First off, let me apologise for being pretentious enough to title this article ‘The Supernature’ instead of ‘The Supernatural’. The name’s crying out for an ‘a’ and an ‘l’ on the end instead of that ‘e’ but please, let me explain.
Supernature is a bloody cool word. Just look at it: Supernature. Imagine you’re seeing it for the first time–perhaps you are. Imagine hearing the word Superman for the first time in your life, and instead of associating it with a comic book hero in red and blue cheggings the word stands bare, stripped of all connotations: Super Man, a man like us, but better than us.
That’s Supernature right there. Its currency hasn’t yet been devalued; it hasn’t worn thin through overuse.
Supernatural, well, that’s old hat. It’s been used so many times over the years it has too much baggage to stand alone and proud. See the word ‘supernatural’ and you think of the CW TV show, or the 80s toys with the holograms inside them or any of the other things you’ve come to associate with the word.
Supernature doesn’t have this baggage; it’s simply nature that’s better than nature, You might well have watched Supernatural, but supernature is something you can believe in.
Not that everyone does. Supernature, the paranormal, the occult, the outré–let’s group them together for the moment rather than get bogged down in the semantics separating the terms. We’re talking things that go bump in the night here and all manner of other weirdness settled on the cusp of reality. If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, this would be the place to write about it.
Being a (largely) rational sort, my interest in supernature stretches to the kind of events that might have intrigued Charles Fort. Fort was a journalist and writer of speculative fiction, though today he’s most famous for his interest in ‘anomalous phenomena’: objects and occurrences that fall shortly outside the ken of mankind. He spent many hours collating such occurrences in note form, before transcribing them as works that would later be published, sometimes tying them together in grand schemes he might have imagined, but almost certainly did not believe in. “I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written” Fort once said of his work, although until his death he was purposefully obtuse as to his wider measures of belief, stating in the first chapter of The Book of the Damned that the ideal is to be neither a “True Believer” nor a “Skeptic”, and “that the truth lies somewhere in between”.
If he believed in anything it’s that, when faced with evidence one must draw one’s own conclusions. Some of Fort’s barmier schemes–that a dimension he named the Super-Sargasso Sea (and oh, what a wonderful phrase that is!) swallows every item we lose, for example–are clearly wacky explanations for commonplace occurrences.
In medieval times cartographers illustrated unexplored sections of maps with sea serpents; throughout history other creatures–some real, some not–designated mysterious lands. To the more enlightened people of the age these illustrations were blatantly jokes, but I wonder how many of the peasantry, upon seeing the maps of their lords might have looked upon these serpent-infested seas, known few who sailed into them to return, and wondered if maybe there was a creature out there, feasting on sailors.
Sound unlikely? The dangers of the Bermuda Triangle are well known to this day, but a good number of the craft that were claimed to have disappeared in it were made up, and attributed victims of the triangle alongside those vessels that actually vanished while travelling through it. The legend–or curse–of the Bermuda Triangle persists in spite of the facts surrounding it. We might believe we’re not peasants easily terrorised by drawings, but doesn’t the thought of sailing or flying through the Bermuda Triangle still fill you with the smallest amount of dread? Screw facts; you wouldn’t want to chance incurring the triangle’s wrath, would you?
Gullibility, superstition, spirituality and the need to believe there’s more to Earth than in our philosophy; even as adults these strange supernatural occurrences seem all too believable. You don’t have to be a science fiction fan to be exposed to widespread images that break the rules of reality: religions are serpentine illustrations covering gaps in our map of the universe, and though they all claim to be as real as the air that we breathe they can’t help throwing miraculous imagery into the mix: burning bushes, virgin births, angelic visitors and so on.
It’s in our nature to conjure explanations for the strange things that befall us. My mum’s a great believer in coincidence–not that she would ever say as much. Ignoring all other the times when events fail to coincide, when they do she believes there’s a greater meaning to the universe: gods, fate or something else toying with our lives. Millions of people follow horoscopes, which, again, only become eerie in their prescience if you allow them to do so. My Horoscope.com reading for today includes the line “Movies with a lot of special effects could also appeal to you” which is ridiculously aspecific while being absolutely spot on. Movies with a lot of special effects do appeal to me! And I’m going to watch Doctor Who this evening, which is bound to contain loads of them. Why, if I was an idiot I’d think the horoscope was foretelling my future.
In past moments when nature’s membrane has worn thin, I’ve truly believed in supernature and the miraculous beyond. Admittedly it’s happened when I’ve been much younger, more gullible–some would say more open–to spiritual energies. Late one night, unable to sleep, having just read a story about ‘The Land of Odd Socks’ I tried to find my own way to the place socks went, which appeared past midnight in the crack at the back of my chest of drawers . . .
And didn’t find it, of course. There was no port opening on the Super-Sargasso Sea, not gone midnight nor any other time of day, but I hoped and believed in it just enough to search for it. And there in the dead of night I might have convinced myself I saw something, just a glimmer, a thin letter-box opening onto a balmy world where all the lost socks went. Growing up, did I convince myself all I saw was the product of an overactive and overtired imagination?
It’s not the Land of Odd Socks I’m concerned about, you see; I know that wasn’t real. What I’m more worried about was the time I heard Father Christmas outside: Christmas Eve, jingling sleigh bells, ho ho ho and on his way. That’s one instance of supernature that shouldn’t have been, because there is no Father Christmas. Even into my thirties I’m adamant I heard something, though now I’m older I’m more willing to accept realistic explanations, such as a neighbour coming home late from a Christmas party, the night winds still enough or gusting gently in just the right direction to carry the sound from his bells to my ears. That’s the explanation. It has to be.
Here be dragons.
Where we once might have plastered over unknown realities with mythological beasts, in this enlightened age everything has an explanation. Our supernatural heroes aren’t Charles Fort but the likes of Richard Dawkins and James Randi, approaching the world not from positions of belief and imagination but from grounded cynicism. There’s no way Randi would ever have entertained that I might have heard Santa that night, trip-trapping on the lawn–and he’d be right not to.. After all, this is a world without sea serpents, Super Sargasso Seas and festive elves with a penchant for sherry.
Don’t get me wrong: the world can be a magical place, but only in the most down-to-Earth, practical of ways. In his new book The Magic of Reality Richard Dawkins looks at many of life’s wonders that we take for granted and explains why we shouldn’t. It’s an admirable way of explaining science, but for some people–and I’m afraid I’m one of them–the wonders of science are entirely separate from those of supernature.
We’ll never believe in Father Christmas again. Sleigh bells on a Christmas Eve night will be only drunken revellers, returning home late. Gaps in our understanding won’t be illustrated with sea serpents as place markers but question marks and educated guesses. There may well be other dimensions out there but not one of them will be a storage place for all the things we’ve lost.
Until his sixtieth birthday James Randi was a stage magician by trade. He made his living performing magic that wasn’t magic at all but illusion, sleight of hand, cleverness masquerading as miracle. Realising that’s all magic is–cleverness, skillfully applied–is a heartbreaking moment for us. Knowing a trick is a trick, how can we ever again trust the magician, who to us is now only a trickster?
This is a tricky situation for me, a person not in possession of a scientific mind, who prefers the scenic route around explanations yet prizes function over form. Randi and Dawkins have a solid point of view–see nature for what it is and rejoice in it–but Fort’s lyrical descriptions of other places, parallel worlds created to accommodate our own clumsiness and forgetfulness, is so redolent of magic I can’t abandon it as the crazed product of a cracked mind.
It’s a difficult decision to make, so I encourage you, like me, not to make it. Nature and supernature, hard fact and appealing fantasy, not a hard skeptic nor a true believer: the truth lies somewhere in between.