Brian Dunning, a few years ago, wrote a blog post (“The Marfa Lights: A Real American Mystery”) with the conclusion that Marfa Lights are caused by car headlights. There are serious problems with that simplistic conclusion. But another problem in that post involves an assumption about written histories:
Critics of this [car headlights] explanation quickly point out that the Marfa Lights have been reported for hundreds of years, since long before there were any car headlights around. Well, apparently, the Marfa Lights have not been around all that long, after all.
How did Dunning come to that conclusion? His brief post gives no hint that he has done years of research looking for old records of Marfa Lights; that I seriously doubt. Even if he had searched for years, how could he be sure that he had not missed some nineteenth-century journal that described those mysterious lights? Yet that statement, “apparently, the Marfa Lights have not been around all that long” goes beyond a conclusion that no old written record exists referencing those mysterious lights: It is a dogmatic proclamation that those lights never appeared long ago, and that contradicts what old residents of southwest Texas have said about Marfa Lights.
I was born in Pasadena, California, and lived there through all my teenage years and many of my young adult years. Yet I probably have never mentioned any Rose Parade in any of my journal entries; to those who have lived many years in Pasadena, what is so special about the Rose Parade? It quickly becomes common. Of all the hundreds of thousands of citizens who have live at least part of their life in Pasadena, at least many hundreds have, at some time, kept a personal journal of life; yet many journals of life in this old city are probably devoid of any mention of any Rose Parade. And what of those journals that do mention it? How few readers have sifted through those personal journals, noting references to the Rose Parade! And of those researchers who have found those references, how many of them would have written about it in a way to easily be found by anyone interested? Search the internet if you like. Many online pages will be second-hand at best. The point? It takes serious research to dig into a subject far enough to get first-hand accounts of events. I seriously doubt that Mr. Dunning has done enough research to even come close to credibly declaring that Marfa Lights “have not been around all that long.”
Mr. Dunning does go into one detail about written histories in this part of Texas. He mentions the memoirs of Robert Ellison, whose descendants declare that he told them about the lights appearing in old times; but Dunning says that the memoirs mention nothing about those lights. Dunning says, “Curious that he would leave that out.” Why should that be curious? To those who have lived many years around Marfa, in old times (before Marfa Lights became famous), what is so special about those lights? Why should any of the old timers have written anything about those lights long ago, before any outsiders took notice? Those lights rarely had more than a gram’s weight of importance to old timers.
So why did Ellison tell his descendants about those strange lights? Look at the obvious. They probably asked him about the lights. So why doubt what those descendants remember about Ellison’s recounting old sightings? (Remember, it’s not the details that are important here, only that there were old sightings.) Second hand accounts may be far from perfect, in gathering scientific or legal evidence, but their evidential value far exceeds that of speculations about non-experiences in the nineteenth century. When lost in a vaste desert, what is the better choice? Dream about eating in a restaurant or roast a rabbit on a campfire? (Remember, if we are to live long enough to ever see another resaurant, we need strength to get through another day.) When starvation is the alternative, I’ll take the rabbit.
See also “Did Satire Backfire?” regarding Marfa Lights.