GeoArts International | Lyall Watson

 

How The Water Planet Came To Be

In 1980 Jerry went on a solo journey backpacking in England, Scotland and Wales for 5 months. During that time someone gave him Lyall Watson's book Gifts of Unknown Things. Thus began Jerry's acquaintance and fascination with Lyall's work. Then in 1983, when Jerry was looking for an author for his Grand Canyon book proposal, our good friend Jim Donahue suggested that he send his book proposal and notebook of images to Lyall in hopes that he would take an interest in the project. Jim had just finished reading Lyall's book Gifts of Unknown Things himself and thought Lyall was the perfect author to approach. Jerry thought it was a great idea, and was really excited about the prospect but hardly dared hope that someone as famous as Lyall would be interested.    

Lyall received the photos and wrote to Jerry saying that he was very moved by Jerry's images and asked if he could "live with them" for a while. He mentioned that there were so many books already done on the Grand Canyon that he would not be interested in that subject, but he would think over some ideas and get back to him. After a while Lyall called Jerry and said he would be interested in doing a book on water. He had always wanted to do a book on water and thought Jerry's portfolio was very strong in that area. Jerry was elated to have Lyall interested and on board and readily agreed to the idea. Random House agreed to publish the book.

Soon after, without any warning, Lyall appeared in Austin, Texas, at Jerry's doorstep, extended his hand and said "Hello, I'm Lyall Watson". I still remember the day Jerry came over to tell me — he so excited! Lyall immediately rented an apartment in Austin and wrote the whole book in 6 weeks. His routine was to get up at 5 a.m. and begin writing. The book was published in 1986 by Random House. Lyall had wanted to do 3 more companion books to have a 4 book series — water, air, earth and fire. Sadly Jerry passed away before that could be accomplished. The Water Planet is no longer in print in the US but copies are available on Amazon.com. There has also been 3 editions printed in Japan.

 

Lyall WatsonLyall Watson

 

Lyall Watson, who died on June 25, 2008, aged 69, was an adventurer, explorer and the author of New Age books about the paranormal, including the bestselling Supernature (1973); he introduced the psychic showman Uri Geller to British television audiences, and in the 1980s imported sumo wrestling to the West, presenting coverage of sumo tournaments on Channel 4.

 

A radical thinker operating at the margins of accepted science, Watson was an apparent polymath who might have sprung fully-formed from a Victorian adventure by Jules Verne or H Rider Haggard.

A dapper, shimmering figure, often dressed for the tropics in a safari suit of white linen, he led the first scientific journey up the Amazon river, and was the first white person seen by headhunters in Papua New Guinea.

 

Supernature, his most successful book, dealt with mysterious and inexplicable natural phenomena. It became a 1970s student essential, and was acclaimed for its stimulating treatment of exotic and unexpected scientific facts and discoveries.

 

As a populariser of science snapping up unconsidered nerdy trifles, Watson ranged over astrology, paranormal phenomena, alchemy, circadian rhythms, palmistry, dreams and much else. The book went into 10 reprints in as many weeks, topped the bestseller list for 50 weeks, sold 750,000 copies in paperback and was translated into eight languages.

 

His open-mindedness was refreshing, said one reviewer in The Daily Telegraph; another upbraided him for being "embarrassingly credulous" in accepting a claim that plants responded to the killing of a live shrimp thrown into boiling water.

 

A botanist, zoologist, biologist, anthropologist and ethologist, at 23 Watson was director of Johannesburg Zoo, and subsequently became an expedition leader, a television producer and Seychelles commissioner for the International Whaling Commission. Describing himself as a "scientific nomad", he considered conventional science simply inadequate to explain much human experience.

 

Watson followed Supernature with a book about the nature of death, the afterlife and the supernatural, The Romeo Error (1974), and this, too, became a bestseller.

 

In his sixth book, Lifetide (1979), Watson made what was believed to be the first published use of the term "hundredth monkey".

 

This phenomenon referred to a sudden spontaneous and mysterious leap of consciousness achieved when an allegedly "critical mass" point is reached. Watson was writing about several studies done in the 1960s by Japanese primatologists of Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata).

 

Claiming that the scientists were "reluctant to publish [the whole story] for fear of ridicule", Watson wrote that he had to "gather the rest of the story from personal anecdotes and bits of folklore among primate researchers, because most of them are still not quite sure what happened".

 

Watson's tale was that an unspecified number of monkeys on the Japanese island of Koshima were washing sweet potatoes in the sea. But the addition of a further monkey – the so-called hundredth – apparently carried the number across some sort of threshold, pushing it through a kind of critical mass, because by evening almost every monkey was doing it. Moreover the habit seems to have jumped natural barriers and to have appeared spontaneously in monkey colonies on other islands and on the mainland.

 

Although it seemed a good story, the part about spontaneous transmission, at least, was not true. Watson, however, was blamed only for "myth-making" rather than confabulation. "It is a metaphor of my own making," he admitted in 1986, "based on very slim evidence and a great deal of hearsay. I have never pretended otherwise." Although the hundredth monkey theory occupied only a few paragraphs of his total output, it bulked disproportionately large in critical studies of his work. Watson himself remained unrepentant, however, and declared on his website: "I still think it's a good idea!"

 

Malcolm Lyall-Watson was born on April 12 1939 in Johannesburg, the eldest of three brothers. His Scottish father was an architect and his mother, a radiologist, was descended from Simon van der Stel, the first Dutch governor of the Cape.

 

Young Mo learned to read from a 457-page copy of Birds of South Africa, and on his first day at school already knew 800 species of bird by heart.

 

In a world in which adults were preoccupied with the Second World War, young Lyall grew up running wild in the bush, and was taught by Zulu and Kung bushmen before being sent as a boarder to Rondebosch Boys' High School, Cape Town.

 

An exceptional scholar, he started at the University of the Witwatersrand aged 15 and by the age of 19 held degrees in Botany and Zoology. While still in South Africa, he added degrees which included the study of Geology, Chemistry, Marine Biology, Ecology and Anthropology, before moving to London, where he completed a doctorate in Ethology (animal behaviour) at London University under the supervision of Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape, and then curator of mammals at London Zoo.

 

Having thus made himself virtually unemployable (as he wryly noted), he joined BBC Television as a producer and reporter on Tomorrow's World, abandoned his given name of Malcolm, started a consultancy, designed and directed zoos, ran a safari company in Kenya and founded a marine national park in the Seychelles.

 

In 1973 he shared a television studio with the fork-bending psychic Uri Geller, whom he claimed to have discovered, and who was making his first live TV appearance. It had been Watson's suggestion, in the wake of Supernature, that the BBC fly Geller from the United States to demonstrate his apparent powers of psychokinesis.

 

Although Watson had struggled for two years to persuade a publisher to take his book, the success of Supernature threw him into the spotlight. He began lecture tours and was picked up by the Japanese as a cult hero.

 

In Japan huge billboards were erected showing him lying on a raft drinking a local beer while being poled along by a beautiful woman. His annual visits to the country kindled an interest in the tradition of sumo wrestling, and he studied the art and met top fighters and their management teams.

 

Watson lobbied to get a series of championship fights presented at the Albert Hall in London: the touring party and entourage filled two Jumbo jets to capacity. He presented the Sumo series for Channel 4, giving a running commentary on the fights. Although few expected the traditional Japanese sport to attract more than a few hundred viewers, in the event it rapidly drew audiences of many thousands.

 

He started work on his first book, Omnivore (1972), in the early 1960s, and produced 25 titles in all, covering an eclectic range of subjects including the nature of crowds and a history of the wind. His last, The Whole Hog (2004), explored the history and potential of pigs.

 

Watson had an endlessly enquiring mind and never lost the habit of questioning received wisdom. Restless and nomadic, he travelled widely throughout his life, visiting Antarctica numerous times as an expedition leader and researcher. He introduced into his own body a tapeworm called Fred which, he claimed, unfailingly protected him from stomach disorders abroad. At various times he lived in America, South Africa, England and latterly Ireland, rising at six every morning to write for three hours before starting his day.

 

Although Supernature opened many doors for Watson – he dined at Buckingham Palace and with the Japanese royal family – he remained a very private man, protective of his personal space. His enquiring mind never relaxed, and he was always on the lookout for the unusual, and the truth behind the obvious.

 

In 1985 Watson was appointed a Knight of the Order of the Golden Ark by the Netherlands in honour of his conservation work on the International Whaling Commission.

 

Although he had no children, he indulged his five nieces on their 18th birthdays by taking them anywhere in the world they wanted to go. On the first of these trips – to Egypt – a diner in a restaurant offered Watson 200,000 camels for the hand of his eldest niece, Katherine. After a lengthy, pregnant pause, Watson successfully called the admirer's bluff when he replied that her price was her weight in gold.

 

Lyall Watson married, in 1961, Vivienne Mawson (dissolved 1966); his second wife, Alice Coogan, predeceased him in 2003.

 

Education

Schooled in Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

 

Bachelor of Science degree in botany, chemistry, geology, geography, physics, psychology and zoology from the University of the Witwatersrand in 1958.

 

Honours degree in marine biology and ecology from the University of Natal in 1960.

 

Doctor of Philosophy degree in ethology from the University of London in 1963.

 

Bibliography

Omnivore: The Role of Food in Human Evolution (1972)

Supernature: A Natural History of the Supernatural (1973)

The Biology of Death: A Matter of Life and Death (1974)

The Romeo Error (1974)

Gifts of Unknown Things: An Indonesian Adventure (1976)

Lifetide: a Biology of the Unconscious (1979)

Whales of the World: A Field Guide to the Cetaceans (1981)

Lightning Bird: An African Adventure (1982)

Heaven's Breath: A Natural History of the Wind (1984)

Bali Entranced: A Celebration of Ritual (1985) - published in Japanese only

Dreams of Dragons: Essays on the Edge of Natural History (1986)

Beyond Supernature: A New Natural History of the Supernatural (1986)

The Water Planet: A Celebration of the Wonder of Water (1988)

Neophilia: The Tradition of the New (1989)

Sumo: A Guide to Sumo Wrestling (1989)

The Nature of Things: The Strange Behaviour of Inanimate Objects (1990)

Lasting Nostalgia: Essays Out of Africa (1992) - published in Japanese only

Turtle Islands: Ritual in Indonesia (1995)

Dark Nature: A Natural History of Evil (1995)

Monsoon: Essays on the Indian Ocean (1996) - published in Japanese only

Lost Cradle: A Collection of Dialogues (1997) - published in Japanese only

Warriors, Warthogs, and Wisdom: Growing up in Africa (1997)

Jacobson's Organ and the Remarkable Nature of Smell (2000)

Elephantoms: Tracking the Elephant (2002)

The Whole Hog: Exploring the Extraordinary Potential of Pigs (2004)