Fortean falls

You'd hardly expect to go outside one day and be bombarded with animals from the sky: it never literally rains cats and dogs. But, strange to say, there are, from time to time, downpours of smaller creatures.


On 16 June 1984, the owner of a gas station in north Yorkshire, England, found shellfish and starfish peppering the forecourt and canopy of his garage. Some of the shellfish were still alive, yet the garage was 45 miles from the sea. A month earlier, Ron Langton had been sitting in his London home when he heard loud slapping sounds outside. The next morning he found half a dozen flounders and whiting, about four to six inches long, in his yard and on his roof.


Such falls aren't new. The Iranian religious text, the Bundahis, mentions a rain of cosmic frogs. And in the 19th century, the eccentric American journalist Charles Fort collected and published so many anecdotes about objects and animals plunging from the sky that the strange precipitants became known as "Forteans".


Long ago, people confronted with such a freakish and bizarre phenomenon would probably have been terrified by it. Were there moments, it must have been asked, when chaos and madness took over the cosmic reins? Even today it could seem very frightening. In the midst of an amphibian or piscian deluge, isn't it conceivable that you might think you were witnessing a supernatural event or perhaps that you were dreaming or had temporarily lost touch with reality?


There's a difference between frogs in stones and frogs falling from the sky – and not merely one of scale. As William Buckland showed, it's possible to partly reconstruct the phenomenon of frogs in stones under controlled conditions. but the same isn't true of a fortean fall. You simply have to be there when one happens, or else hear about it through the grapevine. This makes showers of frogs and fish more problematic, less immediately accessible to scientific investigation.


Scientists are suspicious of anecdotes – and rightly so. On an individual basis, it's hard to judge how likely they are to be true. People make mistakes, they overlook important details, exaggerate or just plain fantasize, and their stories tend to become more and more distorted with each retelling. But when a large number of reports and tales of fortean falls are examined closely, a pattern begins to emerge. It's the recognition of this pattern or recurrent theme among the observational data which provides the first precious clue in building a tentative hypothesis.


In most cases, a shower produces only one type of deposit – all small frogs, say, or all similar shells of a certain size. This immediately suggests that whatever raises the objects in the first place must either be selective in what it picks up or , more probably, the objects separate in the air according to weight and shape, before being dropped. Some kind of centripetal action is evidently at work and, given our modern knowledge of meteorology, the culprit isn't hard to find.


The power of swirling winds to elevate objects is well known. Tornadoes demolish property and sweep up debris into terrifying, visible vortices. This remarkable description of an incident on 9 April 1947, comes from Snowden D. Flora's Tornadoes of the United States:


Al, hearing the roar, stepped to the door and opened it to see what was happening. It was torn from his grasp and disappeared. He was carried away, over the tree tops. Bill went to the door to investigate the disappearance of his friend and found himself also sailing through the Texas atmosphere, but in a slightly different direction from the course his friend was taking. Both landed about two hundred feet from the house with only minor injuries. Al started back and found Bill uncomfortably wrapped in wire. He unwound his friend and both headed back for Al's house, crawling because the wind was too strong to walk against. They reached the site of the house only to find that all the house except the floor had disappeared. The almost incredible part of the story is that Al's wife and two children were huddled on a divan, uninjured.


In cases where fortean falls have been witnessed, stormy weather was almost invariably reported in or around the area at the time. Typical is the story of Mab Hollins who, as a ten-year-old in 1932, was working on her parents' farm in the village of Rode, in Somerset, England. A thunderstorm threatened and she felt what she thought were huge raindrops. The drops, however, turned out to be a downpour of tiny frogs. Her dog went wild as the little animals became entangled in its hair. Then the storm broke and Mab ran home, where she was chastised by her mother for telling lies. The next day her father searched for the frogs but found none – not surprisingly They would almost certainly have been washed away by the heavy rain or eaten by birds.


Mab never saw what lifted the frogs into the air. Like most people in Britain and in many other parts of the world she'd never see a tornado, a whirlwind, or a waterspout. These are rare phenomena in most places and short-lived, too, so they don't afford much opportunity for observation. What's more, if they do pick up objects, including live animals, this debris is likely to be carried for quite a way before finally being deposited, by which time the vortex responsible for the levitation is likely to have long since disappeared. The chances of anyone witnessing both a fortean fall and rise, therefore, are extremely low. But not zero. In a letter to the Manchester Evening News, a witness gave this remarkable account of an incident that happened at Newton-le-Willows in Lancashire, England, in 1947:


I saw flocks of birds suddenly appear from behind me. Looking back, the reason was obvious, for approaching rapidly was a whirlwind which was carrying all sorts of debris. I threw by two children to the floor and lay on top of them while the wind passed by about 30 yards away. It traveled directly over a huge pond which was locally known as Thompson's Pit. Half the water together with fish, frogs, and weed was carried away and was found deposited on house tops half a mile away.


In the same year, perhaps the most famous of all fortean falls hit the quiet little community of Marksville, Louisiana. Some of the older townsfolk still recall the day, October 23, 1947, when hundreds of fish rained down from the blue, carpeting Main Street and causing cars and trucks to skid on the slippery scales. As luck would have it, dining in one of the town's restaurants at the time was A. D. Bajkov, a biologist with the US Department of Wild Life and Fisheries. Alerted by a waitress to the strange shower, he dashed outside with his wife to investigate. Later, in a letter to the journal Science, he reported that the precipitants were "freshwater fish native to local waters." Although no storm was in progress during the fall itself, Bajkov noted that he had seen "numerous small tornadoes ... the day before."


So, fortean falls can be explained in a perfectly rational way once all the relevant facts have been carefully analyzed. Yet it took a long time to crack the problem. Why? Because in the past it would have been difficult for any interested person to locate and gather sufficient reliable data. Eyewitnesses, unaware of similar sightings at other places and times, would have been perplexed, confused, and alarmed by such unusual events. Almost inevitably, their descriptions would have become the source of unrestrained speculation and folklore. And so the hard facts about what had actually happened would have become obscured by a mythical fog.


One popular belief, which survived into the middle of the 19th century, was that some small types of organism could develop directly from non-living matter. This theory of spontaneous generation, or abiogenesis, was held not only by many ordinary folk but also by some scientists. maggots, for instance, were thought to spring from decaying meat because overnight they'd just appear. Mice were held to originate from scraps of cheese and bread wrapped in rags because, after several weeks, mice would be found scuttling around inside the previously lifeless garbage. In the same way, it was thought possible that, on rare occasions, animals could be spawned among the clouds – an idea that wasn't as unreasonable as it sounds. In fact, it was a perfectly valid scientific suggestion, as long as the theory upon which it rested, spontaneous generation, remained viable. But one of the hallmarks of science is that it throws out old theories as soon as they're clearly shown to be no longer compatible with all the known facts. In 1688 the Italian physician Francesco Redi demonstrated that if flies are prevented by gauze from landing on meat, maggots never appear. Two centuries later, Louis Pasteur knocked away the last, feeble supporting column of the theory of spontaneous generation when he proved that even the smallest of life-forms, microorganisms, having living antecedents.


Today, the mystery of fortean falls is a mystery no longer thanks to science. When the lifting properties of spinning air columns, the correlation between storms and fortean falls, the identification of precipitants as local species, and the actual observation, in some cases, of creatures being lifted off the ground prior to being deposited again, are all taken together, there really can't be any doubt about what behind this remarkable effect.