The band of sky that glows above the frothy ice of the big lake could be the reflection of lights from a city, but there is no city. There's nothing north of here but water and more water: a thousand square miles of water as cold as ice but unfrozen, like a dying sun, like a newly birthed planet, like a forgotten soul.
The glowing band does not lie across the horizon but arches above it like a bridge, a bridge whose anchor points on either end are detached so that there is no possible way to gain access to the span: a bridge to nowhere. Below the archway of the bridge flows flat, black sky, sky that reaches to the infinite horizon and beyond to meet and mingle with the lake's unfrozen ice. Enclosed by the glow, the sky is as black as ink, viscous from the cold but still liquid like blood, with the ability to bleed into objects that surround it and spawn stubborn shadows. The lake with its ice floes and wind-torn chop sleeps dully, as non-reflective as the air that embraces it.
A handful of stars -- like an apology, like an afterthought -- struggle through the inky shadow that wallows beneath the luminous halo. Nothing else is visible, not even the horizon.
Above the boundless sea of blackness, the incandescence of the northern lights is pale and amorphous. This isn't one of those spectacular aurora displays whose recent, lurid extravagances have been splayed across TV screens as the "upbeat story" at the end of the nightly news. Tonight I see no color, no sky-filling, sweeping vortices of motion. What I witness is merely an undefined radiance that -- perhaps -- is more imagined that observed.
But then -- slowly, subtly -- the glow evolves, separates into three distinct areas of luster: two minor white flushes flanking a stronger curtain that as I watch doubles back onto itself, folding gracefully to layer light on top of light and produce transparencies that undulate vertically through the sky in a sinuous, curvaceous pas de deus. The minor, flanking glows sharpen linearly into spot-specific footlights. And then the curtain also becomes linear so that what was formerly a lustrous but amorphous glow has been transformed into a cave full of stalactites or a grinning jaw of predatory teeth.
As I grope for metaphors to describe the ever-changing display, I realize that I am hampered by one very important fact: I can't determine if the rays spike upward or down. There's no source for this light. I don't think that I've ever encountered a light that cannot be traced to a specific point of origin: the sun, flashlight, the red glow to indicate the "on" switch for a DVD player. Every light that can I think of has a place where it comes from -- except the mysterious auroras that dance in the darkest hours of winter above the coldest places on the planet. Their appearance is whimsical, unpredictable: one night they will paint the sky with lurid color and pattern, and then the lights will disappear for weeks or even months. No wonder that the auroras -- borealis in the north, australis in the south -- were once revered, feared as portents from the spirit world by all who watched the night skies.
Scientists now tell us that auroras have their origins in sun spot activity: the solar storms that many curse because of their disruption of satellite communications. It's all about electromagnetic particles and solar flux, really quite prosaic when you understand it, and predictable with a very high degree of accuracy.
But the incandescent display that I watch during these dark hours above the frozen blackness of Lake Superior is neither prosaic nor predictable. The fire in the sky shifts once again: instead of a dazzling arc spread with lights, the rays congregate into groups connected to each other by a basal glow that's as defined as the line of the imagined horizon but arches at a hill-like angle above it. A few stars, dull in a sky much paler than night, wink sullenly above and to the sides of the aurora. The groups of spiked lights scattered across the base rearrange themselves continually. Their movement resembles the glinting light that rises from a diamond, and as these rays shift the aurora becomes a jewel-encrusted tiara crowing the frozen northern night with mystery, wonder, and enchantment.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources