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. 

Shooting the moon: early lunar photography.

First Photograph of the Moon This photograph is believed to be the earliest picture captured of the moon. The mirror-reversed daguerreotype was taken by Josh W. Draper from his rooftop observatory at NYC on March 26, 1840. Early Moon Photography by DraperHere is another one of Draper’s early moon pictures. (Photo by J. W. Draper/London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images). According to this article, Draper wasn’t the first photographer to shoot the moon. Several Frenchmen may have beaten him to it, but he was the first photographer to capture it in any detail. He was also definitely the first to shoot a full moon, so he gets credit for that. First image of the far side of the moonThe Soviets beat us to the opposite side of the moon. This picture was captured by Zond-3, the second spaceship to view the far side of the lunar surface. Lots more here.First picture of the earth from th emoonOne of the first pictures of the earth shot from the surface of the moon. Via National Geographic: “This photo reveals the first view of Earth from the moon, taken by Lunar Orbiter 1 on August 23, 1966. Shot from a distance of about 236,000 miles (380,000 kilometers), this image shows half of Earth, from Istanbul to Cape Town and areas east, shrouded in night.”

Star light, star bright, last star I see tonight (because light pollution is ruining everything)

To celebrate its 24th year in orbit, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has released this beautiful new image of part of NGC 2174, also known as the Monkey Head Nebula. NGC 2174 lies about 6400 light-years away in the constellation of Orion (The Hunter). Hubble previously viewed this part of the sky back in 2011 — the colourful region is filled with young stars embedded within bright wisps of cosmic gas and dust. This portion of the Monkey Head Nebula was imaged in the infrared using Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3.
These are the things I know about the night sky: I know where to find the Big Dipper. I know that the Big Dipper is also called “Ursa Major” because it is supposed to look like a large bear, though I can’t claim to ever have noticed a resemblance. I know that planets emit steady light while true stars flicker in and out (they twinkle, to use an infantile word I rather hate). I know how to find the North Star and how to spot Orion (it’s his belt, from which supposedly hangs a sword, though let’s be honest: dude’s probably not packing steel, ya hear me?).

I used to know more. I used to know the myths and legends and how to find the vain queen Cassiopeia. But that’s gone now, stuck somewhere in the weird and unreliable filing system of my memory.

I recently found myself staring at the stars and something funny happened: I got lost (or maybe more accurately: my ursine familiar was lost to me). I was camping in Canada, way up north on the coast of Cape Breton Island, in this beautiful place called Meat Cove, which seemed all the more lovely for its terrible name. In this remote place, few lights compete with the stars. There is no light pollution from cities, for there are no cities. There are few cars and fewer towns. When I looked up, I couldn’t find the Big Dipper. Orion seemed to have gone into hiding, shamed at being so easily overshadowed by the sheer wealth of stars. In many places in America, you can’t even see the Milky Way. Up there, you could see that pale, stagnant river of light. But it’s beauty was bland in comparison to the light show going on elsewhere. Night sky image “This sky makes me stupid,” I kept saying to my boyfriend. We would go for walks in the semi-dark, and I would trip over stones because my head was turned upwards. (This happens to me a lot, actually. Even city streets are more beautiful when you look at the tops of buildings and not the trash below.) One night, I sat on a rock and stared at the sky for over an hour, just looking. Just watching. Flicker, flicker, little stars.

It’s amazing to think that this experience is so rare—yet it used to be so common. A recent article in Nautilus (one of my favorite publications) profiles an astronomer named Tyler Nordgren who is working to reestablish dark spots in national parks. He wants to make it possible for everyone to get drunk on stars, to stare at the sky until they become lost in its splendor. A fellow astronomer describes the significance of Nordgren’s work in rather romantic—but wonderfully effective—terms: “It’s also one thing all of humanity has in common. It’s the same sky in the Sahara as it is over Philadelphia. It’s also the same sky as Native Americans gazed up at 10,000 years ago. People think of light pollution as an astronomer’s concern, but Tyler helps establish this broad value, that it matters to everyone.”Screen Shot 2015-09-02 at 7.06.46 PM

Does it matter to everyone? Probably not. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t give too much thought to the stars until I found myself silenced by their brilliance. It took driving 15 hours away from home to a campground on the edge of an island for me to see why light pollution matters. It matters because there are so few things in the world that can truly induce awe (and so many things that induce aww but that’s a post for another time). I’m not very spiritual, but the closest thing I have to a religion comes from those strange moments of sublime wonderment, where I become very, very small and the world around me expands, like the universe is supposedly doing at all times, only at a far more rapid clip.

So, I do care. And maybe so should you.

(P.S. The image at the top of this post is from NASA. Taken by the Hubble Telescope, it shows a STAR FACTORY. Really, that’s what it’s called. How wonderful! Thousands of times better than “Meat Cove.”)