Thursday, February 2, 2012

from Force and Nature, Charles Frederick Winslow, 1869

(page 460)

... such or similar will-o'-the-wisps exist not alone in the marshes, and are not the only examples of spontaneous aerial combustion or luminosity that have been seen. So remarkable a phenomenon of this class was witnessed by myself in South America, in May 1865, that I am induced to give it permanent record in this connexion, inasmuch as so important a fact is not only a contribution to knowledge, but may also excite more active inquiry into the nature and causes of such spectral lights.

At the time mentioned, I was engaged in a geological reconnaissance along the coast region of the province of Piura, Peru, accompanied by two American companions, and an Indian attendant. We halted one day at dark, about half way between the river Piura, or town of Sachura, and Point Aguja, within sound of the waves of Sachura Bay. The leaden sky and damp bleak wind common to that locality between sunset and sunrise were chilling us long before we made our beds on the drifting sand of that Sahara-like region.

Sleeping little, I observed for much of the night that the cloudy sky only broke sufficiently to permit occasional glimpses of the stars. Toward morning it was more densely overcast, and bleaker than ever. Tired of discomfort, I summoned my companions before daylight in order to get breakfast and prepare for an early start.

We had barely risen, when one of them, an old resident of Paita, exclaimed, "Why, doctor, there is the British mail steamer bound south." I looked westward, over the Bay of Sachura; and there, sure enough, apparently a long way off, were two orange-coloured lights, each with a conspicuous train, and one just ahead of the other, resembling the flames or light from two smoke-stacks.

But, as I regarded them intently, I was struck with the rapidity and inequality of their motion, which seemed to increase and waver from moment to moment. They appeared, indeed, to be chasing each other. They were moving horizontally at almost the same level, only a few feet from the surface of the land or water, and with greater rapidity than it was possible for any steamer to move. 

At first, supposing them far off at sea, I was surprised at the quickness of their motion and transient variations of relative distance; and soon became convinced that they issued from no steamship's funnels, but were luminous objects of some sort, one following or chasing the other, not many thousands of yards, perhaps feet, away.

I called the attention of my companions to these points; and they came to similar conclusions. What were these lights? Our curiosity became intensely excited. They would vanish for a moment as the low dunes toward the bay intervened, and appear again moving swiftly southward, sometimes almost coming together, then separating, and never more than ten or fifteen feet apart, and each showing bright yellow luminous trains two or three feet long; both objects strongly brilliant, but not defined with clear outlines. In a word, they resembled large flaming torches without smoke in hot pursuit one after the other, just above the surface of the earth and sea. 

They were visible many minutes, and suddenly vanished, while yet in full blast, behind what I supposed to be a range of hillocks on the edge of the bay. Of course I was on the qui vive for the same or similar phenomena to reappear. We observed in all directions. Some minutes elapsed, when one of my companions detected and followed for a while a small bright light in the south-west. He traced it; but I failed to descry it, to his great surprise.

I patiently watched, while my companions busied themselves in preparing for the journey. They grey of dawn was beginning to steal into the eastern night, and I beginning to despair, when to my great delight another luminous object appeared, approaching from the south-west and sailing toward the north, higher in the air that those before described; and almost immediately there appeared another slowly following, but not violently chasing the first, as in the former phenomenon.

These strange objects swept along at different heights, without trains, appearing like irregularly-shaped bladders of light, sometimes near each other, then far apart, rising and falling as if moved by currents of air, or more like slowly sailing birds, and changing their motions in all directions. In aspect they were at first yellow and bright; afterwards, as daylight advanced, growing paler and blueish white, like the fumes of phosphorus seen in the dark.

They were more defined in form than the first, less intensely brilliant, yet apparently shapeless, and varying from six to fifteen inches in their various diameters. They were strange "spectral" lights without definite forms or proportions; at moments almost lost to sight, then reappearing again more brightly, and apparently having some relative connexion with each other, like that of gregarious birds.

They were a long time visible, and finally were lost in the daylight. They appeared to float over both the shores and waters of the bay. What where they? I know not. The recollection of them is a marvel to me to this day.

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