What is the most frequently asked question that we get here at Ocotillo Botanica? It's not what you would think.
Most folks visiting for a day or two want to peel back the mysteries of this place...one of those mysteries being The Marfa Lights.
If I had a dime for every time someone asked me if I've seen the Marfa Lights, I'd have a lot of dimes. And the answer to that question is simple. Yes, I've seen the Marfa Lights, and so have most folks who have spent some time here. But then the inquiry turns to, "well, what are they?"
This is an excellent question indeed. On the surface, the Marfa Lights are a series of small, orb-shaped lights that appear out on the horizon just outside of town on most nights. The lights can range in color from white, to orange, to red, and even blue and they dance across the high desert horizon in a fantastic display. But when we stop to try and explain them... we simply can't.
There are many theories out there about what the Marfa Lights must be, but none have been proven. In fact, scientists have even tried to search out the source of the Marfa Lights but they can never seem to find them. This brings us to a world of folk tales and theories about what they are, from gas escaping the earth all the way to extraterrestrial activity.
Long time West Texas resident and historian Judith M. Brueske, Ph.D. published "The Marfa Lights: Being a Collection of First-hand Accounts By People Who Have Seen the Lights Close-up Or In Unusual Circumstances and Related Material," in 1989 that details some fairly incredible stories told by locals of the Big Bend and visitors alike. Even she, in her introduction, states that "No explanation of the lights has been made to the satisfaction of everyone, although there has been plenty of speculation. There have been investigations, more or less serious, by individuals and small groups, such investigators as Bill Rudersdorf, Ansen Seal, James Crocker, Phil Willenborg and, I am sure, many others whom I know nothing about."
Brueske goes on to tell about Don Witt, Sul Ross State University physics instructor in March of 1975, who was one of such investigators of the Marfa Lights. She states that, "The general consensus seems to be that the investigation was not a great success, having suffered from one or more communication failures and having arrived at few if any solid conclusions."
When one stands on the viewing platform of the Marfa Lights Viewing Center, 10 miles outside of Marfa proper, some of the lights you see come from cars traveling along the road from Presidio and Shafter. However, the true Marfa Lights are unmistakable; accounts of sights date back all the way to at least 1883. A plaque outside the viewing center states that "Apache Indians believed these eerie lights to be stars dropping from the sky."
Among the many tales of the Marfa Lights, there are two that stand out the most to me. In his book "Lost Cities & Ancient Mysteries of the Southwest, David Hatcher Childress goes into great detail on the local legends around the lights. One of the stories he tells of was passed forward by Mrs. W.T.Giddens, West Texas native who grew up in the Chinati Mountains, a hotspot for Marfa Light activity.
""I've seen the Ghost Lights all my life and can't remember their causing any harm other than fright. They like to follow you out in the pasture at night, seem to be drawn to people and stock, and animals don't seem to fear them at all." Then Mrs. Giddens told about her father, lost at night in a blizzard miles from home. He thought he would freeze to death when he saw the Marfa Lights flashing almost on him. They "said" to him (he could never explain how) that he was three miles south of Chinati Peak, off his trail, heading in the wrong direction. They "told" him he would die if he didn't follow the lights, which he did. They led him to a small cave, and in that shelter he lived through the night, the largest of the lights staying close beside him. Somehow he was "told" they were spirits from long before that wanted to save him, and that he could sleep now without freezing to death. With morning both the lights and the blizzard were gone. And as anticipated, he saw that he was off the trail, three miles south of the Chinati Peak. Then getting home was no chore at all."
Childress tells another tale in his text that resonates deeply with an experience I have personally had with the lights. He tells,
"Some legends say the lights are the ghosts of the Indians. According to one of these legends, Apaches were camped on the flat... Soldiers from Fort Davis attacked and and annihilated most of them. Seeking vengeance, survivors stole lanterns from the settlers and moved around at night, hoping to lure the soldiers into a trap. Their ghosts are still waving their deceptive lanterns to this day."
The legends of the Marfa Lights go on and on, each one getting more wild than the next (like the Marfa Lights Stargate theory...I'll get into that another time). But one thing is for sure, the Lights are an integral part of the Marfa community. For example, this weekend will be the 35th anniversary of the Marfa Lights Festival.
The festival is a 3-day event that evokes the feeling of a big family reunion. Marfa locals past and present gather together in celebration with food, vendors, music, and arts - one of the only Marfa festivals that is intended for the community. Over the years the mystery of the Lights themselves has been removed from the festival, but this year Marfa's Chamber of Commerce has paid homage to them in their flyer design, featuring a flying saucer with lights dancing in a circular motion in the background.
For me, part of the intrigue of this place has always been the secrets within the land. From the Marfa Lights to the ancient oceanic fossils, and the sacredness of the flora and the landscape, I have deep reverence for this place. I made my decision to finally move to Marfa almost 8 years ago as I found myself sitting on the stoop of the local grocery store at night, staring up at the expanse of stars above. Even the plant allies that call my heart the deepest are of this land.
My Chaparral Desert Skin Oil is made with the medicine and spirit of the Chaparral Bush and the Monsoon rains. The Mesquite Resin Lip Wax was passed to me in meditation with the Mesquite Plant herself. And the Adonis Blazingstar Spirit Essence perfectly captures the balance of the high desert sun and the unending cosmic sky.
Even though we don't really know the secret of the Marfa Lights, one thing is for certain. This place is sacred. West Texas is a land of deep mystery. Mysteries that I will forever be exploring.
The Marfa Lights: Being a Collection of First-hand Accounts by People Who Have Seen the Lights Close-up or in Unusual Circumstances, and Related Material. Judith M. Brueske, Ph.D. 1989 Ocotillo Enterprises
Lost Cities & Ancient Mysteries of the Southwest. David Hatcher Childress. 2009 Adventures Unlimited Press.