The sky is called the firmament because it supposedly stays still. Abruptly, we saw this etymology break down: a thin vaporous green trail, like the kind in early sci-fi movies when everything alien was represented by the color of the poisonous chemical, radium, danced above us. We had seen flickers of the aurora borealis from the deck of the tall ship that sailed in and out of Svalbard’s fjords, but no one admitted that they couldn’t really see it. We made an emergency stop in Ny Ålesund, a small township on a bay surrounded by a wall of mountains, and without warning, it shook. The stars kept their quiet.
The trail twirled in semi-circles, like a giant helical slinky bouncing of its own volition. There was music too, audible vibration, as if wind could play the harp. It was the kind of sound that you hear cutaneously; it touches you, smoothes your hair, massages your belly, pinches your cheeks.
Eyes dilated, and laughter erupted. The town disappeared. The ocean was forgotten. The ship never existed.
Real life froze while the slinky slunk. Screams. Of fear? Or perhaps we needed to test our voices, which were all we had to prove that we were still alive. Our calls were absorbed into the atmosphere. Unmoved, the aurora sounded back.
It came in columns, like organ pipes, quivering lower and lower. The horizon’s precise line blurred, curving so that everything felt a little tilted and we imagined grasping the earth’s axis. It smelled like trees, though there weren’t any for miles. The scent arrived late, but indelibly.
We lay down on a field of ice because we couldn’t run from what was happening. If it was going to come for us, we might as well die laughing. There was hysteria. We had, til then, been able to tell a spectacle from the speculative. Now, faced with grand infinity, we reconsidered everything. Only at the end, as the light simmered, we analyzed it. It looked like writing.
* * * *
Could the aurora be a form of art writing? A new criticism, a different way of listening to the world?
The earliest documented aurora – a red glow in the sky – appeared on a clay tablet recorded by Babylonian astronomers in 567 BC. Present-day Babylon sits at 27.5°N in the tropics, but this observation was made when Babylon’s latitude was about 41°N. At one time, the South was the North.
Places are movements, once home to wonders foreign to them now. When we write about art, we consider ancient memory, and the tectonic origins of ideas.
Pre-photography, Indigenous people across the North and early explorers sketched out their experiences of the aurora. A book of illustrations from a Swedish expedition in 1882 depict them as scrawlings, like signs in another language. They begin at the top of the page and hang over a landscape of mountains, continuous trails followed by discrete lines – wispy streaks and suddenly divergent gashes. They look like ghosts or deep-sea creatures without heads or tails, amorphous and disembodied.
Victorian culture generally obsessed over dispelling the vulgar irrationality of wonder, explaining optical phenomena through science. But could these drawings be early attempts at studying an image in a way that was epistemologically faithful to the unreliable conditions – extreme cold and the uncanny workings of a first impression – in which it was recorded?
The aurora is at once strange and familiar. It is like an inverse solar eclipse, lighting up the sky in magentas and mauves against the dark. Mobile but disembodied, its pseudopodic arms bind and swallow. There remains no mechanism for accurately predicting its duration. We can soften an eclipse’s strangeness with a diagram of the sun, moon, and earth in alignment, but the aurora feels capricious, arbitrary.
In 1839 a member of the French commission of Bossekop, Norway, reported, during a brilliant aurora, “this sound is very rare. Moreover, during these observations the ear may be deceived by more than one source of error against which it is impossible to be too much on one’s guard; such are the whistling of the wind, the drifting of the dry snow, the distant murmur of the sea, the crackling of snow which begins to freeze again after temporary thaw…”
The aeronaut Rollier heard a sound when he disembarked from his hot-air balloon during an auroral display in 1870, and also believed it emitted an acrid odor. Alfred Angot includes these accounts of the aurora borealis in his illustrated book from 1896. He concludes that: “To the external sources of error already mentioned must be added another, purely physiological: many persons hear a whistling in their ears, which under ordinary circumstances does not reach their consciousness. Perhaps this sensation is more vividly perceived when the attention is strongly directed to the observation of an aurora.” In his book on the South Pole, Norwegian explorer Amundsen says, “the swishing aurora does not exist. What one hears is one’s own breath which freezes in the cold air.” A rich dissensus obscures even the precise ways we can be mistaken about a sensation.
The aurora may be created by charged particles from the sun radiating light through the earth’s atmosphere. But aspects of the aurora seem largely inexplicable, even to scientists. It resists knowability, assuming new forms with every display. What we do know is itself a mysterious phenomenon: the aurora is formed from the entrapment of layers of heat at high altitudes. The individual is suddenly faced with infinity. Night descends, we are reborn. Sleep, our most daily habit, rolls over.
Like art writing, the aurora illuminates the image, asking us to look again, to consider what we see, to hear it and to smell it with a grammar that is both rational and emotional. It presents us with the implausible and says, “there is a tongue for this.” It wields the power of the abyss, the space of not-knowing, where there is a crack in the world, where factuality is suspended. To this, the art writer must surrender in order to re-imagine the word. This void is space for introspection, a place where a sense of self is obliterated: the I dissolves into the we. This is the point at which a collaboration of different kinds of knowledge might emerge. We operate from the symbiosis of multiple disciplines. Art writing can be a place where we relinquish individual ownership or authority over interpretation, so that a reader can, between the lines. The aurora cannot fulfill its function without dilated eyes.
The aurora is the act of embracing doubt as a form of critique. It is a rehearsal in total presence, in witnessing the contemporary. It is punctuation. The northern lights ask us to view the natural world as one that is constantly moving, so that we can be moved by it. It insists on continuing. A semi colon. The sky is not inanimate, it is not firm. It is a sentence, ablaze. And we invoke it.