Serious question: How does one write about the northern lights?

peder-balke-northern-lights-1870-trivium-art-history.jpgSerious question: How does one write about the northern lights?

One girl in our house sings about them, a sweet and clear song that sounds like birds whistling and cooing, rhythmic and keening.

The photographers set up tripods and sit with them, waiting behind on their knees for the camera to record light our eyes can’t quite register, purples and blues that shimmer where I can see only green.

Another woman laughs, says she feels drunk, and throws her arms out wide as she stretches into a yogic backbend, body limber in the cold, face open to the sky.

A musician wants to record them; he says they make sounds our ears can’t catch. I imagine they sound like alien chimes, but they probably sound like celestial static.

I stand below them and I curse under my breath. I’m rude to the sky because I don’t know what else to say. I bend over so far backward to see that I stumble around, boots unlaced from my haste to get outside, see, look, drink it all in.

The Finnish name for the aurora borealis is revontulet, which means “fox fires.” The Sami people believe they are the souls of the dead. Some indigenous North American groups think they are evil; others think they are spirits of hunted (and consumed) animals.

I don’t know how to write about them, so I write about what other people say, how they sing, what they do. I think I do this partially because I want, on some strange and ugly level, to have them all to myself. I have to remind myself: This isn’t yours. You don’t get to name it or claim it or take it with you when you go. You only get to visit. Until, I suppose, I die and then maybe, if some folks are right about their religion, I’ll get to join them.

Image by Peder Balke, a Norwegian painter from the early 19th century. There’s an exhibit of his work coming up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. From their exhibition description: “The Norwegian landscape and marine painter Peder Balke (1804–1887) merged the Romantic movement’s spiritual vein of naturalism with an expressiveness rarely equaled by his contemporaries. Born in humble circumstances in what was then a northern hinterland, Balke trained as an artisan before pursuing his aim to become an artist in the broader European tradition, which led to formative contacts with Caspar David Friedrich and Johan Christian Dahl. From the 1840s onward, Balke searched for ever more personal means to convey the wild beauty of Norway, producing dramatic, even hallucinatory paintings that reject conventional fine-art techniques in favor of radical simplifications of form and color. Balke seems to have ceased painting after the 1870s, and he was essentially forgotten until the 20th century.” More here and here. 

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