Week 37. Northern lights

I grew up in a wooded area in northern Minnesota at the southern tip of the Iron Range. Our well water turned my hair coppery, and I tracked seasons by the dark sky: Orion on his back, standing and aiming, falling forward.

My dog stared at the aurora when they appeared in the southwest, the way my dog now stares at heat lightning, dead to everything but the flashes at the horizon. Messages from his world, maybe. The aurora dog looked like he was listening, and, even now, when I read the word “aurora,” I heard the northern lights. A low whining magnetic hum. Though this, like many of people’s felt experiences with atmospheric phenomena, is as impossible as the Norse belief that the aurora was light reflected off the Valkyries’ breastplates. Which is to say, perhaps there’s still hope.

The North American iron formations – and consequent magnetic anomalies like the one made the Biwabik formation near my home – helped to form the Earth’s magnetosphere, molecules jittering away after they’d fallen from some dead star’s heart. Now we only talk of solar storms and atmospheric gas, forgetting the many pulsing ancestors under our feet. How many of their voices might we hear without realizing it?

Materials: India ink, watercolor. I have never been able to draw a dog! But…one time, there was an aurora dog named Murphy with a fantastic tail and very pointy ears, and he was the best dog there ever was.

When I went to Alaska in college I fell in love, Alaska was a second skin. I called my Dad from a phone booth to tell him I had found my place. I found it!  He told me the winters were bad.  I got a summer job the next year where you could hitchhike 300 miles to town with truckers. But then a city job with benefits called.

We slept out at night to watch the lights that summer, waking up to find ourselves way down the slope. It was a 1980s roller rink light show. In the sensory deprivation of an ice sheet I could conjure up the electronic keyboard music playing along to the collisions between electrons flying off the sun with Earth’s atmosphere. Oxygen and nitrogen, what we breathe, colliding with energy and emitting light.

Oxygen emits green or red light and nitrogen emits more blue to purple light. These colors are at the limits of the wavelengths we see, making it easier to capture with a camera – the way you take a suspicious person’s picture and if they dont show up you know they are a ghost.

Materials: Marker, watercolor, salt, masking tape, Aurora forecast


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