Crabs and periwinkles by the thousands seemed to have fallen from the sky on a mile-long stretch of road near Worcester, England, one day in 1881. Some enterprising souls, apparently not stopping to wonder at the oddity of the event, filled 10 sacks with periwinkles and sold them at market--fetching 20 pounds. But others looked for an explanation of the fishy rain. A newspaper later reported that two residents had seen the periwinkles on the road before the storm. Its conclusion: Some fishmonger had dumped them.
Charles Fort, an eccentric American writer and longtime collector of anomalies, who heard the story in the 1920s, found both the phenomenon and its explanation a little odd. He envisioned a train of wagons drawn by the fishmonger and his assistants appearing unnoticed on the busy road. They would have madly hurled the contents of their carts in all directions. Men standing on each other's shoulders would have dumped seafood over walls into gardens. Then, they would have vanished, leaving no clue to account for such prodigious expenditure of labor and capital.
Fort, who died in 1932, spent 27 years cataloguing what he called "damned data"--extraordinary events such as spontaneous human combustion and strange celestial phenomena, for which science could find no convincing explanation and consequently ignored. Such events intrigue his ideological descendants to this day. They're called Forteans, and they gather each year to compare stories. As one who is equally intrigued with the weird, I'm sitting in on the International Fortean Organization's 25th Annual Conference on Anomalous Phenomena, popularly known as FortFest, in Bethesda, Md. The dozen lectures and presentations given over two days include topics such as biological anomalies of birds and the astronomic and astrologic significance of the design of Shakespeare's Globe Theater. Then there's the perennial favorite--UFOs.
Here at the Ramada Inn, the 100 anomalists, mostly middle-aged and conventionally dressed, might be taken for a gathering of insurance adjusters. We include an expert in late-Renaissance Rosicrucian alchemic writings, a fundamentalist Christian, a number of scientists, and, someone pointed out to me, a few employees of the nearby Central Intelligence Agency. I ask a CIA man what he's doing here. "Just interested," he replies noncommittally, and walks away. Make of that what you will.
We are united by a distrust of conventional explanations and a certain taste for the bizarre. But at the same time we try to keep a sense of irony about ourselves and our subjects. As Fort once said: "It has not been decided whether I am a humorist or a scientist."
The true Fortean is uncommitted to any particular point of view. Forteans characterize themselves as open-minded. Fort himself said: "I conceive of nothing, in religion, in science, or philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear." So Forteans may look at UFOs as extraterrestrial, delusional, or military, but many suspect that the force is psychic, just like reports of fairy encounters and religious apparitions.
We live in times of high weirdness: The X-Files rules the airwaves. Television investigations of the unknown, along the lines of Strange Universe, proliferate. The tabloid press is preoccupied with matted-down geometric formations in agricultural fields, called crop circles, and Latin American goat-sucking monsters. Perhaps it's millennial panic, or maybe just the perennial human appetite for spooky stories. For whatever reason, Fort, who noted sightings of mysterious lights and aircraft in the sky some 30 years before these came to be called UFOs, is enjoying a renaissance.
Forteans differ from mainstream scientists in one crucial aspect: They decry the exclusionist tendencies of scientific methodology, which tends to dismiss what it can't explain. As speaker Michael Cremo tells us: "Science only changes its theories when enough exceptions pop up." Forteans like to point out that the great 18th-century scientist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier considered meteors about as disreputable as the late Carl Sagan considered UFOs.
NEW LOOK? The theories advanced here won't bring immediate breakthroughs in scientific dogma, but they add to that list of anomalies that could cause scientists to take another look. And, of course, the talks feed the current mania for the bizarre and mysterious.
At least one of the mysteries is the work of the U.S. government. In 1995, the government revealed it had spent millions studying the practical application of extrasensory perception. An official report noted "a statistically significant effect." And physicist David Bohm has put forward a theory of the universe that gives equal weight to the energies of thought and matter. "This is where the UFO buffs should be looking," says veteran Fortean investigator John Keel. "But instead, they're off chasing little men from outer space." Bohm's theory suggests the mind may interact with the world in unexpected ways. So, as Fort said, "It could be that with our data, we tell of nothing but lies, and at the same time, be on the track of future values." In this spirit, the FortFest parades its damned data.
Some of the damnedest comes from Cremo, co-author with Dr. Richard L. Thompson of the 900-page Forbidden Archeology. It's a collection of archaeological reports that have been largely ignored by the scientific Establishment because they indicate man roamed the earth long before evolutionary theory puts them here, about 100,000 years ago, and that these humans coexisted with their supposed ape-like predecessors. So when Cremo and Thompson's work was included in a 1996 NBC-TV special, The Mysterious Origins of Man, many angry scientists boycotted the show's sponsors. But last year, a fossil find in Kenya led some orthodox scientists to propose that Homo sapiens may have existed up to 100,000 years earlier than thought--a major jump. In Bethesda, Cremo gets respect, though there are gasps when he cites the hundreds of round metal spheres, some perfectly grooved and seemingly man-made, found in apparently undisturbed 2.8 billion-year-old mineral deposits.
We're equally respectful at Mario Pazzaglini's lecture on alien writing. A clinical psychologist and neurophysiologist, he has spent years collecting written works that supposedly came from occupants of UFOs. He started by looking for a psychological explanation, but now "it's beginning to look like some of this might be external," he tells us. Pazzaglini cites as evidence a case of a 3-year-old boy writing in a strange alphabet that he claimed was taught to him by angels. Pazzaglini found the script identical to one used by a 15th century community of magicians. Pretty odd, but we take it in stride.
The oddities continue far into the evening, as we separate into informal interest groups. I'll wager that it's one of the few places in the world where one has a choice of eavesdropping on authoritative discussions of the pre-Socratic philosophers, advanced military aircraft, or lake monsters--all in the same room. The group I pick talks about the possible shift in basic thought processes between the ancient and modern world. Robert Schmidt, a mathematical physicist, wonders if the concept of number was fundamentally different in ancient times than today. "The way an ancient Greek counted his change would be unintelligible to a modern," he insists.
After two days of pondering anomalies, FortFest ends. We return home to watch the skies, scan the papers, and keep on the lookout for crazed fishmongers, as we pile up our damned data for next year's meeting. Separating the fallen periwinkles from the red herrings is hard work, but we have Fort's example to follow. I should note, however, that Fort himself was no Fortean. When told of the founding of the Fortean Society in 1931, he said: "I wouldn't join it any more than I'd be an Elk."