The beauty of the curious mind

There’s this story of a seven year old Florida boy with Down’s syndrome who hardly talks but expresses himself admirably with gestures and sounds his relatives understand well, but during one of his favored walks with his father in the swamp forest near their home in Citrus County, Lukie stands still, listens carefully, looks intently in a certain direction, moves his arm in a high arc as if indicating something huge and makes excited noises, but to his father these utterances and gestures are new, he does not understand his son, and when on subsequent walks the same performance repeats itself a few times, he is baffled, until a National Geographic program on tv shows a herd of elephants and the boy dances around excitedly making the same noises and gesture. He has seen elephants where his father saw only swamp forest. Citrus County wás the abode of elephants in prehistoric times when early native hunters were after them. Even an immaculate mastodon skeleton chipped by spears has been unearthed. Lyall Watson suggests the ‘elephantness’ has never left the place.

I was reminded of  British writer Mark Shand who traveled India on the back of an elephant, Tara, a  sensitive and intelligent female he bought and saved from the hands of a barbarous owner who had starved her. Decades ago I translated his book ‘India by Elephant’ and two wonderful details spring to mind. In Orissa Tara gets very agitated and refuses to cross a wide plain, so they have to circle around it, a detour of many hours. Later Mark learns that the plain has been the scene of an atrocious battle between rivaling kings centuries before the advent of the British, a bloody event in which numberless elephants of their cavalries were massacred. The second takes place when Shand, who after weeks of toil and the instructions of a nimble mahout has mastered the art of steering Tara by kneading her neck muscles with his toes, has trouble with an ascent because Tara zigzags like a drunk. After being scolded twice, Tara stops, picks up a handful of pebbles with the business end of her trunk and puts them on the flat of her head for Shand to see. The pebbles are mean and sharp and it was the elephant’s way of explaining her zigzagging to avoid the painful stones.

There was this five year old  English girl who after a walk with her parents during which she had witnessed horses jumping in a field,  upon coming home  took a piece of paper and a stick of charcoal drawing with a few quick strokes what she had seen, like an under age zen master. The drawing was amazingly perfect as if from a seasoned artist, the exact movement of the animal captured in a few black strokes. And so she drew all she saw, little jewels of precocious mastery. There should have been a bright future for the girl, but she needed special education; she was a dreamer given to incessant staring out of the window in class. ‘Thanks’ to special education the girl learned to read and write, averagely, but her strange gift withered. The last time she manifested it, was during a lost moment in class when she was 13. Distractedly she noticed the condense on the window next to her desk and with a few quick strokes of her forefinger drew a golf player about to hit the ball in a perfect stance that radiated motion. The condense ran and dried up;  it was the last drawing she ever produced, making Lyall Watson wonder about the desirability of special education in cases like these, substituting a precious gift with a few mediocre skills. During the interview he suggested  that society wasn’t about to change until keen attention is paid to school kids staring out of the class room window all day. I enjoyed that comment, for at school I have stared out of windows a lot and whatever caught my passionate interest happened in my girlfriend’s bed and after my school days were over.

There was this office computer churning out all kinds of programs and images after hours whilst the plug was out of the socket. It was noticed by a cleaner and verified by a camera. There are people in whose hands every electrical appliance breaks down; reversely almost any big firm has an employee whose presence alone is  often enough to repair a crashed  computer. There was this English lady who dialed the number of  her son in law in Birmingham but by some fluke got connected to astronauts in space, a technical hitch in the communication system that was thoroughly examined but never explained. There have been cars that of their own accord overrun their owners, not by accident, but several times as if making sure the driver is dead, and in all the examined cases the victims had been notoriously hateful towards their automobiles. There was a lowly old Amazonian Indian in Brazil who cured cataracts with a rusty knife. Even imprisoned for unlawfully practicing medicine the cataracts lined up before the jail house and because  guards had been cured as well, the patients had access to his cell and he continued to help hundreds of people. Tony Ekpoa, as he was called, did not mind one way or the other. ‘Outside I do this, inside I do this, no difference,’ he offered. There is Watson’s morbid conclusion that one in every thousand deceased is not really dead when buried or cremated, based on the flaws of the established methods of death detection,  gruesome reports of grave clearers and historical research.  There is the shaman of the tiny island of Butari-Tari in the Pacific who at a certain date calls the porpoises from the sea. There is the little known fact that enormously bulky sumo wrestlers in Japan, when they turn their backs to the mat, their careers and national renown, use the same discipline that brought them their masses in reverse and become ordinary, unrecognizable, standard size citizens in a matter of months. There is such strong evidence that the attraction between male and female is purely biochemical and olfactory (mutual pheromones perform a lecherous dance with each other long before partners become aware of the attraction), that perfume manufacturers spend fortunes on finding the secret chemical of allure, Chanel5 so far coming closest. There are very few weird phenomena in the world of anthropology, zoology, paleonthology, geology, environmental studies, biology and marine biology – in all of which Watson held degrees – or related fields that have escaped his scrutiny and after some extensive research he even established that in households where poltergeist phenomena (like randomly flying objects) are rife, often a young hysterical female adolescent with a hell of a lot of pent up anger is present, or less frequently, some heavy emotional issues in the familial atmosphere are at stake.

Among the most likeable of people I know I have a special weakness for the curious and therefore eclectic minds. There was no limit to Lyall Watson’s curiosity, he filled over twenty books with it’s fruits and a lot of the titles served to attract masses of new information from readers all over the world supplying him with a wealth of research material from which he could choose as he pleased to create his next wonderful study of the poetic beauty of the hidden life on this planet, changing my own outlook in life to the extent that these days there is much less in this world I reject out of hand than earlier in life.

Watson had an insatiable curiosity for the unexplained, in so many words becáuse as a boy he had been raised by a black shaman, before he excelled in school and at the university. He  studied shamans in all corners of the world and they seem to have at least one thing in common. They all state in one way or the other that needing a specific herb for a specific patient, they wander off into the wild and ‘are guided by the spirit’ of the plant, usually finding it pretty quickly by instinct alone, even in the wrong season. He also found that shamanism is rarely hereditary and where it is, it is usually bogus. He marveled at the existence of an adult shamanistic system even in Madagascar that had been populated for a meagre eight centuries, way too short for an effective system of healing to develop by trial and error. There must have been something to the spirit of the plants, or maybe a form of intuition that one can not rightfully claim as his own and therefore calls a spirit or God, one’s own personality or ideas being conspicuously absent in such moments.

The second experience that blew Watsons mind to the extent that he never published any of it, took place when living in Ireland, already wealthy and widely read, still financing and conducting his own researches. He was called by an American biologist in Hawaii, who asked him whether he had any experience with psylocibine, the active ingredient of  a small mushroom growing preferably on untilled pastures on a mixture of clay and sand, grazed and shat on by cows or sheep. Precisely the sort of land Watson lived on. 

He hadn’t.

The American colleague convinced him to ingest one kg of freshly harvested mushrooms  and see what happens. One kg seemed like an atrocious amount, but the American swore no harm would be done, as he and many of his friends had done the same. He would not reveal what would happen but asked Watson to report back afterwards.

‘For what I experienced I have no frame of reference, so I never published it. Besides no one would believe me, so I saw no point,’ Watson said to me.

Apparently three quarters of an hour after ingesting the last of the mushrooms, Watson found himself without transition in a world where nothing was like anything he had ever  seen on earth, even in fairytales. He was clear minded, thought straight and nothing impaired his vision. He saw life forms incomparable with any life form he had studied on earth, and he was a specialist. He was purely a viewer, there was no communication, as if he was invisible. After three quarters of an hour he was back in his cottage in Ireland as if a film that had taken up all of his consciousness had been switched off as suddenly as it had appeared. When he phoned his colleague in Hawaii, the man replied: ‘Yeah, that’s what we all experience here. But how to describe a color no one else has ever seen?’ He suffered no ill effects.

The admittedly vague hypothesis Watson had to offer was that this ‘civilisation’ had managed to inscribe and program the genetic makeup of the mushroom and  send it off into space like a concealed video message. Mushroom spores have been known to survive interstellar travel on or in comets, in fact there is evidence that part of the natural world was colonized this way, including the outbreaks of mysterious pandemics like the plague, as suddenly disappearing after it’s rampage on earth as it had appeared, and more recently hiv.

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The lure of the exceptional

Over twenty years ago I listened to Lyall Watson like a modern kid glued to his WarCraft; I absorbed what he said to  me like a sponge, but I must beg forgiveness for any errors;  having released my archives along the way together with almost all of of my books, I have to do this by memory alone, but I trust the gist of it measures up to the truth.

Lyall Watson’s life story, as little as I have gleaned of it,  reads like a mystifying converging of extraordinary good luck. Already loaded with degrees and barely in his twenties, after having served as the director of the Johannesburg Zoo and an expedition leader, he loitered on a Greek island, amazed by the numberless gifts of unknown stories the hippies carried back from their spiritual and not so spiritual wanderings  through the Middle- and Far East. He listened, categorized their information in a mind that never needed a computer for its references, did his research and wrote Supernature. He tried in vain to flog the manuscript to several publishers in Great Britain and finally left it on spec in the care of the last. He was in a hurry to witness the incredible feats of healing by a certain cast of shamans in the mountains of Luzon in the northern Phillippines, of whom he had heard too many stories to ignore and this was long before even camera’s and specialists could find no fault in registering bare hands and underarms performing surgery on patients. simply disappearing into a body, taking out some tissue and closing the wound with a caress leaving no trace but a little blood, YouTube will enlighten the curious no doubt, but this was the very early seventies.

Lyall Watson visited the healers in and around Baguio who all seemed to belong to the same local Christian  sect with its temple and headquarters in Manilla. He was as baffled by the operations as his predecessors were, but when he took a sample of some removed tissue to the fridge in his hotel room in order to examine it the following day, it disappeared into thin air, which constituted a shock to his scientific mind and a curious confrontation with the nature and substance of reality. Something inside told the young biologist there was more to this specific brand of shamanism than the professed Gift of God. After all, by a stroke of good luck he himself as a little boy was more or less raised by a native male nanny, a shaman, his farmer father being sent off to the war for the British  and his Dutch mother left to a considerable workload. The black shaman, a wonderfully kind man, took the little boy to his school an hour’s walk from the homestead to protect him from robbers, collected him from school and spent his free time with him. ‘You can point to any leaf in that tree,’ he would joke and five year old Malcolm, as he was called then, pointed delightedly to a big one high up that caught the light of the sun. His nanny said ‘Hold up your hands,’ snapped his fingers and the leaf fell obediently into the boy’s hands. ‘I learned the language of what is called magic almost before I could talk,’ Watson said to me. The shaman also seems to have appeared as a terrifying ghost one day when young Malcolm for some reason had to walk to school alone and wás in fact ambushed by two marauding riflemen, who beat a hasty retreat on seeing the imposing eight foot tall demon who appeared bristling  as if out of the blue but quickly manifested himself as his trusted nanny  when they were gone. 

In order to uncover the secret of the Baguio healers, Watson decided, he had to stay a long time,  gather their trust and if possible befriend one of them hoping he would learn more in the intimacy of friendship, and after more than six months he was close friends with a young healer whom he trusted, let’s call him Paolo. After months of long evening talks on the verandah of the small place Lyall Watson had rented, he asked Paolo what the real secret was behind their miraculous powers, and Paolo told him a story the young biologist had a lot of trouble to digest. Centuries ago, before the islands became Spanish, an alien and friendly people had descended from the sky and given a heavy, shiny metal disc the size of a small frisbee to the chief and the shaman of their tribe. This disc was to be kept locked away and its existence was not to be known to any outsider. The disc was responsible for the healers’ power.

As mentioned earlier, Lyall Watson was already so engrossed with life’s mysteries on this planet that he had  little time for extraterrestial speculations, but apparently young Paolo was a firm believer that their god was in fact an astronaut from elsewhere in the universe. It took the scientist another month to persuade his healer friend to show him the disc, and a Sunday afternoon was chosen because then Paolo could gain access unseen and no healer was practicing on the day of the Lord. Paolo would take his car to Manilla, come back with the disc, show it to his friend and take it back again.

On the appointed day Lyall Watson waited in vain and decided Paolo had run into trouble or had changed his mind; after all he wás committing sacrilege.

But Monday morning he was warned by another friend that Paolo had met with a fatal accident. In a hairpin on the way from Manilla to Baguio his car had veered off the road and his body had been burned beyond recognition; police had already taken him to the morgue. Shocked beyond belief Lyall Watson  paid a visit to the morgue, eyed the charred remains of his friend,  made for the place of the accident,  climbed down a steep hillside to inspect the wreckage of the car and was astonished to find no burn marks on the upholstery. There had been many documented cases of spontaneous combustion for which science always failed to give an adequate explanation, but Watson could never have guessed it would happen at such close quarters. Overcome with dread he fled to Bali where he rented a fishing boat with a small crew to explore neighboring islands. They were caught in a storm and were beached on Nus Tarian. There he would stay almost a year studying nature’s wonders, marveling for example over a species of fish that carried an accurate map of a large surface of the sea bottom in its mind. Sometimes, depending on the position of the moon, low tide leaves sandy beaches half a mile wide, randomly covered with watery holes the size of a tiny pond. It often happens that fish are caught in these tidal pools by the speed of the outgoing tide and usually they have to bide their time until high tide comes to save them. But not this species. Often Watson watched amazed how the fish leaps from one pool into the next that he could not have seen with his eyes, never failing, right back to the sea. The kids often ran after the jumping fish cheering them on. Those children of Nus Tarian literally see emotions and sounds in various colours, always consistently. The youngsters knew when their fathers, often for days fishing far away at sea, would return home and ran to the beach long before any irregularity appeared on the horizon. He taught English in the little village school and witnessed a prophetic clash between the imam and a young shaman girl Tia who performed miracles of healing, talked with animals and danced like a goddess. Tia tragically disappeared from Nus Tarian and Lyall Watson returned to London, shocked again to find Supernature was sold out for the umpteenth time, had been translated in over twenty languages and had become a cult hit, like for me when traveling India where I laid hands on the book because every backpacker just carried one, always eager to exchange, and read bits and pieces to my new wife.

The proceeds of Supernature and some twenty following titles enabled him  to conduct independent research for the rest of his life, possibly every scientist’s dream. From readers of Supernature alone the publisher received eight hundred letters per week in all major languages, often supplying Watson with fodder for his following book, like the 5-year old daughter of an Venetian hotel porter, who could, without much ado and certainly no sweat, turn a tennis ball inside out but lost the ability as she grew older.

This was the first story Lyall Watson told me that never made the press and come to think of it, it has a connection with the second.

[to be continued]

In Memory of Lyall Watson († 2008)

Not so long ago I became aware of the untimely death of my favorite author, biologist Lyall Watson, a brilliant polyscientist and riveting storyteller with an uncanny sense of the poetry in the sciences of life itself, probing many as yet unexplained facts with tentative hypotheses. He showed an alpha mind like me the beauty and magic of various sciences, practically saying forget your speculations about extraterrestial life, life on earth is teeming with the magic of the unexplained and unexplainable, although at a certain stage of his life even he had a harrowing experience making him wonder about extraterrestial intelligence.

I was shocked by the news of his death in 2008 and that I, a faithful follower on the internet, had missed it, probably because at the same time I was too involved in the terminal stages of my own wife’s cancer. This is what I wrote to his Australian niece Katherine LyallWatson, who is gathering material for a biography of her dearest uncle.

Bob Snoijink

Dear Katherine,
In the early nineties I have been amazingly fortunate to have interviewed your uncle in his tiny London basement pied à terre for a Dutch magazine. His publisher had given me scant chance, saying I was the 150th journalist seeking an interview with the elusive biologist that year and mentioning he was last seen, purely by chance, by a holidaying employee of the publisher’s in the Amazone area. I rang the number he gave me anyway and two days later I was sitting in a room used only for brief periods to conduct administration, across from my favourite author, listening as spellbound as I had read all of his books, buying them hungrily on the strength of the name alone, never being disappointed and remembering nights during long train rides across the Indian subcontinent in 1984 reading mind blowing bits and pieces of Supernature to the woman I had just married. She said I could always wake her up for more.
The occasion made for an article I am still proud of after a long career in feature journalism, being retired and all,and I still remember most of the details, being forgetful and all. Books being a burden to a traveller, I have discarded most of mine in the course of the years, but thirteen Lyall Watson titles will grace my modest book case to the end.
I told your uncle I loved Gifts of Unknown Things best and he smiled, it was hís favourite as well. And this book was written well before its relevance to the fierce struggle between some factions of the Islam and other creeds – especially nature inspired shamanistic or magic ones as the book so poetically and tragically describes – became as apparent as today. In that respect Gifts of Unknown Things could be seen as a prophetic warning.
I asked him if he had ever experienced anything for which he had no explanation nor a plausible hypothesis and which he had not dared to trust to paper for fear of being even more dismissed than he already was, and he told me two staggering stories that haunt me to this day. The first was about the unbelievable chain of events that led to his stay on ‘Nus Tarian’ in the Indonesian archipellago after having escaped in shock from the Phillippines, and later to the birth of the book, and the second concerned what happened to him after digesting one kg of freshly gathered magic mushrooms whilst living in Ireland, on the strength of a long distance call from a Hawaiian biologist who convinced him to do just that and report back.
If you are not yet aware of the details of those stories I’d be happy to write and send you a Word document. Please send me an e-mail to that effect. snoijink@planet.nl
Lyall Watson has shown me, an alpha mind, the poetry of science, the mystery of the as yet unexplained, the magic of life on earth, so much within reach as to blot out any interest in speculations about extraterrestial life, of which he nevertheless seems to have gotten such a whiff as to make him bolt from the Phillippines and recuperate one year on Nus Tarian.
Rare are the books that make you fall in a kind of love, longing to fill every spare moment with its pages, feeling sorry that the story does not go on forever and understanding also why this should be so. All of the Watson-books I read have this quality.
What an uncle to have had, if three hours of his presence have already been so enthralling.
We exchanged books – I had spent a year on a desert island in the Pacific, so he wrote in a new copy of Gifts (that had gone lost) ‘To a fellow islander’ and before we said our goodbyes he asked me if I was interested to know the real name of Nus Tarian. Stupidly I declined, having given the island of my stay in the Fiji Archipellago a different name in my book as well (at the behest of the neighboring islanders). But afterwards I banged my head for I was and remained very curious. Right now I’d probably just savor the knowledge, but at the time I’d have kept the info to myself and would surely have liked to visit the island where Lyall Watson has spent a year of magic beauty and tragedy before returning to London and seeing to his astonishment a notice in every bookstore window saying the umpteenth edition of Supernature was being ordered, the manuscript of which having failed to raise the interest of publishers before he took off to the Phillippines to spend a year amongst the astonishing healers who at the time were not yet very well known.
I notice I could keep on writing, but may be I have already overstayed my welcome.
If any biography is going to appear, I’ll be very interested.
thank you for your time

[to be continued]