Although Boston seems shiny and sleek these days, every now and then I get a reminder that it's an old city with a weird history. Maybe it's when I turn the corner and see a centuries-old graveyard, or maybe it's when I stumble on a really old house hidden away down an alley. Sometimes it's just smelling the salt air that blows in from the harbor on a misty day.
The other day I was reminded of Boston's strange past when I encountered this artwork along the Muddy River near the Longwood MBTA stop. It's a giant hog floating in the air, and commemorates what is believed to be North America's first recorded sighting of a UFO.
The sculpture is by A+J Art+Design, and is part of an annual exhibit of outdoor art along the Riverway. Jeremy Angier and Ann Hirsch (who make up A+J Art+Design) were inspired by this account from the journal of Governor John Winthrop. The date was March 1, 1639:
In this year one James Everell, a sober, discreet man, and two others, saw a great light in the night at Muddy River. When it stood still, it flamed up, and was about three yards square; when it ran, it was contracted into the figure of a swine: it ran as swift as an arrow towards Charlton [Charlestown], and so up and down about two or three hours. They were come down in their lighter about a mile, and, when it was over, they found themselves carried quite back against the tide to the place they came from. Divers other credible persons saw the same light, after, about the same place."We tend to think of UFOs as some type of vehicle, but I suppose technically they are any unidentified flying object. A flaming light that turns into a giant pig fits that loose definition. Certainly it fits into a 17th century Puritan worldview better than a metal flying saucer would, and I think our experience of strange phenomena are influenced by our culture and upbringing. Someone in the 21st century would see a spaceship from another world; a Puritan sees a flying pig, which might be an omen or visitor from the demonic realm.
One aspect of James Everell's experience matches some modern UFO encounters - the experience of missing time. Many people who see UFOs realize afterwards that a significant piece of time is missing from their memory. For example, they will see a strange light in the sky for five minutes at 8:00 pm. After they stop watching they realize three hours have passed and it's now 11:000 pm. But they only watched the UFO for five minutes! What happened during the two hours and fifty-five minutes they've forgotten? Some UFO researchers believe personal encounters with the UFO's passengers happen during this missing time and they try to recover memories of these abductions through hypnosis.
It's a controversial theory, even among the UFO community, and there's nothing to indicate that James Everell and his companions were abducted. However, something strange did happen to them because after watching the light for several hours they found themselves back where they had started on the river. They were carried there against the tide without knowing how it happened. How did they get there without remembering it? It sounds similar to a missing time experience to me.
Perhaps the gap between old Boston and new Boston isn't really that great after all. The strange phenomena that once appeared as flaming swine now appear as spacecraft, but they still do the same thing: cause amazement, wonder, and a little bit of confusion. If you want to experience a little of this feeling you can take the D Line (a modern convenience) to the Longwood T stop and walk along the Muddy River (which has been there for thousands of years). The exhibit will be up until June 2.