We often hear about urban legends. These are stories of either a humorous or horrific nature that circulate in urban environments and which are claimed to be true. Many such stories have been debunked by science. But I have often wondered why we don’t hear about “country legends”. I guess this is because the term is normally used to refer to remarkable singers of country music. However, there are stories coming from America’s countryside that many people are not familiar with. Perhaps this is because over the course of little more than a century, the United States has gone from being a country where about 40% of the population was directly involved in farming or ranching to only 2% today. Nowadays many people in cities have never visited a farm or a ranch. Of course, most people know a few generalities about farms and farmers, but most are woefully ignorant of the how and whys of farm life and its lore. In this post we are going to check out some stories coming from the countryside and examine their plausibility.
Most farmers will just smile and shake their heads or laugh if you ask them about cow tipping, only to reluctantly add later that they know someone who claims they know someone who once did it. Cow tipping seems to have originated in the countryside when naïve city folks were asked by mischievous farmers to try to achieve something that is impossible. But what is cow tipping?
The quintessential cow tipping deed allegedly starts when a group of inebriated young men decide to head for the countryside at night and locate a field with cows. As cows supposedly sleep standing up, the men proceed to sneak up on the unsuspecting bovine and then rush it from one side pushing the animal and making it fall or tip on its side. The country lore is awash with cow tipping stories which have now permeated the internet and other media.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, all this is bunk. As any farmer will tell you cows do not sleep standing up and they are animals that have a keen sense of sight and smell. If you try to approach a cow, it will simply move away from you. Another issue is that cows are pretty massive animals. Some physics calculations indicate that even if a cow were to stand still you would require the force of two people to tip it and if the cow were to react quickly to your pushing as it most certainly would, you would need at least five people to tip the cow over. Cow tipping could even be dangerous if a cow decided to fight back or if the would-be cow tippers in their drunken daze mistook a bull for a cow. As of this date, not a single cow tipping event has ever been convincingly documented.
Peeing on Electric Fences
Now we come to a sensitive topic and not just for the obvious reasons. The question is: if you pee on an electric fence, will you get a shock...err..."there"? A few city folk and some from the country find the answer to this question by accident while relieving themselves next to a fence which they did not know was electrified. Of course these are just accidents, but there are some brave souls who actually do this on purpose out of curiosity, on a dare, to prove something, or just because they can.
Peeing on electric fences is attempted mostly by young men or boys. I say young men or boys and not young women or girls, either because males can pee standing up, or because they are more adventurous and daring, or just because young women or girls at this age are smarter and don’t do such things. Be it as it may, the answer to the question is "Yes". Urine conducts electricity. If you pee on an electric fence, as long as the fluid stream is unbroken, you will get shocked. Several YouTube videos document this fact, and the issue was also examined in episode 14 of the TV series "Myth busters" and was found to be true.
Hearing the Corn Grow
Hearing the corn grow is something that many would label a "farming legend". The idea is that under the right conditions corn can grow very fast, and when it does so, it makes a particular sound. Thus you can "hear" the corn grow. I have asked a few farmers who have raised corn all their lives about this and most of them have never heard any distinctive sound coming from their cornfields. Many people claim that the alleged sound of corn growing is nothing more than the rustling of leaves or ears of corn against one another as a result of small gusts of wind that make the corn stalks sway. However, I did get to meet one particular farmer who heard his corn grow. He said that one of the things he loved the most is sitting with his family on the porch of their house overlooking his cornfields after dinner and hearing the corn grow.
As it turns out, scientists have documented that when corn plants are in their phase of rapid growth, they make a crackling noise caused by fiber fractures as a result of the sudden release of internal stresses caused by turgor pressure within the growing stems. The sound is faint and somewhat akin to the sound of static.
Folks in the country sometimes prank people from the city or in general newcomers to their groups by getting them to hunt or search for imaginary creatures. One of them is the snipe. Although snipes are a type of shorebird that people do hunt, unsuspecting victims are told they are something else and given a set of complex instructions to track and hunt them down to the hilarity of everyone that is in on the joke. Another such creature is the famed jackalope, which is a rabbit with antelope horns. Mounted specimens of alleged jackalopes are a well-known taxidermist folly. But there is a condition in rabbits involving a virus that makes the animal develop keratinous tumors on the skin which look like horn structures, and this may be behind some reputable descriptions of horned rabbits in the wild.
Do you know of any stories from the countryside? Please leave a comment and let me know.
Photo of a mounted jackalope head by rocor is from flickr and is used here under an Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license. Photo of electric fence by Kevin Phillips from Public Domain Pictures is in the public domain.
The Disappearance of Elisa Lam: The Peril Behind the Interpretation of CoincidencesRead Now
A coincidence is when two or more events which seem to have some connection occur at the same time. Coincidences are devoid of any significance or causal connection. Nevertheless, some coincidences may seem to be associated in time and/or space with other things or occurrences in meaningful ways. Most of us have encountered coincidences in our lives and several examples have made it to the popular media. For example:
A person reported one day spending $7.11 in the store 7-11 at 7:11 AM.
A woman who hurt her chin got a fortune cookie at a restaurant that read “Time heals all wound. Keep your chin up.”
A woman found that her future husband appeared in a picture her family took while on a trip 7 years before she met him.
Most of us will chuckle at these examples but will probably not think much about them. Regardless of how remarkable they are, we nonetheless would consider that they fall within the realm of the possible. With millions of people shopping at 7-11, or unwrapping fortune cookies, or taking pictures, you figure that sooner or later this sort of thing is bound to happen to someone. Getting 10 heads when flipping 10 coins once is an unlikely outcome, but if a few thousand people flip coins, it is a virtual certainty that at least one will get that result. With billions of people on Earth performing the same activities day after day, it is statistically very likely that something unusual will happen to someone somewhere sometime.
However, when it comes to some remarkable coincidences, and more often than not those that involve life and death, some people wonder if there is something more behind the coincidence. For example:
Violet Jessop survived three cruise ship accidents: the RMS Olympic in 1911 (which did not sink), and the Titanic in 1912 and the HMHS Britanic in 1916 (which both sank). This led to her being nicknamed “Miss Unsinkable”.
A Dutch cyclist, Maarten de Jonge, escaped two fatal plane crashes in 2014 when he changed his travel plans at the last minute.
Tsutomo Yamaguchi survived the dropping of the atomic bomb in the city of Hiroshima and fled to the city of Nagasaki on which the second atomic bomb was dropped, and which he also survived. He is recognized by the Japanese government as the only person to have survived both bombings.
Faced with these coincidences, some people consider themselves “lucky”, while other may interpret that there is some force or deity guarding their lives. Some people in fact believe that God is behind all coincidences, and that coincidences are messages from the deity. Of course, this belief can be a double-edged sword. For example, as I have written in a previous post, Hitler survived many assassination attempts and this gave him the conviction that he had been chosen by providence to accomplish great things.
But there can be immediate and dangerous consequences to thinking that a coincidence MUST have an explanation, and this is especially true in cases of coincidences that occur within an emotionally charged environment. When this happens, people eager to find meaning where there is none can connect the dots to come up with far flung ideas or conspiracies and may even act on them. One remarkable example of this is the disappearance of Elisa Lam.
In January 26 of 2013, a 21 year-old Canadian student, Elisa Lam, visited Los Angeles and checked into the infamous Cecil Hotel which lies next to Los Angeles’ skid row section. This hotel has a reputation for being haunted due to the many deaths and suicides that have taken place in and around the hotel, as well as serial killers who have stayed in it. Lam was supposed to check out of the hotel on January 31, but failed to contact her family, who called the police. The police searched the hotel and its vicinity but didn’t find Lam. However, they found a disturbing recording of the woman in one of the hotel’s elevators which they proceeded to release to the public.
The video hit the internet like a storm, gathering millions of views, and unleashed a tsunami of speculation by people searching for clues trying to make sense of what could have happened to her. Two weeks after the release of the video, hotel guests reported that the water in the faucets had a funny color and taste. The hotel’s water tanks were searched and Lam’s lifeless body was found floating in one of them.
Several conspiracy theories and interpretations arose trying to make sense of some coincidences in this case.
The bizarre behavior of Lam in the elevator reminded many viewers of the so-called “elevator game” which supposedly originated in South Korea. The premise of this game posits that if you press the buttons of an elevator in the right order, it will take you to a different dimension and you will meet a supernatural entity.
Another idea revolved around a 2005 film starring Jennifer Connelly called “Dark Water” which involves a mother and her daughter who move into an apartment where dark water begins coming out of the faucets. The film depicts some creepy events in an elevator which the mother rides to the roof where she discovers the body of a little girl in the water tank. Based on this, people speculated that someone was trying to recreate some of the movie scenes using Lam as a subject.
The last place where Lam was seen in person was a Los Angeles bookstore called “The Last Bookstore”. Owners of the bookstore’s website list their address as a post office box in British Columbia, Canada, with the postal code V5G 4S2. When you input this into Google Maps, you get a location within the Forest Lawn Funeral Home & Memorial Park, where Lam is buried. Thus, people suggested that this bookstore could be connected to Lam’s disappearance.
Another theory regarding Lam’s death was linked to a tuberculosis outbreak that occurred in the skid row area around the hotel while she was staying there. This notion arose because someone pointed out that the test used to detect the presence of tuberculosis is called the “Lam ELISA” test. This stands for “Lipoarabinomannan (LAM) Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA). Many people considered that it was impossible that this was a coincidence, and all sorts of conspiracies began to be spun such as suggesting she was a test subject for a new tuberculosis drug, or a vessel for a bioweapon, or that she was killed for knowing too much about the tuberculosis outbreak.
And in case you think that all this nonsense is ultimately harmless conjecture, consider this last item.
A final theory concerned a Mexican death metal musician, Pablo Vergara, who went by the stage name of “Morbid”. He had stayed at the Cecil and posted about it (but in 2012, one year before Lam). He also had a song about dumping a corpse in a body of water while singing “I’m thinking China” (Lam was of Chinese ancestry), and his media featured a video of a woman running from a killer before getting caught. These coincidences and the way he looked and acted convinced many people that he was the killer, and they publicly denounced him. Vergara was investigated by police, his music and videos were deleted, his social media accounts were banned, and he began to receive deaths threats around the clock. Vergara descended into depression and tried to take his own life. He eventually had to check into a psychiatric hospital to heal.
So what really happened to Elisa Lam? She had bipolar disorder and depression, and she was taking medications which have to be carefully administered to avoid side effects. Other evidence which indicated that Lam was displaying erratic behavior also suggested that she was experiencing side effects from an uncontrolled disease, which explains her bizarre behavior in the elevator. Her death was ruled an accident.
Science cannot demonstrate that a given coincidence does not have an ulterior meaning or explanation, but science can alert us to the dangers of accepting unwarranted meanings in coincidences without solid proof. This is especially true in situations where people want to believe that there is something more to a coincidence than chance.