The US's mid-Atlantic region was thunderstruck Thursday afternoon by an explosion. According to the United States Geological Survey the first event happened at 1:24 p.m. Eastern Standard Time about 2 miles / 3 kilometers north-northeast of Hammonton, NJ, possibly over Wharton State Forest. Over the next ninety minutes, nine more sonic booms were reported from southern New Jersey to as far north as Connecticut . William Yeck at the USGS told Philly.com's Sam Wood, "We haven't seen anything to suggest there has been an earthquake. We have been getting a lot of calls and see signals consistent with a sonic boom." 
Sonic booms are formed by shock waves when an object travels faster than the speed of sound through an atmosphere. As an object goes faster, shock waves are compressed into a single shock wave exploding ahead of an object when it achieves Mach 1. That speed is equivalent to 761 mph/1,225 kph, which is pretty damned quick.
With temperatures hovering at the 40°F/4°C mark all day, the local weather was perfect for everyone in the region to hear the explosion. Cold air slows down sound but doesn't diminish its intensity, potentially allowing distant locations to experience booms with minimal change in volume. Last Saturday New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut were buried under two feet / sixty centimeters of snow with plenty still on the ground. Snow doesn't reflect sound, that's why snowy scenes are always so hushed in movies and real life. This may contribute to the perception of sound directed at a listener.
Now for the $64,000 question: "Who was it?"
Thirty seven miles north-northeast of Hammonton is Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey's Air Force base and a clear suspect.
Or they were...
Further south is the 177th Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard outside of Atlantic City, home to several F-16 jets capable of 1.6 Mach. Andy Polhamus of NJ.com notes, "Two readers have written in to say they saw military aircraft maneuvering over the water near Atlantic City."  In addition to this, the Twitter account @AtlanticCity911 shared an intriguing audio clip of an Atlantic City police dispatcher:
But the 177th's Jersey Devils deny responsibility.
Taking the USGS and the 177th at their word, there's the problem of Hammonton being 30 miles / 48 km northwest of the Atlantic ocean. If the source of the sonic boom took off from McGuire AFB at Hammonton's northeast, it would've been travelling towards the southwest. Sonic booms follow the path taken by supersonic objects, one wonders why these were heard, and felt, to the northeast in Long Island and Connecticut.
Compounding the confusion is Maryland's Naval Air Station Patuxent River announcing they were behind it. A naval spokesperson reached out to the Associated Press, saying a test flight of the Lockheed Martin F-35C Lightning stealth fighter off the east coast on Thursday afternoon. This corroborates the previous two readers reporting military jets seen off the coast of Atlantic City.
The F-35 is notable for being $163 billion dollars over budget, seven years behind schedule, and plagued with design flaws. David Axe at Reuters, notes the plane's single-engine design means it "can't turn, can't climb, can't run", forcing the Pentagon to limit flights. Should these jets see real action, the USA is in trouble.
The remaining suspect has been grounded since 2003. The Concorde, a supersonic passenger jet, was mothballed after the Air France Flight 4590 crash in 2000, 9/11 making people think twice about flying, then Airbus's decision to discontinue the plane altogether.
Could it have been a meteor? Nearly three years ago a 13,000 metric ton hunk of rock exploded over Chelyabinsk in the Urals. The explosion was estimated at 500 kilotons, blowing out windows, flattening a factory, and injuring over 1,000 Russians with its sonic boom and detonation over the city.
The Jersey Shore is no stranger to otherworldly visitors. On the 23rd of April, 1922 the Toms River beach patrol reported a fireball crashing into the water, generating huge waves. Here's The Evening World's report from Monday, April 24, 1922:
The Coast Guard lookout was attracted by a bluish light in the sky and saw a ball of fire. It was accompanied by a roaring sound and a tremendous explosion occurred when the mass struck the water. An earth tremor was felt for a considerable area in and around Toms River.
Reports that the meteor had fallen on land were disproved. Headquarters of the Coast Guard along the New Jersey shore is at Asbury Park.
The meteor appeared about one-fourth the size of a full moon and was the largest even seen by those observerse who reported it. It seemed to start from about 45 degrees above the horizon and almost due south of New York.
It gets weirder with residents of Seaside Park talking about smelling the meteor after it crashed offshore. More recently, on April 18th, 1979 there were reports of a meteorite falling into Barnegat Bay near Lanoka Harbor about 20 minutes south of Toms River. Interesting to note both incidents happened around the time of the Lyrids meteor shower. 1922's show was particularly intense according to Wikipedia.
So far there are no reports of a fireball offshore. There have been two notable daylight sightings of meteors over the past week. Calgary, Alberta recorded a fast-moving fireball over their city around 5 p.m. MST . On Tuesday, Floridians bore witness to a daytime fireball  zooming into their state from southern Georgia's airspace.
If this wasn't America's military, might it have been another country? Two hours before the booms echoed over New Jersey, the notorious Russian numbers station UVB-76 issued two cryptic broadcasts.
Synchronicity may also be afoot, with Thursday being the thirtieth anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger disaster heralding the end of the space age.
As for my own experience, a neighbor shared an update from the Ocean County Sheriff's Department about a possible earthquake. At 2:14 p.m EST my house shook for a handful of seconds, but I didn't feel the ground move. Nobody else I know saw, heard, nor felt anything so I take solace in the sheer volume of reports flooding Twitter.
The Truth has still got it!
- Nick Redfern weighs in on his mixed feelings about The X-Files' return --looking good with that salt 'n pepper, Skinner!
- Conspiracies? It's all in the numbers.
- The New York Times weighs in on what I discussed last December re. the privatization of the ISS.
- Mysterious pentagram found on Kazakhstan with Google Earth explained.
- 2 of my favorite authors, Graham Hancock and Chris Ryan, got together to discuss advanced civilizations, the problems with 'progress' and altered states of consciousness.
- Incredibly vivid 14,000-year-old sculptures found in French cave.
- Are carbon emissions postponing the Ice Age?
- Transmutating smog into fuel.
- The AI takeover is a go!
- Contender for Best Headline of 2016: 99-year-old woman wakes up to find exotic animal on chest.
- Erupting fires on Egyptian village are blamed on the Djinn.
- "Sergeant Hutchins, I presume?". Paul Kimball shares one of his personal ghost cases.
- My friend Badhammer shares his 'fractal' experience of time during an NDE.
- "This? Oh, just some human skulls used in a magic ritual."
- Was the 'Seven Chutes beast' and upright canine?
- Red Pill of the Day: Photo of potato sells for over US$1,000,000 *throws himself into the mouth of Mount Popo*
Thanks to Fox and Dana.
Quote of the Day:
"A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say."
A long time ago – circa 1930 – in the area of Mineral County, WV, there was a little town called Shaw. You won’t find it on any modern map though, because it no longer exists. Where Shaw once stood is now a small lake. Jennings Randolph Lake to be precise, but it wasn’t a natural disaster that condemned Shaw, it was the American Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Residents of Shaw were asked to pack up their lives and leave, as the government had decided to install a dam on the Potomac River, which flowed through the small town.
An entire town told to pack up and leave in the name of progress. The people of Shaw were largely unhappy about this proposition, as could be expected, but several of those residents were less worried about their own wellbeing than they were about a strange rock known locally as ‘The Indian Rock’, that was to be buried under meters of water with the completion of the damn project.
It might seem strange that people would be so concerned about a rock, but this was no ordinary rock. One-time resident of Shaw, Ms. Betty Webster Bishop, recounts her memories of the rock via both the Army Corps of Engineers website, as well as a commemorative website honouring the history of Shaw.
“Our Sundays were for worship and rest. The one allowed activity was a walk in the woods. It was on one of these walks that my Mother discovered ‘her’ rock, as we often referred to it. She loved God and all aspects of nature, with a special fondness for rocks, large and small. This big rock, the subject of this story, was her ‘pot of gold’ at the end of the rainbow. She never tired of taking visitors to see it, whether local or out of town. She called it ‘The Indian Rock’, but we later referred to it as ‘Mom’s Rock.’ It was located a short distance up the hill. All who came were granted the privilege of visiting Mom’s ‘Indian Rock’. We felt it belonged to us and we reveled in the sharing of it. Many spoke of it and the awe it inspired, even after many years, and the many miles that separated us.”
Betty’s story is heartwarming and engenders nostalgic longings for a simpler time. The full version, which I encourage you to read, tells of her Mother’s discovery of the rock and how it came to be known, at least to them, as “Mom’s Rock”, and of how Betty brought its story to the world via a letter to the Saturday Evening Post (December 1984). That letter was precipitous, and led to the best answer at the time for what, exactly, this rock might actually be. But this is getting ahead of the story.
Waffle Rock, as it’s now called, is a large block of sandstone lodged into the ground just outside the visitor center at the lake in question. On one side of the rock appears a regular waffle-like geometric pattern of raised, darker stone that creates pockets or deep pits on the rock’s surface. This odd formation has caused many to speculate on what might have caused such a strange pattern. As is apparently a common failing of the editorial standards in the world of paranormal blogging these days, if you search for ‘Waffle Rock’, you’ll find numerous websites offering pretty much the exact same story, which generally goes as follows:
“This is a boulder on display at Jennings Randolph Lake in Mineral County, West Virginia. There have been numerous theories and speculations as to its origin, ranging from a pictograph made by prehistoric man, an Indian carving, the impression of the skin pattern of a giant lizard, or evidence of a visit to earth by an early travelers [sic] from outer space.
After examination of the phenomenon, Corps of Engineers geologists and those of other agencies have concluded that it is a natural geological formation. Although such formations are not common, similar patterned boulders were found on the east side of Tea Creek Mountain in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Dr. Jack B. Epstein of the Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the interior, explained that the waffle rock is part of the Conemaugh geologic series that was deposited about 300 million years ago during the Pennsylvanian period. It is surmised that the waffle rock is a large loose boulder that fell from a parent outcrop somewhere higher up the slope, many decades ago, before the present trees grew.”
That being the extent of the readily available information on the rock, one can almost forgive the Internet’s rather quick descent into wild speculation, but the somewhat obscure accounting by Ms. Webster Bishop does provide more material to sink one’s teeth into. In response to her December 1984 letter to the Saturday Evening Post, a letter-to-the-editor was published in the April 1985 edition, from a Col. Martin W. Walsh Jr. Corps of Engineers Commander (Baltimore MD).
Col. Walsh offered some interesting commentary about the rock:
“Speculations range from the impressions of the skin pattern of a giant reptile, to evidence of space travelers on earth. Upon examination by geologists from the U. S. Corps of Engineers and other agencies, it was concluded that the rock is a natural geologic formation.”
Apparently Col. Walsh went on in his letter to describe the process by which such patterning could form naturally, suggesting that sand deposited by ancient streams consolidated into sandstone layers with rock above and below being compressed into the large folds that make up the pattern. It’s believed that this occurred between 250 and 300 million years ago, during the formation of the Appalachian Mountains.
Of course, there are those who are less than enthusiastic about these conventional, natural explanations. Many claim – namely the Rense.com correspondent identified as “Jeff” and the author of s8nt.com’s piece on the matter – the scientific explanations don’t account for all of the features present in the rock. Aside from the usual ancient alien talk, many believe that the pattern is actually an early form of hieroglyphic or primitive writing, and that the rock is the result of Neolithic art by pre-Columbian peoples.
That’s a little short sighted though.
The rock on display at the West Virginia Outlook on Jennings Randolph Lake is but a small piece of the original rock. It was moved there to save the geologically significant piece of history from the dam project; likely in no small part because of pressure exerted by the original residents of Shaw. Photographs of the whole rock show clearly that the pattern, or the structure of the pattern does not run all the way through the rock, but rather can only be seen on one side. And Dr. Epstein (mentioned above) offers an explanation more plausible than aliens or dragons, or even ancient art.
As outlined in Epstein’s official USGS fact-sheet on the Waffle Rock; when layers of sandstone were formed during the Appalachian Orogeny (the epoch during with the Appalachian range was formed), approximately 250 million years ago, the lower layers of the bedrock experienced compression forces as the Appalachian range heaved and folded. Those different forces, which pushed that lower layer in different directions, resulted in a unique folding of the sandstone which formed joints or fractures that just happen to look like the pattern shown on the Waffle Rock.
“Four sets of joints are apparent in the waffle rock. Sets a and b are roughly perpendicular to each other; sets c and d are at an acute angle to each other. The stress that formed the joints, as well as the folds in the rocks, bisects the angle between joints c and d…”
The mechanism that causes the waffle pattern to appear to be of a different material is similar to that which formed the Klerksdorp Spheres. Following the formation upheaval of the bedrock, iron ore particles filtered through the sediment and rock, and leached out of the material below, settling into the spaces between sand particles, which ultimately acted like a cement or glue. Once settled, the compression of the sandstone by the ongoing movement of the surrounding rock turned the iron ore into Hematite (as with the Klerksdorp Spheres), which is darker, harder and of a different consistency than sandstone.
This process is sort of like a perfect storm of conditions, which resulted in the rare but not unique form we see in the Waffle Rock as it sits near Jennings Randolph Lake (also called Bloomington Lake). Another example of the Waffle Rock (which was also taken from Jennings Randolph Lake) sits at the entrance to the US Geological Survey Headquarters in Reston, Virginia. And as it turns out, there are many undocumented examples of identical stone patterning in several other places around the world. (Undocumented because, to the trained eye, they aren’t particularly remarkable)
It seems likely that there will be people who refuse to accept that the Waffle Rock is a natural formation. Hell, there are still people who think the Earth is flat. But since Dr. Epstein was good enough to provide his expert analysis and opinion on this subject, perhaps we should bow to his superior knowledge on the subject.
But whichever camp you find yourself in, if you’ve found any of this interesting, I urge you to read Betty Webster Bishop’s story on ShawWV.com, if only to keep some part of that history alive.
 Dennis, Norm. The Waffle Rock: A big attractions to the thousands of visitors at Jennings Randolph Lake each year. http://www.nab.usace.army.mil/Portals/63/docs/Recreation/JRL/Maps/WaffleRock.pdf
Step 1: You watch the first minute of this strange, looping video.
Step 2: You realise that it's a spherical 360° video, so you start using the arrows or dragging with your mouse to 'look around' in the video.
Step 3: You spend the rest of the night picking your brains up off the floor.
(For information/explanation/mathematics, see this blog post. Or if you prefer, just watch it while bent and have a good giggle.)
News from multiple universes:
- New Roswell found: Airforce shoot down UFO after radar alert.
- New edition of Cosmic Trigger 1 is out (Amazon US/UK), with an introduction by John Higgs.
- Scientists fight anti-science, with science: On the viability of conspiratorial beliefs.
- Google Earth blackouts: the secret sites they don't want you to see.
- Do brainwaves ever lie?
- Download pdfs of the mysterious Voynich Manuscript and the Codex Seraphinianus for free.
- A little perspective on the new "9th planet" (and the 10th, and the 11th).
- King Tut had chronic medical problems, but his beard falling off wasn't one of them.
- Japanese taxi drivers report 'ghost passengers' in area hit by 2011 tsunami.
- Massive icy underworld hiding inside one of Hawaii's volcanoes.
- Why did the CIA release a guide to investigating UFOs?
- Dolls with 'supernatural powers' allowed seating on Thai Smile airline.
- Exposing the secret history of giants and the underground hyperborean gallery in Romania.
- Egyptian village blaming fires on 'evil spirits'.
- Why people fall for pseudoscience (and how academics can fight back).
- Neanderthals could have lived in southern Scandinavia.
- Folklore, magic, and mysteries: modern witchcraft and folk culture in Britain: an exhibit of artefacts from the 'mother of modern witchcraft'.
Quote of the Day:
Now I know what a ghost is. Unfinished business, that's what.
Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses
Bigfoot is perhaps the most famous mythological creature in human history, and there are many people making it their life’s business to seek out all information and knowledge on the subject, and to find evidence of this elusive beast, or beasts as the case may be.
But there’s an aspect of the Bigfoot phenomenon that a great many people don’t know, and it’s an issue that is formative to the entire mythology. We all know that the name of Bigfoot, Sasquatch – which is used by most researchers because is seems to lend an air of credibility to the search – is actually a Native American / First Nations word meaning hairy wild-man, but do you really know the story behind that name?
The word Sasquatch isn’t technically a Native word; it was coined by Canadian teacher and Indian agent J.W. Burns in the 1920’s. Burns taught for many years at the Chehalis Indian Reserve (No.5&6), which sits on the banks of the Harrison River near Vancouver, British Columbia (between Deroche and Agassiz). That reserve houses the Chehalis First Nation band of Sts’Ailes people, who were almost wiped out by early European settlement of the area, and who have rebounded from the time of the horrible Residential Schools and the deplorable mistreatment that went along with them to a population of over 1000 band members.
Burns was, arguably, obsessed with the Indian tales of giant hairy wild-men, and he wrote extensively on the encounters that were shared with him by tribal elders and travellers. It was through his writings that the word Sasquatch was brought into mainstream culture. He wrote an article for the popular Canadian MacLean’s Magazine (April 1929 issue), in which he used the term frequently and since then it’s been a household name.
The problem is, the word Sasquatch was most likely a mistranslation. That word doesn’t actually exist in the oral traditions of the people in question, nor in any other Native culture in North America. The hairy wild-men of which Burns was a fanatic apparently do exist (depending who you ask), whether as a reality or as a fairy-tale, but they were known by many different names, depending on the specific tribe or band being referenced. It’s generally thought that Burns confused the spelling and pronunciation of the Chehalis word ‘sasqac’. This word means beast, but there are other contenders for the correct etymological originator, such as ‘sokqueatl' and 'soss-q'tal', both of which mean wild-man, according to cryptozoologists Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark.
It isn’t necessarily that Burns made a mistake, or misunderstood what was being said, some think he deliberately combined several words in an effort to make an umbrella term to cover all of the various languages he was working with, but it’s generally accepted that he did make the word up, for whatever reason. And as such, we now have a blanket term – a household name – for the creature or creatures that have been known to Native American and First Nations people for centuries.
There’s more to this, though, and it gets a bit weird.
World famous researcher and author Gian J. Quasar, renowned for being the authority on the Bermuda Triangle, and the creator/editor of The Bigfoot Blatt, has a slightly different theory.
Quasar says that Sasquatch has a completely different meaning, one you won’t be expecting.
In the first issue of The Bigfoot Blatt (of which there appear to only be two issues), Quasar expanded on a theory subtitled Lingua Fanca [sic]– Chinook Trading Jargon: A Skoocum Language, wherein he outlined the etymological origins and evolution of several words, apparently of the Chinook language. He explains the origin of the word skoocum, suggesting that it began as the name of a greatly feared henchman of the Klikatats Indian band, who was known as the Casanov Skoocoom (or the henchman of Casanov, who was the chief of the tribe). Skoocum is now used to describe someone who is good or excellent, or ‘cool’, and Quasar says that’s because the Casanov Skoocum was such a good murderer.
Quasar notes that the words in question are considered lingua franca (as he apparently tried to signify in the subtitle, listed above), or working languages, and are used to make communication possible between peoples who do not share a common mother tongue. And it’s through this process that he claims that Sasquatch actually means Saskahaua George.
Quasar claims that Sasquatch came about as an alternative word meant to describe long haired wild-men of King George, or white men if you prefer. He says that Indian warriors were known as sawash (or siwash), but they didn’t want to refer to non-Indian’s by the same term, so saskahaua was invented.
“Saskahaua George comes down to us as “Sasquatch” because the Indians seldom liked to refer to them as sawash (siwash a century ago). That implied they were Indians. But this is something that offended the Indians.”
By implication, Quasar is saying that Burns coopted saskahaua, which ultimately became Sasquatch, which has now gone down in history as the Native word for giant, hairy wild-men, or Bigfoot.
Now, despite Quasar’s standing as a relatively respected researcher on the Bermuda Triangle phenomenon, he doesn’t appear to be a linguist, and his connection, if any, to Native American / First Nation customs is entirely unconfirmed. That and the fact that the Chinook peoples are not related to the Chehalis people (though they were neighbours, geographically), makes his theory a little sketchy. It’s an interesting thought though…
What if the word we’re all using to identify a huge, hairy, possibly mythological cryptid actually means white-man-of-King-George? I doubt Quasar is going to convince anyone to give up the word now, but it does pay to understand just where our linguistic icons really come from.
 J. Clark & L. Coleman. The Unidentified & Creatures of the Outer Edge. Anomalist Books, 2006. ISBN 1933665114
 Gian J. Quasar. Lingua Fanca – Chinook Trading Jargon: A Skoocum Language. The Bigfoot Blatt - Issue 1, page 2. http://www.bermuda-triangle.org/html/the_bigfoot_blatt_issue_1_page.html
.drawkcab sevom emit erehw esrevinu rorrim a esoporp stsitneiS
- Scientists propose a mirror universe where time moves backward.
- Chemicals released in near-death situations may lower our chances of surviving.
- Lucid dreaming: Could the ability to control our dreams unlock the secrets of the mind?
- Why 'Planet Nine' might not exist.
- Artificial Intelligence is here to help us, says Microsoft boss.
- Is the Assyrian 'Nimrud lens' the world's oldest telescope?
- Marvin Minsky, pioneering computer science and artificial intelligence researcher (and sci-fi writer), has passed away at 88.
- Family finds strange, black 'walking fish' in New Zealand.
- On the borderlands between philosophy and esotericism: an interview with Gary Lachman.
- Why people fall for pseudoscience (and how academics can fight back).
- Do these 16th century maps show that Portugese explorers were the first Europeans to discover Australia?
- Rapper BoB in bitter row with cosmologist Neil deGrasse Tyson over whether the world is flat.
- Intensifying the hunt for a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri.
Quote of the Day:
If you're not careful, the newspaper will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.
My friend Greg Bishop has often mentioned on his weekly radio show, how he used to be approached by TV producers in search of 'talking heads' needed for some UFO show or another; they would get discouraged pretty quickly with him though, because he *always* refused to say what they were expecting to hear. Instead of saying things like "UFOs are proof that a highly-advanced extraterrestrial civilization is visiting Earth in structured metal spacecraft, and they come from planet X or Y" Greg's response was "I think UFOs are evidence of a non-human intelligence, which from time to time decides to interact with us."
Eventually the producers stopped bothering him.
The kind of answers provided by Greg, and the rest of my heroes in both the UFO field or other fringe subjects, are NOT of the kind which can be easily squeezed in a neat 2-minute segment between nice CGI renditions of some close encounter of Bigfoot sighting. Another friend of mine, Joshua Cutchin, has conceded there's simply no 'elevator pitch' for his book A Trojan Feast or the sequel he's currently working on --and that's OK with him; because he, Greg, and my other friends in the Fortean blogosphere, have grown to learn you cannot give simple answers to phenomena so complex, they seem to be well beyond the scope of human comprehension.
...And perhaps that's the point of it all.
So to all newcomers to this site, be warned: If you're looking for easy answers to the mysteries of the universe, chances are The Daily Grail will not be your cup of tea. Here we suspect --uncle Bob and uncle John taught us the word 'believe' is a big No-No-- there's more to UFOs than space scientists conducting pro-bono prostatic exams, Bigfoot is more than a large ape roaming the North Pacific woods (and the undisputed hide-and-seek champion of the world) and ghosts are more than your dead grandma refusing to leave her old farm because, well... she was always a stubborn lady...
Caveat Lector, and enjoy the scenery from the less-trodden road! (Extra bonus is the travelers you'll find, will probably be the most interesting humans you'll ever meet in your life.)
[H/T Seriah Azkath]
Welcome back, Scully and Mulder. If you're looking for fresh mysteries, you've got 14 years of Daily Grail news briefs to work through...
- Medical mystery: why are placebos becoming more effective?
- Italy's mysterious hallucinogenic drink.
- You're not hallucinating, British MPs really did just pass a crazy-bad drug law on psychoactive substances.
- Is there life after death? Experts vie to 'cut through the noise'.
- How to construct the ultimate conspiracy theory.
- How the Illuminati stole the mind, soul and body of hip-hop.
- Where are all the aliens? Perhaps taking shelter from the Universe's radiation...
- The replicability crisis in science.
- I, for one, welcome our Chinese drone overlords.
- Early Egyptian queen revealed in 5000-year-old hieroglyphs.
- Egypt museum staff to face trial over botched beard repair on Tutankhamun's mask.
- Famous last words.
- X-Files creator Chris Carter once thought the FBI was going to shut him down for getting too close to the truth.
- Robots could soon read your mind - and there are no laws against it.
- Video of the Day: Robot solves Rubik's Cube in one second.
Quote of the Day:
Humanity has already achieved, technically, the total success all Utopians ever dreamed of; our problems now are entirely due to wrong thinking. We are in the tragic-comic predicament of two crazed men dying of thirst, fighting over a teaspoon of water in the middle of a rainstorm. We cannot see the rainstorm because we are hypnotized by emergency-reflexes fixated on the teaspoon.
Robert Anton Wilson
"Wæs þu hæl" is an Anglo Saxon toast meaning "be thou hale" ("be in good health"). The toast, if not the customs which the term has come to be associated with, is thought to date from the early eleventh or late tenth century, at least.
There are two kinds of Wassailing - the first of which has come to be closely associated with Christmas and carolling. Wassailers call at people's homes then offer a song and a drink of warmed, spiced ale or cider from a Wassailing bowl (or cup) to the answerer in exchange for money or gifts.
The second originates in the South West of England ("the West Country"), where apple orchards were already providing cider for the thirsty population by the time our Roman invaders arrived.  Today the UK drinks more cider (by that I mean what North Americans refer to as Hard Cider - not mere apple-juice) than anywhere else in the world with the beverage being produced not just in the West Country but also in places like Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Kent, Suffolk, Norfolk, Buckinghamshire, and Cheshire, as well as in Wales and Northern Ireland.
Apple Howling and Apple Wassailing may once have been two distinct practices that have become entwined and conflated over the years. The former was once most commonly performed at New Year and was described by the American naturalist Henry David Thoreau in his 1862 essay "Wild Apples" as follows:
A troop of boys visited the different orchards and, encircling the apple tress, repeated the following words: -
"Stand fast, root! bear well, top!
Pray God send us a good howling crop:
Every twig, apples big;
Every bough, apples enow!"
"They then shout in chorus, one of the boys accompanying them on a cow's horn. During this ceremony they rap the trees with their sticks". 
Apple Wassailing on the other hand most commonly takes place on Twelfth Night (which on Today's calendar is January the 17th). Though the "Stand fast, root" incantation and the rest of the Apple Howling custom often forms a part of the Wassailing, there is a lot more to it.
Though it varies not just from county to county, but from village to village, the basics of Apple Wassailing are as follows: The Wassailing party gather in an orchard bringing plenty of cider with them. Toasted bread is soaked in the cider and pieces of it hung from the branches of the trees as an offering to those beneficial spirits which reside within the orchard, and also the birds which might peck at the new buds in the spring. The group gather around the largest, oldest apple tree and a Libation of cider is poured upon its roots. The leader of the party then fires a shotgun into the branches of the tree to scare away any malevolent spirits (and presumably birds, once again). Toasts of cider are then drunk to the tree and a Wassailing Song is sung.
Norton Priory in Runcorn, Cheshire (about ten miles East of my home in Liverpool) was founded in 1134 AD. It was home to an Order of Augustinian Canons and saw several phases of building and rebuilding, culminating in 1391 with its elevation to Abbey status. The Abbey met its end in April 1536 during the first phase of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries. The buildings and estate were bought by the Brooke family who lived there up until the early twentieth century.
Today, much of the original layout of the buildings - the cloisters, church, refectory and dormitory can still be seen. There is also an intact 12th century undercroft. A two and a half acre Walled Garden has been recreated as it would have been in Georgian times. There is an orchard, a trained fruit garden, a vegetable garden, various ornamental borders and the beautiful Rose Walk. 
This year Norton Priory held its first recorded Apple Wassail on the 17th of January. Archaeologist, folklorist, historian, storyteller, and bagpiper Tom Hughes is the man responsible for bringing the custom to the priory and he was good enough to answer a few questions about it for me.
First, I asked how the whole thing came about.
I'd personally been involved in wassailing at Stretton Watermill in Cheshire for the past four years when I was working there. Some of the Norton rangers and gardeners had come along to that and when I started work at Norton Priory on a project to develop a new museum they asked me if I would help get a wassail going there. I was only too pleased to do so! There is a nice association as well as the mistletoe we managed to get established on the apple trees at Stretton Mill came from berries in the Norton Priory walled garden.
Next I asked Tom to take us through the Appple Wassail as it occurred, step by step.
We decided to gather at 4pm so that by the time we got to the trees it would be getting dark and we'd enjoy the atmosphere of the lantern lit orchard. We'd arranged a workshop for families just before, so they could make their own willow and paper lanterns. The wassail was arranged as a thank you to our supporters and volunteers, around eighty people in total, most of whom had never encountered a wassail before, though several had heard one on The Archers omnibus that morning! We began with getting together in a straw bale building beside the Georgian walled garden and enjoyed mulled cider and spiced apple juice. We also passed around the wassail cup. With it being Old Twelfth Night we enjoyed a mummers play*, then I told the story of the Apple Tree Man**. The group then picked up drums, rattles and tambourines and set off on procession through the gardens to the orchard. I led the way, playing the tune of our wassail song as we went.
When we arrived in the orchard inside the garden we had baskets of toast for people to hang in the trees to encourage the good spirits, we have twelve or so apple trees there, mostly old Cheshire varieties, but people got quite carried away and so plums, quince and medlar trees also benefitted! We then sang the Apple Tree Wassail to the oldest tree. The version we used has a tune very similar to the old Cheshire song "Miller of Dee", the words were the version
"Oh apple tree,
We wassail thee,
And hope that thou shall bear.
For the Lord doth know where we shall be,
to be merry another new year.
For to bear well, and to share well,
So merry may we be.
Let every man raise up his cup and shout health to the old apple tree."
We then poured cider on the roots and then made lots of noise with the rattles and drums and several blasts of a shotgun through the branches.
Then we processed back to the straw bale building, this time I played the tune of the Gloucestershire Wassail. We finished with more cider, potatoes baked in the cob oven, and some more storytelling. Everyone was demanding we do it again next year.
Finally, I asked Tom what inspired him to bring what is usually considered a West Country tradition to Cheshire, and what it means to him personally.
Although apple tree wassailing is best known from the West Country, it did take place all along the Welsh borders, up through Shropshire and into Cheshire. Heading along to Norton is perhaps straying a bit east, but we felt the wassailing of the Cheshire variety trees and the use of the local tune made it as much part of our heritage.
I don't know that apple tree wassailing is a very ancient tradition, perhaps 19th or maybe 18th century. Maybe it's older, but I haven't seen proof. I feel it's one of those traditions that folklorists used to want to push back to "pre-Christian" times, rebirth of the seasons and all that, like the old books of the 1970s used to say of morris dancing and mummers. We'd tried to be true to images of older wassails along with taking the best bits of revivals. In the past decade I've enjoyed wassails at a community orchard over in Cambridge and the huge wassail festival at Chepstow. What works best is its way that it brings a community together in the depths of winter and I can imagine that was always the point of it.
I'll raise a cider to that!
* Mummers Plays are seasonal British folk plays, performed by troupes of amateur actors known as mummers or guisers (or by local names such as rhymers, pace-eggers, soulers, tipteerers, wrenboys, galoshins, guysers, and so on). Tom is himself a member of the Jones' Ale Soul Cakers - a group which started out in 1970, taking their name from the Jones' Ale folk club in Chester where they were regulars. The play they perform is taken from the Alderley Mummers script which supposedly dates from 1788.
** The Apple Tree Man is a folktale from Somerset. The Apple Tree Man is the spirit of the oldest apple tree in an orchard, and in whom the fertility of the orchard is said to reside. In the tale a man offers his last mug of mulled cider to the trees in his orchard and is rewarded by the Apple Tree Man who reveals to him the location of buried treasure.
 Marc Alexander, A Compendium of Folklore, Myths & Customs of Britain, Sutton Publishing 2002