucers a la Ancient Aliens. Ascribing preternatural origins or the intervention of a third party to recurrent phenomena that in their repetition and consistency seem incredibly natural introduces an unnecessary causal element. What if the anomalistic is a natural intrusion, a walk on part for the star of another reality, that collapses into a single state, thereby destined to recur amongst us, even as an exception. A May 6, 1897 encounter with a mystery airship in the vicinity of the Blue Ouachita Mountain piqued my curiosity not because it was part of a 19th Century “mystery airship flap”, with numerous contemporary sightings reported both in the United States, as well as in Europe, rather because of its longitudinal similarities to much older Choctaw mythology in the exact same region.
While riding northwest from this city (Hot Springs) on the night of May 6, 1897, we noticed a brilliant light high in the heavens. Suddenly it disappeared and we said nothing about it, as we were looking for parties (suspects–J.T.) and did not want to make any noise.” “After riding four or five miles around through the hills, we again saw the light, which appeared to be much nearer the earth. We stopped our horses and watched it coming down, until all at once it disappeared behind another hill. We rode on about half a mile further, when our horses refused to go farther.
Almost a hundred yards distant we saw two persons moving around with lights. Drawing our Winchesters–for we were now thoroughly aroused as to the importance of the situation–we demanded, ‘Who is that, and what are you doing?”
A man with a long dark beard came forth with a lantern in his hand, and on being informed who we were, proceeded to tell us that he and two others–a young man and a woman–were traveling through the country in an airship. We could plainly distinguish the outlines of the vessel, which was cigar-shaped and almost sixty feet long, and looking just like the cuts that have appeared in the papers recently.
It was dark and raining and the young man was filling a big sack with water about thirty yards away, and the woman was particular to keep back in the dark. She was holding an umbrella over her head. The man with the whiskers invited us to take a ride, saying that he could take us where it was not raining. We told him we preferred to get wet. Asking the man why the brilliant light was turned on and off so much, he replied that the light was so powerful that it consumed a great deal of his motive power. He said he would like to stop off in Hot Springs for a few days and take the hot baths, but his time was limited and he could not. He said they were going to wind up at Nashville, Tennessee, after thoroughly seeing the country. Being in a hurry, we left, and upon our return, about forty minutes later, nothing was to be seen. We did not hear or see the airship when it departed (Helena, Arkansas Weekly World, May 13, 1897).
The cultural interpretations certainly differ, but for lack of a better term, the rhythm of the encounters has an undeniable echo. As waves of improbability crash on the shores of our haunted earth, overwhelming our intellectual sand castles and sometimes dragging a little bit of our consciousness back out to sea, those same waves ever so minutely alter the shoreline. The boundary between possible and impossible bends and warps, and perhaps collapses into a single, repeated state. We need more folks who are willing to undertake the investigation of the impossible, be they anomalists or quantum physicists, not to establish the “true” boundaries of reality, but to prove that there really is no edge. After all, as Ray Bradbury once said, we ourselves “are an impossibility in an impossible universe”.
Buel, James W. 1849-1920. Legends of the Ozarks. St. Louis: W. S. Bryan, 1880.