Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Alien Tide

Tom Dongo
The Mysteries of Sedona (1988)
The Alien Tide (1990)
Mysterious Sedona (2000)

Sedona is a small town or possibly a city - albeit not by my own ingrained European definition of the word - somewhere in the upper half of Arizona as you head for the Grand Canyon. Mrs. Pamphlets and myself stayed there in honour of our shared birthday and the occasion of my turning fifty; which was nice because, possibly excepting a couple of places in Mexico, Sedona is host to what is more or less the most beautiful landscape on Earth so far as I can tell. My wife and I very much enjoyed the Grand Canyon, by way of comparison, but as we returned to our hotel in the Village of Oak Creek, we agreed that we both preferred Sedona. The Grand Canyon is off the scale spectacular, but is somehow so spectacular that you can't always tell what you're looking at. Human eyes are not accustomed to viewing that much earth at that angle or at such distance, so in some respects it's almost like being in space. Sedona is nestled within the same general kind of geology but on a smaller, more human scale, semi-desert and layered red rocks sculpted by several million years worth of wind in comparison to which the Canyon seems overstated, the geological equivalent of the worst kind of progressive rock concept albums of the seventies. Arriving in Sedona is like walking into some epic Biblical painting of the nineteenth century, or maybe one of Albert Bierstadt's sublime landscapes.

I have a pet theory that we are each of us a product of landscape, at least by the logic that anyone growing up near the sea will tend to have different views concerning boats to those who know only dry land - this formulated whilst wandering around Mexico and realising just how much sense Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca, and all of their theological pals seem to make in context of the environment. Land, and particularly mountainous or otherwise spectacular land, provides an ambient noise of forces greater than can be immediately understood in everyday terms and so, I dare say, will tend to inspire its people towards certain metaphysical modes of thought; or if you prefer - if your mouth falls open with an exclamation of holy shit every time you step outside the front door and set eyes upon your own little bit of world, chance is that your daily thoughts will stray to provinces other than those of insurance policies and which brand of washing powder represents best value for money. So, having spent four days in Sedona - which really is more astonishingly beautiful than I could hope to describe in case I hadn't quite made that clear - I can see why the town has a sizeable New Age community. Ordinarily I might be sharpening the knives at this point of the paragraph, but there really is something special about Sedona, and so special that I'm not going to begrudge anyone a few healing crystals or faintly suspect claims made regarding my aura. If it works and hurts no-one, then fine.

Actually the thing that pisses me off about New Age thought isn't so much seemingly wacky beliefs as the pick and mix appropriation of whichever indigenous culture has something which might go well next to the Navajo rug tastefully hung from the wall next to the telly; and appropriation without really showing that much respect for the source, which means you end up with crap like Aztec Horoscopes borrowing the symbols, changing their meanings to something a bit less aggressive, and pinning everything to an entirely unrelated set of spiritual post-it notes. At worst, New Age thought can be comforting slogans passed off as philosophy without either the depth of an actual philosophy or any of the work one might ordinarily be required to do in order to get your head wrapped around the thing. On the other hand, it's probably worth remembering that no-one was ever beheaded in the name of New Age thought - at least not so far as I am aware - so one should probably try to maintain some sense of perspective here.

Anyway, there I was in the Worm, an excellent Oak Creek book store with its own friendly hound numbered amongst the staff. I picked up The Alien Tide, indulged in some smirking, and then returned it to the shelf. Later in the day I realised I just had to go back and buy the thing no matter how ludicrous it might seem. I read a few chapters in the hotel that evening and then returned to the Worm the next day and bought the other two Tom Dongo titles they were carrying.

My initial fascination had been founded on an impression of The Alien Tide as something equivalent to outsider art, the self-published testimony of a local man who sees flying saucers, amongst other things - although this is an admittedly cynical description of that which drew me, and I tend to dislike the term outsider art, believing that the validity of individual expression depends on the work itself rather than either the approval or financial backing of persons other than the creator; and whilst I don't necessarily believe in flying saucers and the like, neither do I actively disbelieve, and I find the subject interesting as contemporary folk mythology at the very least - a roughly coherent understanding of the world which appears self-organising and as such owes nothing to mainstream or consciously directed culture - or to consensus reality, it could be argued.

Tom Dongo covers certain aspects of this subject with which I might ordinarily have pronounced reservations. He tends to the view that psychic phenomena, channelling, extraterrestrial or interdimensional visitors and the rest are probably part of the same thing. Of course, one might suggest that each is simply a variation on delusion, imagination, or even bare-faced fibs, which is great except that it doesn't really take us anywhere useful and can be kind of insulting. For example, the science-fiction of Richard S. Shaver - supposedly based on events which he claimed happened to him - features ancestral voices, thought projection, underground alien civilisations controlling surface dwellers and mysterious forces operating behind the scenes - all equating to manias associated with certain forms of paranoid schizophrenia, specifically variants in which the two sides of the brain fail to properly communicate with each other, resulting in that which is perceived or conceived in one part of the mind being understood as something occurring externally to the individual in another part. Whilst Tom Dongo potentially ticks a couple of these boxes, I would suggest his writings and observations contain too much to contradict such a refutation for that refutation to be worth anything. Much of what Dongo describes of his own encounters and those of others read as direct experience, by which I mean that whether or not it really was a flying saucer from another world - for one obvious example - it would seem rash to deny that something out of the ordinary was experienced, not least because many of these accounts involve more than one individual experiencing the same thing. The possibility that anyone could just be telling stories is, I would suggest, made similarly ambiguous by the nature of the stories, many of which are just too plain weird. If you were going to make something up, you would probably try to come up with something more consistent, more convincing, more digestible in terms of established UFO lore. Additionally, whilst one may always invoke rational explanations, when a phenomenon can only be rationalised by an improbable cat's cradle of chance and circumstance above a certain baroque level of complexity, it might simply be more useful to admit that something weird happened for the sake of argument, then work ahead from that point. This is roughly what Tom Dongo does, his purpose being discussion rather than proving anything which characteristically eludes examination.

Of course this still leaves a few subjects with which I have some difficulty, notably that of channelling as represented by the testimony of one Erika Porter in The Alien Tide. Unfortunately it reads to me very much as a rambling daydream, and as such seems out of whack with the rest of the book; although on the other hand, I suppose if one is going to investigate this kind of phenomena, it logically can't be just the neat and tidy things which won't offend the sensibilities of some English bloke living in San Antonio; and by the time we get to Mysterious Sedona, Dongo himself expresses certain misgivings about proposals made in the earlier books, certain aspects of channelling significantly amongst them. This is one aspect of why I found these three volumes so compelling, specifically the attitude of the investigation as much as that which is investigated.

There's some seriously far out stuff here - saucers, alien animals, rock spirits, black helicopters, underground bases and all manner of oddities which seem particularly consistent with the geological territory, at least to me; and the author is only interested in making sense of his bizarre world, even if he never quite gets there. He writes openly, honestly with infectious enthusiasm, a conversational tone and none of the crankiness which defeats much paranormal literature; and by Mysterious Sedona it has become clear that he no longer even really cares about whether we, his readers, believe him or not. He's doing this for himself, and similarly we are spared any of those droning overly defensive testimonials about what science may be scared to admit, the things they don't want us to know and so on.

Tom Dongo weaves a genuinely weird, fascinating, and endlessly puzzling account of his experiences regardless of whether we're on his side. There is a generous spirit informing these books, and one of such conviction that it disarmed even my own customary tendency to sneer. This man deserves our support and encouragement.

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