Thursday, February 18, 2021

HGB Ep. 373 - Big Bend and the Ghost Lights of Texas

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Moment in Oddity - The Serrated Teeth of the Mosasaur

Last month, in the journal Cretaceous Research, a new discovery by a group of phosphate miners in Morocco's Khouribga province was reported. A paleontologist from the University of Bath named Nick Longrich wrote, "Those teeth are just unlike anything I’ve seen in a lizard before." What he was talking about was a mosasaur. These were marine reptiles related to snakes and monitor lizards that are now extinct. Mosasaurs had these conical teeth that could pierce and grip slippery prey. This mosasaur was different then all those found before. Rather than a mouth full of conical teeth, this discovery had short, serrated teeth packed tightly in such a way that they resembled a serrated knife edge. Nathalie Bardet, who co-authored the report, is a paleontologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and she wrote, "I have been working on mosasaurs for over 20 years...I must admit that among the 10 species that I know, this one has a so unusual and extraordinary dentition that at the beginning I thought it was a chimera reconstructed with different fossils!” That is quite a statement! It was so odd, she thought it was different creatures put together. All other known reptiles have pointed or cone-shaped teeth, but this variety had teeth more like a shark and that, certainly is odd!

This Month in History - Malcolm X Shot and Killed

In the month of February, on the 21st, in 1965 former Black Muslim leader Malcolm X was shot and killed while delivering a speech in a ballroom in New York City. Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska to Baptist Minister Earl Little and his wife. The family moved to Michigan and when Malcolm as six, his father was killed when he was hit by a streetcar. There are those who believe he was murdered. His mother was sent to an asylum in 1939 and he and his siblings ended up with family members and in foster homes. Despite these hardships, Malcolm enjoyed school and did well, but he quit after the eighth grade when a teacher told him he would never be a lawyer and should focus on manual labor. He lost his way for a time, falling into drug dealing and street hustling and eventually he became a leader of a gang of thieves in Harlem. In 1946, he found himself in jail and while he was there, he converted to Islam. He joined the Nation of Islam that combined Black nationalism and Islam. He started educating himself again and gave up pork, smoking and gambling. He changed his last name to X, which was tradition for Nation of Islam followers. This was to ensure they were not carrying a slaveholder's name. Once out of jail, he helped grow the group, opening temples and started a newspaper. Malcolm eventually rose to the level of second in rank. By the early 1960s, Malcolm was at odds with the leader of the Nation of Islam. He also disagreed with Dr. Martin Luther King's work on obtaining civil rights. Malcolm left the Nation of Islam and became a Sunni Muslim. This lead to animosity with the Nation and death threats ensued. Three members of the Nation of Islam assassinated him on that February day. His voice was not silenced that day as his ideas and passion continue on today. 

Big Bend and the Ghost Lights of Texas

Ghosts Lights are such an interesting phenomenon. They are seen all over the world and no one is really sure what they are or where they come from. There are many theories. Tim Stevens came in first place in our flash fiction contest in 2018 with his story "That Retched Sound." He co-founded Spectrograph Films in 2019 and the production company is currently finishing their first feature film, a sci-fi thriller called The Ghost Lights, based on a real phenomena that occurs in West Texas. Tim wrote and directed the film. He joins us to discuss the film, the Marfa Lights, his own experience with the lights, the ghost town of Terlingua, Texas where they filmed and legends and ghost stories connected to Big Bend, Texas.

The premise of the film is a journalist returns home after the death of her father and discovers a mysterious cassette tape describing strange disappearances and mysterious lights appearing in the skies of West Texas. In an effort to connect with the memory of her late father, she sets out on a cross-state road trip to discover the truth. Tim discussed the issues with making a film with only four people and during the year of Covid-19. They are running an Indiegogo campaign to help fund the post-production of the film.

The Marfa Lights appear most commonly at Mitchell Flat, which is an area east of Marfa. They appear as mysterious glowing orbs that take on various colors like yellow, blue, white, red and other colors. They are about the size of basketballs and they flicker, twinkle, merge, hover, dart around and float up in the sky. They have been reported for decades. The first mention of the lights was in 1883 when a cowhand saw flickering lights. He assumed they were from campfires built by the local Apaches, but no ashes were ever found in the area. Interestingly, the Native Americans always thought they were falling stars. Scientists who have studied the phenomenon have come up with the same tired explanations used for ghost lights across the country, they are car headlights. But how to explain the sightings long before cars were ever on the road? There's also the theory of swamp gas. Methane and phosphine can ignite when they come into contact with oxygen. There are others who think it is geological activity that creates electrical phenomenon. Or it could be aliens. Or ghosts. No one knows. Tim shared his crews' own experiences with seeing the Marfa Lights!

The ghost town of Terlingua, Texas is an old mining town that developed around a unique element, cinnabar. Quicksilver is extracted from cinnabar, something we know more commonly as mercury. This was the setting for the film. Tim shared with us some of the legends of the area and then he went on to tell some of the legends and stories connected to Big Bend, Texas.

In this same area is the legend of the Murder Maverick. This is a large black phantom steer with the word MURDER branded on one side in letters nearly a foot high. The Murder Maverick is an omen of death. The story behind the branding features two ranchers fighting over ownership of the steer and one man murdered the other. Cowboys who worked for the murdered man roped, captured the steer and branded it with the word murder, so that the owner would always remember what he had done. This steer then followed the murderer everywhere he went. He ended up leaving the country. The steer ran into the mountains of Big Bend and it is said that anyone who sees the steer and reads the word on its side, they will be murdered shortly afterward.

Logan Hawkes writes on the Texas Less Traveled Blog, "On this particular occasion we enjoyed the healing waters of the spring a little too long. Soon the shadows covered the river and its canyon walls nearby and we were quickly consumed by the black of night that is common to an area where there are virtually no cities or subdivisions or electric lights to disrupt the pure magic of night. Armed with an Ever Ready flashlight and a big walking stick, we began to count the first stars above, and then the millions that seemed to blossom as the night began to close. As the river flowed briskly by an unnerving revelation occurred. Where just a moment before we were sitting very much alone, chances are good with no one within miles around, the next moment we could vaguely make out silhouetted shadows of people standing on a narrow ledge that bordered the river maybe 50 yards up its banks. We sat in the hot water silent for a moment as our eyes attempted to focus in the starlight, what little there was. Like everything else in Big Bend, you find yourself looking hard at things you want to see in order to focus on them instead of the great distances and majestic landscapes of the land that seems to blur reality into a torrent canvass of colors and shapes. After waiting for this group, maybe five or six shadowed figures, to approach in our direction and listening intently for the murmured sounds of speech, we finally turned on the flashlight - actually more like a small searchlight, and flashed down river to where the figures were huddled. Except there were no figures revealed in the light. Turning the light off, the faint silhouette outlines reappeared. We turned the light on and off several times after that. We even called to the figures to identify themselves. In Big Bend, anywhere near the river, you must still be watchful and careful because of the drug smugglers and illegals that cross there frequently - the way it has been for centuries. But no one answered our challenge, and in spite of how many times we turned the light on and off, the figures would appear and seem to disappear respectively. Finally, and rather quickly, we pulled ourselves out of the water, slammed on our pants over wet suits and slipped on our shoes. We were distracted for only moments, but when equipped with clothing and turning our attention down river to where the figures lurked we discovered they were gone - with the flashlight on and with the flashlight off. To this day we can not say who or what they shadows were. But I can confidently tell you they were not living beings, for my trail companion and I went in search of those figures, looking over boulders and ridges and walking through the brush on the other side, listening intently and watching for signs. But no signs existed."

Big Bend is a vast area that is mostly unexplored, so it is not surprising that it has so many legends connected to it. Tim mentioned the Chisos Mountains, which literally means "ghost, spirits and/or enchantment" and Big Bend National Park also has the Canyon de Bruhas, which translates to "Witch's Canyon." Did Tim's crew really experience the Marfa Lights? Is the Big Bend area haunted? That is for you to decide!

To support Tim's Indiegogo until March 18, 2021:

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