Updated: Mar 8, 2020
Before I could ever have imagined myself writing for a “paranormal studies” blog (not for lack of interest, but because I did not know that there was such a “study,” and to be fair, until ten years ago, it was a pretty narrow niche in the academy), I studied environmental anthropology. I worked as a research assistant on ethnographic projects ranging from Inuit soul travel to the oil and gas industry in the American west. For a long time now, I have been obsessed with the ways that human beings relate to their environment and the nonhumans they share those environments with. And between these two interests—the paranormal and environment(s)—I have consistently noted a thread that I want to start gently pulling here on Paracultures.
This post is the first in a series I’m calling “Supernature,” both for the title of the first book in the series and the topic at hand. In the series, I’m going to look at a trend that I see in popular environmental writing to take the paranormal (let’s avoid getting bogged down in definitions for now), well, seriously, at least as a phenomenal dimension of our environment. At least, a little more seriously than the rigid frameworks of popular writing in physics (and, to my distress, much of the popular writing on religion).
Why should this be? Ecology and evolutionary biology have a long history of admitting the deep weirdness in the world of their study. J. B. S. Haldane, the British-Indian scientist and science popularizer, summarized this tendency nicely in his 1927 essay “Possible Worlds,” in which he writes: “Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” It’s an often misattributed quote (I first read it attributed to Einstein), misattributed so often, I think, for its deep impact. H.P. Lovecraft repeatedly tried to express such a thought in tentacles and wings, but Haldane spells it out much more clearly: this world is so weird that just thinking about it blows a hole through the mind that would know its weirdness.
I will write more about the theory and history behind this association between the paranormal and environmental thinking later in this series (and elsewhere—stay tuned), but now I want to turn to the first author and titular book in this series: Lyall Watson’s Supernature: A Natural History of the Supernatural (1973).
Lyall Watson (1939-2008) was the kind of public intellectual who is sorely lacking in our contemporary moment, for two reasons: he refused to specialize and he was more than willing to speculate in print, repeatedly, sometimes wildly so. Watson was an animal behaviorist by training, but he took degrees in anthropology, geology, ecology, chemistry, botany (I’m tempted to just write ‘etc’). Watson’s project in Supernature is simple: “All the best science has soft edges,” Watson writes. “Limits that are still obscure and extend without interruption into areas that are wholly inexplicable” (x). Watson’s project is a wide-ranging excursion into those edges, where they stood—let’s go ahead and emphasize this now—in 1973.
In theoretical terms, Watson’s category of “Supernature” has much more in common with Frederic Myers “Supernormal” than Charles Fort’s “Damned.” Fort pictured his data residing somewhere between the twin dominants of science and religion. Fort was the enfant terrible of science, and he did not think that his data of fishfalls and airships belonged there. He thought they represented a new and terrible (post)modern way of looking at the world. Myers and Watson, however, saw their respective collections of data as representing the bleeding edge of scientific thought. Myers wrote that the “supernormal,” (our real intellectual precursor of the term paranormal), referred to “phenomena which are beyond what usually happens–beyond, that is, in the sense of suggesting unknown psychical laws.” Of course, Myers’ data included afterlives and disembodied spirits: his project was to draw them into a vastly broadened science.
Watson’s theoretical angle in Supernature is deeply indebted to Myers, and Myers’ opus The Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death is notably present in the references of the book. Watson puts his theory of supernature this way: “The supernatural is usually defined as that which is not explicable by known forces of nature. Supernature knows no bounds. Too often we see only what we expect to see; our view of the world is restricted by the blinkers of our limited experience; but it need not be this way. Supernature is nature with all its flavors intact, waiting to be tasted. I offer it as a logical extension of the present state of science, as a solution to some of the problems with which traditional science cannot cope, and as an analgesic to modern man.” (xi)
There is so much more to say about Lyall Watson’s Supernature, its relationship to the thought of figures like Myers and Fort, and what it means to read it in 2020 (It is usually among those titles that can be bought online with a penny). I will read more deeply into Supernature, and many of Watson’s other books, here in the future. But before we do so, I want to take a moment to pause and look at a few contemporary environmental writers to see how the paranormal is appearing in popular writing on the environment today. In the meantime, one more passage from Supernature, which echoes my own thoughts on the beginning of the Supernature series and the Paracultures blog:
"Science no longer holds any absolute truths. Even the discipline of physics, whose laws once went unchallenged, has had to submit to the indignity of an Uncertainty Principle...I find this tremendously exciting." (ix)