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February 07th 2015 print

B.J. Coman

Of Bunyips and Boulia Lights

Do not be fooled that belief in fanciful creatures is a thing of the past. Indeed, it flourishes as never before.  As the ability of modern science to ‘explain’ the natural world increases, so does our need for the inexplicable

bunyipThe great thing about life is that you can discover something new every day.  Today I discovered cryptids.  Rather, I should say that I discovered the word, not what it signifies. For what it signifies is strange animals – Bigfoot, the Yowie, the Bunyip – and these are by no means novel. Everyone has heard of them. As you might have guessed, there is now a special discipline called cryptozoology (there may be a uni degree to be had here, I must check it out) and lots of people with time on their hands but not much on their minds call themselves cryptozoologists.

The cryptids, of course, are not a modern phenomenon.  They have been around for millennia.  Of all the ancient cryptifauna (if I may coin a new word), my personal favourite is the Halcyon.  In fact this bird, mentioned by both Pliny and Aelian, is a small kingfisher.  What makes the ancient Halcyon something of a cryptid though, is the early description of its nesting habits.  The bird was reputed to nest on the ocean during a period of calm weather around the winter solstice.  Here is Pliny’s description, written about the time of Christ:

They breed at midwinter, on what are called ‘the kingfisher days’, during which the sea is calm and navigable, especially in the neighbourhood of Sicily.  They make their nests a week before the shortest day, and lay a week after it.  Their nests are admired for their shape, that of a ball slightly projecting with a very narrow mouth, resembling a very large sponge; they cannot be cut with a knife, but break at a strong blow, like dry sea foam; and it cannot be discovered of what they are constructed …  They lay five eggs.

What is intriguing is Pliny’s very full description of the nest.  The account of the nesting habits has given us the term ‘halcyon days’ as describing calm and settled times. The origin of halcyon is in Greek mythology. Alcyone [Halcyon] was the daughter of Aeolus (king of the winds) who found her husband, Ceyx, drowned and, overcome with grief, cast herself into the sea where she too drowned. The gods rewarded her devotion by turning her into a kingfisher, and Aeolus (or, perhaps, Zeus) forbade the winds to blow during the “Halcyon Days”, the seven days before and the seven after the winter solstice, when legend has it that the kingfisher lays its eggs.  Ceyx was also changed into a bird, but the love between the two remained.

But do not be fooled into thinking that belief in cryptids has waned since the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment.  On the contrary, it is flourishing as never before.  It seems that as the ability of modern science to ‘explain’ the natural world around us increases, so too does our need for the inexplicable.  To put it another way, a world in which everything is ‘explained’ and familiarised becomes very boring and people cast about for an experience of ‘strangeness’. Cryptids and other unexplained ‘phenomena’ fill the bill nicely.  They are strange phenomena awaiting full scientific description and the whole delicious experience for the cryptozoologists and students of the ‘paranormal’ is in putting forward theories of explanation.  In fact, a good working description of a cryptid would be of an animal that is often seen but never captured or quantified in any way.

The other thing to notice about modern belief in this sort of stuff is the seemingly inverse relationship between education and credulity.  That is to say, as universal education has become a reality and university degrees for all is just around the corner, irrational beliefs seem to flourish as never before.  Think of witchcraft, for instance.  Television shows like Bewitched, Charmed, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch are hugely popular and I’m told that covens are springing up all over the place.  Then there are the old comic book heroes – Batman, Superman, etc. – now turning up in serious movies for adults.  But the best indicator of our increasing credulity is the television commercial.  All sorts of impossible situations and impossible happenings are presented in support of some product.  If you want to tell me that we don’t really take any notice of this rubbish then I need to know why the purveyors of these products persist in wasting their money on ineffectual ads. Perhaps Chesterton was right in his characterisation of our age:

This is a psychological age, which is the opposite of an intellectual age. It is not a question of persuading men, but of suggesting how they are persuaded. It is an age of suggestion; that is, of appeal to the irrational part of man.

I suspect that if you studied the matter closely, you would find that nearly every country has its own endemic cryptifauna.  North America has Bigfoot.  In the Himalayas they have the Yeti. Australia is particularly well endowed because in addition to the Yowie and the Bunyip, we have the Black Panther, sometimes simply referred to as the ‘giant cat’.  Furthermore, there remains the last lingering hope for rediscovery of the Thylacine in Tasmania and this animal has actually taken on the status of a cryptid.  Recent discussion of the possibility of ‘reconstituting’ the animal (so to speak) via genetic engineering technology only serves to add to interest in the beast.

Without question, the Black Panther or giant cat is now the most keenly discussed cryptid in Australia.  The poor old Bunyip is only a memory, kept alive by a few ‘older Australians’ (there are no elderly folk these days) of the sort that wear peaked caps, sit on park benches, and menace passers-by with their walking sticks and other prosthetic devices.  The demise of the bunyip is particularly sad, made all the more so by the fact that its heritage is a very ancient one.  The Aborigines knew the bunyip long before Europeans came.  For a time after European settlement, the animal was an important part of our folk history.   John Shaw Nielson has a beautiful little reference to the Bunyip in the final stanza of The Sundowner:

‘Mid the dry leaves and silvery bark
Often at nightfall he will park
Close to a homeless creek, and hear
The Bunyip paddling in the dark.

It even entered the political sphere. In 1853, W.C. Wentworth put forward a proposal for a colonial peerage.  D.H. Deniehy, a well-known public figure at the time and later a politician, was not impressed and he gave this famous riposte:

Here they all knew the common water mole was transformed into the duck-billed platypus, and in some distant emulation of this degeneration, he supposed they were to be favoured with a bunyip aristrocracy.

The term ‘bunyip aristocracy’ took hold and you will still hear it from time to time, even today.  I read that some boffins have recently decided that the Bunyip of Aboriginal legend is merely the common seal which sometimes makes its way far inland along the waterways.  I’m not sure that I would trust this explanation.  Think what would happen if the platypus had remained undiscovered until just yesterday and you or I phoned up the boffins with a description of what we had seen.  They would immediately send around a padded van with a couple of muscular gentleman to assist us to the nearest mental health facility.

But, as I say, the Bunyip is a has-been.  The cryptids of the moment are the giant cats.  Of course, some of them have been around for a while too.  The Tantanoola Tiger, for instance, must be getting a bit grey around the chops now.  Perhaps he (or she) found a mate and brought up a family because these animals definitely seem to be on the increase.  And not just down Tantanoola way.  The big cats are turning up all over the continent in increasing numbers.  I have even come across reports of giant cats with offspring in tow.  The story of their origin is almost as well known as the Book of Genesis.  While there are some variant accounts, the main explanations lie with either the escape of a circus panther in the dim past, or of a straying Armed Forces mascot which fled its masters and ‘went bush’. The US Air Force is commonly held responsible and, in this case, the animal in question is termed a cougar or mountain lion.

The way in which these animals operate is somewhat akin to the old ‘spontaneous generation’ theory held by our ancestors.  Typically, there is a single sighting reported in the local paper, followed in the matter of days by a whole rash of such events.  Sometimes, photos of indistinct footprints accompany the news items.  Invariably, the cats turn up when other news is scarce.  Mind you, our remote ancestors supposed that you needed the right conditions to generate say, mice – plenty of food and a nice pile of rubbish in the corner.  With the giant cats though, the question of habitat suitability seems not to arise.  In my part of the world (north-central Victoria) for instance, the big cats show up in some pretty harsh bushland.  It’s the type of country where even the lizards always carry a cut lunch and all the crows are just skin and bone.  And yet, these very large felids, each requiring a kilo or so of good quality meat daily, can live and breed quite happily.  What is even more remarkable, they can do so without leaving any hard evidence behind except the odd indistinct footprint.

When we move away from the animal kingdom to the much more general area of ‘paranormal happenings’ the situation is somewhat more complex.  In Australia, at any rate, paranormal events seem to be on the wane.  It is decades since I’ve read of a flying saucer abduction or of crop circles.  However, judging by the volume of overseas material on the net, I’d say that paranormal happenings are in quite a healthy state in many countries.  Sadly, one of the victims of the situation in Australia is the Min Min light. You rarely hear of it these days, even though its credentials are far better than those of the Panthers.  To make matters worse, the boffins now think they have explained the phenomenon and this will mean that another venerable Australian legend, dating back to pre-European settlement, will become a mere fact and lose all its intrigue.  The people up Boulia way in central Queensland will be hit the hardest. Not long ago, they set up a ‘multimedia experience’, the Min Min Encounter, at considerable expense. This ‘recreates the stories told by the people of the outback with animatronic mannequins and the latest in digital multimedia. The experience features a 10 metre rotating theatre, where the audience is given their very own (and very convincing!) Min Min lights experience’.

Some years ago, Professor Jack Pettigrew from the University of Queensland provided an optical explanation and data about Min Min lights in the journal of the Optometrists Association of Australia.   It’s all down to refraction of light (vehicle headlights usually) from layers of air at different temperatures. ‘A cold, dense layer of air next to the ground carries light far over the horizon to a distant observer without the usual dissipation and radiation, to produce a vivid mirage that baffles and enchants because of its unfamiliar optical properties’. According to Pettigrew, who has reproduced the phenomenon using car headlights and observers at some distance, the unusual terrain of the Channel Country ‘makes the favourable atmospheric conditions more likely, while its isolation increase the impact of a single light source since the observer knows that it cannot be produced locally but sees it apparently there in front’.

I have to say that, as a result of this, I have lost interest in the Min Min lights.  I used to enjoy listening to old timers recount their own experience of the lights and offer their own explanation (I knew people from the outback who had seen it).  The explanation I liked most had the phenomenon down to owls!   This has been investigated to some extent, and it’s not as silly as you might think.  Many years ago an article on this subject appeared in a journal called Australian Raptor Studies.  Apparently, there have been many overseas reports – how reliable I know not – of luminosity in Barn Owls, the cause of which is unknown.  A common theory is that the owls roost in tree hollows where luminous bacteria or fungi grow.  The birds are (supposedly) accidentally contaminated with this material and hence ‘glow’ at night.  There are those old timers who swear that the birds do this deliberately to attract insects.  It’s a nice theory, but I’m afraid that Professor Pettigrew has blown it apart.  Or has he?  If it’s all down to the refraction of man-made lights (as he supposes) how come the sightings date back to well before the time of the motor car and the electric light?  It’s difficult to believe that kero lamps or candles could produce light of a sufficient intensity.  Despite this, Pettigrew’s explanation seems to be pretty generally accepted.  I note that even Pravda ran the story!

I think that we have probably not heard the end of this matter, nor of flying saucers, crop circles, giant cats, and alien abductions. Which is probably just as well.  Try to imagine yourself as a media reporter faced with the task of producing interesting copy each day!  In times of peace, economic prosperity, and relative social calm, what the hell do you write about!  There comes a time when even the factional blues in the Labour Party die down for a time and the younger Royals take a break from their scandal-making activities.  It’s then that the cryptids come in handy.