I circled the house this morning in order to assess the post-winter clean-up challenges: branches, leaves, fallen trees, wall and fence repairs, etc. In so doing I passed a small anomaly that I tend to ignore. In my side yard close to where the grass ends and brush begins begins is a modest depression about 4 inches (10cm) deep with a peculiar triangular shape. It is barely noticeable until one is almost atop it. It has been there unchanged since the late 1970s when this was still my parents’ property. It’s neither deep nor commonly underfoot, so none of us ever bothered to fill it. The underlying geology is firm and granitic in these parts, so the reason for the subsidence (if that’s what it is) is certainly shallow. My suspicion is that a tree stump was buried there during the construction of the house and the overlying soil dropped a little as it filled the hollow spots. It was a common happenstance in that era. The triangle shape is just a happy accident. On the other hand, the spot might not have subsided at all; it could be just a small artifact of imperfect initial landscaping in what was then (and is now) an out-of-the-way corner of the property.
Only once did anyone ever comment on it. This was some years ago when I was showing an antiques-hound friend my grandparents’ old winemaking equipment in my garden shed.
“What is that?” he asked pointing at the lawn dimple.
“Oh, that’s where the flying saucer landed back in the ‘70s,” I answered. “It balanced itself on a single triangular landing pod and left that imprint. It was the strangest thing.” I saw him glancing toward the garden shed only a few feet (1 meter) away. “The garden shed wasn’t built yet,” I added. This part was true; it was built in the 90s. “There was plenty of room then for the spacecraft to land.”
“Did any aliens come out of the saucer?” he asked.
“What did they want?”
While my friend (I presume) was aware that I was joking, flimsier evidence regularly is offered up in all seriousness to substantiate claims of alien encounters of the second and third kinds. It is an all too human failing that when we want to believe something we accept the feeblest evidence as credible while when we don’t we’ll reject not just a mountain of evidence but the entire Himalayas. Many of us very much want to believe that UFOs are piloted by extraterrestrials. The Huffington Post recently conducted a HuffPost/YouGov survey of 1000 Americans that was unusual in allowing for gradations of belief (e.g. “strongly agree,” “agree,” and “slightly agree”); it revealed that 48% at least “slightly agree” that some UFOs are extraterrestrial – 25% are pretty sure about it. Only 35% disagree, and many of them only “slightly.” A National Geographic survey didn’t allow for gradations of belief – just yes or no – and came up with 36% believers, 17% disbelievers, and the remainder undecided. The same survey showed that 80% of Americans believe the government is covering up information on the UFOs, which, being larger than the percentage that believes they exist, is an odd result.
Skepticism about extraterrestrial visitations is not the same as skepticism about alien life. That life evolved here, after all, is evidence enough it could do so elsewhere, if perhaps far less commonly than some might hope. I personally suspect that life (much less technical civilization) is so rare that SETI’s radio telescopes will never definitively hear anything interesting even if the search lasts centuries or millennia. But in principle they could. Physical spaceships with biological pilots are another matter, especially since vast fleets would be required just to account for the 1 in 50 adult Americans who claim to have been abducted by aliens.
Why do we want so much to believe in extraterrestrial visitation? To be sure, the notion is a fun one to entertain, but to say we want fun is a tautological explanation at best. I can offer only speculation, but I think it’s no coincidence that H.G. Wells’ hit novel War of the Worlds (1897) dated to a time when the scientific revolution of the late 19th century was reinforcing an ever more secular popular culture. Most of us aren’t happy with a random accidental universe in which there is no meaning other than what we ourselves impart to it. We like to think we are not so much on our own as all that. In our secular age (in much of the world anyway) we don’t place much stock in angels and demons any more, but at least we can imagine that there are aliens who might care. We can imagine them lecturing us on our warmongering ways as in the original The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) or on our environmental carelessness as in the 2008 remake. The iconic Roswell incident of 1947 according to believers involved a saucer buzzing the 509th nuclear bomber force based at the time in Roswell. As for the LGM (Little Green Men) planning to zap us with death rays, even evil aliens, like demons of yore, are at least taking an interest.
This is far from an original interpretation. Already familiar with the idea, I was persuaded it had real merit back in 1969 – no connection to that being the year Nixon suspended Project Blue Book. Despite being at the time a teenage scifi fan who avidly enjoyed reading tabloid reports of UFOs, I didn’t take them seriously any more than I took seriously tales about werewolves, which I also enjoyed. I knew some people did, of course, but didn’t fully realize just how many people were deeply committed to belief in visiting extraterrestrials until one day in high school English class. I no longer remember the precise literary context of the discussion, but members of my class were expressing disdain for the gullibility of earlier generations in matters of superstition and religious manifestations. The teacher Mr. Drew countered by saying that every generation has its own mythology and superstitions, and that he easily could provoke an emotional reaction from us by questioning one of our own. He took a deep breath and said simply, “UFOs.” My initial assumption was that he had made a bad gamble and that the class would respond with a collective shrug. I was wrong. Instead, a disparate cacophony of challenging voices arose citing evidence of aliens-among-us. Mr. Drew had been right.
I’m still a scifi fan in my dotage and still enjoy a good alien invasion tale. But I’m afraid that no more now than then can I bring myself to believe earthlings are beneficiaries of some Visiting Aliens Association. As a practical matter, we are on our own. On the other hand, maybe the joke is on me. Maybe LGM visited my property in 1979 and I’m willfully ignoring their ship’s footprint. As that may be, I think perhaps it is a few decades past time to take my shovel and wheelbarrow out of the garage and fill it in.
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)