One last striking story about bird mimicry:
I was in the Outer Hebrides and I came across an abandoned derelict croft. It had no roof, but very substantial walls and in the gaps between the stonework was a starlings’ nest. I could hear the birds inside, and eventually one of the starlings came to defend its territory. I heard straight away that it wasn’t just the usual rambling song. It started to mimic a Corncrake, a species that is very rare in mainland Britain. It did this bird’s buzzing repetitive song, but then it immediately went into other sounds that seemed familiar and had a strong rhythm to them. As I was listening I was looking around and could see the remnants of farm machinery, including an ancient tractor that had not moved for 20-30 years. I realised this bird was singing the song of some of this machinery. It was singing the song of a mechanical pump that had obviously been active around this farm, and used by the people who had lived here.
I wasn’t listening to the same starling that heard these original sounds. These copied sounds are usually passed on from parents or neighbouring birds so that a young bird absorbs and then duplicates them. The strange thing was that I was recording the sounds in what had been somebody’s living room, a place that had obviously been full of the conversations of family life over generations and which had passed into history. Yet the birds had returned and taken it back — claimed this space and these rocks — and were singing their own song. And they were singing the songs that were around when the people were here.
– Chris Watson of Tyne and Wear, U.K., quoted in Mark Cocker’s Birds & People, 2013
adj. producing darkness
On Sept. 29, 1940, two Avro Anson training aircraft took off from a Royal Australian Air Force base near Wagga Wagga for a cross-country exercise over New South Wales. They were making a banking turn over Brocklesby when pilot Leonard Fuller lost sight of Jack Hewson’s plane beneath him, and the two collided with a “grinding crunch of metal and tearing of fabric.”
To his horror, Fuller found that the planes were now locked together. His own engines had been knocked out by the collision, but Hewson’s were still functioning, and he could still manipulate his own ailerons and flaps, so he found he could control the lumbering pair as one aircraft.
After the crew of the lower plane had bailed out, along with his own navigator, Fuller flew an additional five miles and made an emergency landing in a paddock, where he slid 200 yards to a safe stop. “I did everything we’ve been told to do in a forced landing,” he told air accident inspector Arthur Murphy. “Land as close as possible to habitation or a farmhouse and, if possible, land into the wind. I did all that. There’s the farmhouse, and I did a couple of circuits and landed into the wind. She was pretty heavy on the controls, though.”
Fuller was credited with saving £40,000 worth of military hardware and preventing any damage or injury in Brocklesby, and his plane was even returned to service. He died four years later in a road accident.
On Feb. 6, 1898, a worker preparing the front page of the New York Times added 1 to that day’s issue number, 14,499, and got 15,000.
Amazingly, no one caught the error until 1999, when 24-year-old news assistant Aaron Donovan tallied the dates since the paper’s founding in 1851 and found that the modern issue number was 500 too high.
So on Jan. 1, 2000, the paper turned back the clock, reverting from 51,753 to 51,254.
“There is something that appeals to me about the way the issue number marks the passage of time across decades and centuries,” Donovan wrote in a memo. “It has been steadily climbing for longer than anyone who has ever glanced at it has been alive. The 19th-century newsboy hawking papers in a snowy Union Square is in some minute way bound by the issue number to the Seattle advertising executive reading the paper with her feet propped up on the desk.”
In 1923, the Brazier family traveled from Oregon to Indiana, bringing their 2-year-old collie/shepherd mix, Bobbie. They were separated in Wolcott, Ind., when Bobbie was chased off by a group of local dogs, and after three weeks the family reluctantly returned to Oregon.
Exactly six months later, the family’s youngest daughter was walking down a Silverton street when she recognized a bedraggled dog. At her voice he “fairly flew at Nova, leaping up again and again to cover her face with kisses and making half-strangled, sobbing sounds of relief and delight as if he could hardly voice his wordless joy.”
He had traveled more than 2,500 miles. He was identified by three scars, and by letters the family later received from people who had housed and fed him along the way. The “wonder dog” received national publicity, and well-wishers gave him a jewel-studded harness, a silver collar, keys to various cities, and “a miniature bungalow, which weighed about nine hundred pounds, with eight windows curtained with silk.” He died in 1927, and Rin Tin Tin laid a wreath on his grave.
At a timber-mill in the Powelltown district (Victoria) it is customary to blow three blasts of the whistle to indicate an accident and six blasts to notify a fatality. One day the six blasts echoed about the hills and men ran from all directions to the mill. But there was no fatality; the ‘whistle’ was produced by a Lyrebird, which had heard the three blasts with some frequency, and, in imitating them, had added three more for good measure. That episode ranks with one related by Mervyn Bill, a forest surveyor, who has written that when he was camped at Hell’s Gates (Victoria), he was annoyed to see, through the theodolite telescope, his men doing certain field operations without the usual instructions. The fact became revealed, subsequently, that they had obeyed ‘instructions’ from a Lyrebird in an adjacent gully, which faultlessly imitated the surveyor’s shrill, staccato code of signals.
– Alec H. Chisholm, Bird Wonders of Australia, 1958
See Technical Fowl.
In April 1964, British prime minister Alec Douglas-Home was staying at the home of a friend in Scotland. One day when he happened to be alone there, he answered the door to find a group of students from Aberdeen University, who said they were there to kidnap him.
At first Douglas-Home said, “I suppose you realize if you do, the Conservatives will win the election by 200 or 300.” Then he stalled by asking for 10 minutes to pack a few things, and bought further time by offering beer to the students. Eventually his friends returned and the students departed willingly. Douglas-Home never spoke publicly of the incident, as the breach would have imperiled his bodyguard’s career, but in 1977 he mentioned it to a colleague, whose diary entry came to light in 2008.
Related: Australian prime minister Harold Holt disappeared entirely in 1967. He was visiting Cheviot Beach, near Portsea, with friends when he decided to go swimming. When he disappeared from view a search was organized, but it could find no trace of him. The beach is known for its rip tides, so he’s presumed to have drowned, but no body has ever been found.
An epitaph in the Pine Forest cemetery in Wilmington, N.C., reads:
BORN SEPT. 24, 1894
DIED MAY 18, 1904
THIS WAS THE ONLY DOG WE EVER KNEW
THAT ATTENDED CHURCH EVERY SUNDAY
Actually, dogs commonly attended services in former times. Indeed, until the 19th century, they could be so numerous that churches employed “dog whippers” to remove unruly dogs during services. The Great Church of St. Bavo in Haarlem, the Netherlands, contains a carving of the hondenslager at work (above).
The 18th-century zoologist Carl Linnaeus used to attend mass with his dog Pompe. Linnaeus always left after an hour, regardless of whether the sermon was finished. It’s said that when he was sick Pompe would arrive at the service alone, stay for the customary hour, and depart.
“Heaven goes by favor,” wrote Mark Twain. “If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”
From Edmund Fillingham King’s Ten Thousand Wonderful Things, 1860:
On the 9th of August, 1796, a cricket match was played by eleven Greenwich pensioners with one leg, against eleven with one arm, for one thousand guineas, at the new cricket ground, Montpelier gardens, Walworth. At nine o’clock the men arrived in three Greenwich stages; about twelve the wickets were pitched, and they commenced. Those with but one leg had the first innings, and got 93 runs; those with but one arm got but 42 runs during their innings. The one-leg commenced their second innings, and six were bowled out after they had got 60 runs; so that they left off one hundred and eleven more than those with one arm. Next morning the match was played out; and the men with one leg beat the one-arms by one hundred and three runs. After the match was finished the eleven one-legged men ran a sweep-stakes of one hundred yards distance for twenty guineas, and the three had first prizes.
From Henry Colburn’s London “calendar of amusements,” 1840:
From “Eccentric Cricket Matches,” Strand, 1903:
A few winters ago, when a fine stretch of water in Sheffield Park was frozen over, his lordship [the Earl of Sheffield] organized a match on the ice, in which several of his house guests appeared. All the players used skates, the wicket-keeper, as might be imagined, having no little difficulty to keep still, and the bowlers being continually no-balled for running, or rather skating, over the crease. The beauty of ice-cricket lies in the fact that the batsman may score half-a-dozen runs while the fieldsman is endeavouring to regain his feet and pick up the ball, which may be lodged in a bank of snow.
Lake Superior contains a phantom island. After the American Revolution, the Treaty of Paris established the boundary between the United States and Canada as running “through Lake Superior northward of the Isles Royal and Phelipeaux to the Long Lake,” following an inaccurate map created by John Mitchell. In the 1820s surveyors discovered that Phelipeaux does not exist, and the boundary had to be negotiated anew.
Around the same time, the dramatically named Mountains of Kong appeared on maps of West Africa, apparently placed there originally by English cartographer James Rennell. It wasn’t until the 1880s that French explorer Louis Gustave Binger discovered that they don’t exist either. They persisted in Goode’s World Atlas until 1995.
On Nov. 29, 1970, on a remote hiking trail in Norway’s Isdalen Valley, a university professor and his two daughters discovered the body of a woman lying in a burned-out campfire. In the grass around her were a dozen pink sleeping pills, a packed lunch, an empty quart bottle of liqueur, and two plastic bottles that smelled of gasoline. She had died from a combination of burns and carbon monoxide poisoning, and an autopsy showed traces of at least 50 sleeping pills in her body. Her neck bore a bruise, possibly the result of a blow.
In the ensuing investigation, Bergen police found that the woman had visited the city three times between March and November that year. On the last visit she had checked into the Hotel Rosenkrantz for one day, then moved to the Hotel Holberg, where she had remained in her room and seemed watchful. On Nov. 23 she paid cash for the room and asked the receptionist to call a taxi for her. Her body was found six days later.
Her identity was an insoluble puzzle. She had checked into the Holberg as a Belgian named Elisabeth Leenhower, but police discovered that she had maintained at least nine different identities and spoke German, English, Dutch, and French, all with an indistinct accent. She had left two suitcases in a locker at the train station, but all identifying information had been removed: The labels had been cut out of her clothes, and even the name tag of a bottle of cream had been scraped away. Sketches of the woman were circulated throughout Norway, but no one knew her.
After interviewing 100 people in a three-week investigation, the police formally ruled her death a suicide. On Feb. 5, 1971, a procession of 18 officers bore her to the cemetery where she lies today. Her identity has never been discovered.
See The Somerton Man.
Henry Kettle painted this pyramid anamorphosis around 1770. If a mirrored pyramid is placed at the center of the canvas, then each of its sides reflects a portion of one of the four distorted heads … producing a true hidden portrait when viewed from above.
Some notable clock faces: the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower in Manhattan (upper left), the Palace of Westminster in London (upper right), the Allen-Bradley Clock Tower in Milwaukee (lower left), the Spasskaya Tower at the Kremlin (lower right), and the Abraj Al Bait tower in Mecca (center).
Unbelievably, these are shown to scale. Each of the four faces on the Abraj Al Bait is 43 meters square; the minute hand alone is 22 meters long.
The Palace of Westminster is unusual in that its clock uses the numeral IV — most clocks with Roman numerals use IIII in the fourth position, for unclear reasons.
In 1830, architect Thomas Willson proposed housing London’s dead in a gigantic pyramid, “a metropolitan cemetery on a scale commensurate with the necessities of the largest city in the world, embracing prospectively the demands of centuries, sufficiently capacious to receive 5,000,000 of the dead, where they may repose in perfect security, without interfering with the comfort, the health, the business, the property, or the pursuits of the living.”
Willson’s necropolis would have covered 18 acres but would consolidate graves that would require 50 times that space in a conventional graveyard. With a base the size of Russell Square and a height greater than St. Paul’s, its granite-faced bulk would surpass the great pyramid of Giza. Through an Egyptian portal visitors would enter a surrounding enclosure decorated with statuary, cenotaphs, and monuments, as well as a chapel, a register office, and dwellings for the keeper, the clerk, the sexton, and the superintendent. They could ascend any side of the pyramid by a vast flight of stairs, at the top reaching an obelisk crowned with an observatory.
“This grand mausoleum,” Willson announced, “will go far towards completing the glory of London. It will rise in majesty over its splendid fanes and lofty towers,–teaching the living to die, and the dying to live for ever.” The cost he estimated at £2.5 million, but with 30,000 interments per year at £5 each, the pyramid would bring in £150,000 per year, saving £12.5 million over the course of a century in a project whose necessity, sadly, was certain to endure.
“However, the pyramid cemetery, instead of rearing its gloomy mountain-side into the clouds, and casting the shadow of death over every part of London in succession in the course of the day, exists only upon paper,” runs a contemporary report. “The dividends were too remote, and joint-stock people would not wait one hundred years for one hundred per cent.”
On March 19, 1884, the French cargo ship Frigorifique was cruising through heavy fog in the Bay of Biscay when the British steamer Rumney loomed out of nowhere and struck it amidships. The French crew scrambled aboard the Rumney, and their own ship disappeared into the fog.
Some time later, while the injured Rumney was still lowering its boats, another ship hove out of the fog and struck it amidships. This proved to be the empty Frigorifique — her jammed rudder had led her in a great circle through the fog to return for a second collision.
Both ships sank this time, but the crews escaped safely in the Rumney‘s lifeboats.
If a pane of green glass gives the things behind it a green colour, it turns white to green, red to black, yellow to greenish yellow, blue to greenish blue. The white pane should, therefore, make everything whitish, i.e. it should make everything pale; and, then why shouldn’t it turn black to grey? — Even a yellow glass makes things darker, should a white glass make things darker too?
– Wittgenstein, Remarks on Colour, 1977
‘Our Second Experiment,’ the Professor announced, as Bruno returned to his place, still thoughtfully rubbing his elbows, ‘is the production of that seldom-seen-but-greatly-to-be-admired phenomenon, Black Light! You have seen White Light, Red Light, Green Light, and so on: but never, till this wonderful day, have any eyes but mine seen Black Light! This box,’ carefully lifting it upon the table, and covering it with a heap of blankets, ‘is quite full of it. The way I made it was this — I took a lighted candle into a dark cupboard and shut the door. Of course the cupboard was then full of Yellow Light. Then I took a bottle of Black ink, and poured it over the candle: and, to my delight, every atom of the Yellow Light turned Black! That was indeed the proudest moment of my life! Then I filled a box with it. And now would any one like to get under the blankets and see it?’
– Lewis Carroll, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, 1893
Pennsylvania dentist Lytle S. Adams had a bright idea in 1942: Since Japanese cities were largely built of paper, bamboo, and other flammable materials, they could be disrupted effectively with fire. And a novel way to spread fire in public buildings would be to release bats bearing incendiary devices. Rigged bats dropped over an industrial city would roost in the buildings as living time bombs, and the resulting fires would spread chaos over a wide area.
Surprisingly, the government liked the idea, and it set about designing a bomblike canister in which a thousand bats could be dropped from an altitude of 5,000 feet. At 1,000 feet the container would open, releasing the bats over a wide area. Ten bombers carrying 100 canisters each could unleash a million intelligent bombs over the industrial cities of Osaka Bay.
Preliminary tests were encouraging, even setting a New Mexico air base accidentally ablaze, but the project evolved too slowly and was eventually eclipsed by the atom bomb. In a way that’s a shame: “Think of thousands of fires breaking out simultaneously over a circle of 40 miles in diameter for every bomb dropped,” Adams had said. “Japan could have been devastated, yet with small loss of life.”
In 1929 the schooner A. Ernest Mills sank after a collision off the coast of North Carolina.
Four days later it bobbed to the surface again. Its cargo of salt had dissolved.
In the summer of 1978, four men rowed a small boat into the deep water off Dassen Island, South Africa, to fish for barracuda. When mist overtook them, they weighed anchor and tried to return to shore, but visibility dropped so quickly that they were soon lost.
Mac Macgregor was in the bow, trying to peer through the mist, when he felt a bump on the right-hand side and discovered two dolphins there, repeatedly forcing the bow to the left, where two more dolphins were swimming.
“I realized that the dolphins’ odd behavior could be significant and shouted to Mr. [Kobus] Stander to steer to the left,” Macgregor said. “Mr. Stander pulled the tiller round wildly and we just managed to graze past the rocks.”
They continued some further distance through the mist, the dolphins continuing to force the prow to the left, and presently they just missed some further rocks — again on the right. “I was getting a strange feeling that we ought to leave our destiny to the dolphins,” Stander said, “since it was clear they had twice prevented us from running on to the rocks.”
The dolphins led the boat for half an hour until it entered calm water, then played around it briefly and disappeared. “When the mist cleared and the houses of Ysterfontein could be discerned, we were speechless,” Stander said. “We had intended going ashore at Dassen Island. We had never dreamed that the dolphins would guide us to Ysterfontein.”
In 1972, when her cabin cruiser sank in the Indian Ocean off Mozambique, a South African woman set out to swim the 25 miles to land. She was trailed by half a dozen sharks, attracted by a cut on her foot. But “as the sharks circled closer … two dolphins appeared at her side,” the New York Times reported. “The young woman, Yvonne Vladislavich, said that the dolphins guarded her against marauding sharks, escorted her as she swam and helped her stay afloat when her strength was failing.” They protected her until she was able to climb onto a buoy, from which she was later rescued.
(“Dolphins Rescue Fishermen,” South African Panorama, August 1978; “South African Reports a Rescue by Dolphins,” New York Times, Sept. 10, 1972.)
While Paulet St. John, Esq., was fox hunting in September 1733, his horse plunged into a chalk pit 25 feet deep. The horse survived and went on to win the Hunters’ Stakes at Winchester the following year.
St. John was so impressed that he erected a monument on Farley Mount, where it stands to this day.
He named the horse “Beware Chalk Pit.”
On Sept. 1, 1939, a flock of 850 sheep were bedded down for the night in Pine Canyon in the Raft River Mountains of northwestern Utah when a passing thunderstorm wet both the ground and the animals. A single stroke of lightning killed 835 sheep, 98 percent of the flock.
Similarly (below), two bolts of lightning killed 654 sheep on Mill Canyon Peak in the American Fork Canyon in north-central Utah on July 18, 1918.
So avoid northern Utah. On the other hand:
A ploughman in a field, Reuben Stephenson, of Langtoft, England, was struck down by lightning, when both his horses were killed on the spot, and he was so much injured that his life was at first despaired of. In consequence of the accident, Dr. Allison of Birdlington, attended upon the man, and whilst doing so, found he was suffering from a malignant cancer of the lip. When Mr. Stephenson had sufficiently recovered from the effects of the lightning, an arrangement was entered into for the removal of the cancer by an operation; but, strange to say, just when this was on the point of being performed, a minute inspection was made of the cancer, when it was discovered that from the time of the accident, a healing process had been commenced in the lip; this being so evident, the operation was, of course, not attempted; and, in a moderate space of time, the man was completely cured.
– Lancet, 1855, quoted in Paul Fitzsimmons Eve, A Collection of Remarkable Cases in Surgery, 1857
Why do ghosts wear clothes? If a ghost is the spirit of a living creature, how can it carry its inanimate garments into the afterlife?
“How do you account for the ghosts’ clothes — are they ghosts, too?” asked the Saturday Review in 1856. “What an idea, indeed! All the socks that never came home from the wash, all the boots and shoes which we left behind us worn out at watering-places, all the old hats which we gave to crossing-sweepers … What a notion of heaven — an illimitable old clothes-shop, peopled by bores, and not a little infested with knaves!”
In 1906 psychic researcher Andrew Lang argued that, far from confusing the notion of an afterlife, ghosts’ clothing might even help to corroborate its existence. “A pretty instance occurs, I think, in a biography of Warren Hastings. The anecdote, as I remember it, avers that at a meeting of the Council of the East India Company in Calcutta one of the members (I think several shared the experience) saw his own father, wearing a hat of a peculiar shape, hitherto strange to the observers. In due time came a ship from London bearing news of the father’s death, and a large and well-selected assortment of the new hat fashionable in England. It was the hat worn by the paternal appearance! If the circumstances are recorded in the minutes of the proceedings of the Council, which I have not consulted, then the hat of that spook becomes important as evidence.”
Even if we grant that a dead person can convey his most personal belongings into the afterlife, how are we to account for phantom ships, coaches, and railway trains? In his 1879 book The Spirit World, American spiritualist Eugene Crowell decided that, rather than being the spirits of “dead” earthly conveyances, these are constructed in the afterlife by the ghosts of mariners and railwaymen who want to ply their trades again. Spectral ships “glide over the waves without sinking,” Crowell explained, “and earthly winds propel them at rates of speed which our ships cannot attain.” If that’s true, then perhaps some ghostly tailor is simply manufacturing clothes for the naked spirits of the newly dead. Decent of him.
adj. producing ducks or geese
A deservedly rare word; it arises from the medieval belief that the barnacle goose (Branta leucopsis) grew underwater, emerging from barnacles that fell from trees. In his Topographia Hibernica of 1188, Welsh monk Giraldus Cambrensis wrote:
There are likewise here many birds called barnacles,(barnacle geese) which nature produces in a wonderful manner, out of her ordinary course. They resemble the marsh-geese, but are smaller. Being at first, gummy excrescenses from pine-beams floating on the waters, and then enclosed in shells to secure their free growth, they hang by their beaks, like seaweeds attached to the timber. Being in progress of time well covered with feathers, they either fall into the water or take their flight in the free air, their nourishment and growth being supplied, while they are bred in this very unaccountable and curious manner, from the juices of the wood in the sea-water. I have often seen with my own eyes more than a thousand minute embryos of birds of this species on the seashore, hanging from one piece of timber, covered with shells, and, already formed.
Apparently the belief arose because these geese were never seen to nest like other birds; it was not yet understood that birds migrate.
In the Indian state of West Bengal lies a district known as Cooch Behar which is curiously merged with its neighbor, Bangladesh. The Indian land contains 92 Bangladeshi enclaves, and the Bangladeshi land contains 106 Indian enclaves.
The largest Indian enclave itself contains a Bangladeshi enclave, and that Bangladeshi enclave contains a bare hectare of Indian farmland known as Dahala Khagrabari. That makes Dahala Khagrabari the world’s only instance of an enclave in an enclave in an enclave.
See Concentric Landmarks.