Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access
The aurora borealis in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories (detail) © Michael Ericsson/Photodisc/Getty Images

The aurora borealis in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories (detail) © Michael Ericsson/Photodisc/Getty Images

[Letter from the Northwest Territories]

Thing of Ether

Chasing the aurora borealis

By the time I finish dressing and lumber into the lobby of the Explorer Hotel in Yellowknife, it’s 9 pm. The room is filled with a milling crowd of Japanese tourists wearing identical red parkas and black polar boots the size of toasters. Outside, in the black Canadian winter night, four yellow school buses pull up. The Japanese travelers fill the first three, and the rest of us, a mixed dozen from several countries, climb into the last.

The bus bumps onto the dark highway. It is almost as cold inside as out, and the windows are already icing over from our breath. Our guide is Céline, a petite Frenchwoman. “We have clouds tonight,” she says over the PA system. “The prediction is clouds. But a prediction is just a prediction. So we will be hopeful.”

After about twenty minutes, the bus turns down a narrow road toward Aurora Village, a collection of tepees and small buildings beside a frozen lake. The few lights are dim and downcast to protect our night vision. We follow Céline’s blinking red headlamp, the only way we can tell her apart from the crowd. More than a hundred people are plodding from the parking lot, along hard snowy trails between dark trees. The darkness is peculiar, oddly blurry, as though a mist is rising from the white floor of snow. As we emerge from the woods, Céline points out the path to the heated, 360-degree-rotating recliners (extra fee required). We find our tepee at the edge of a field—a place to warm up and rest, but not to stay. We aren’t here to be inside.

The clouds slowly lift. The tepees are in a small bowl, and trails lead through the trees to low bluffs with longer views. I climb one and join a crowd of squat, clumsy silhouettes. I shift from foot to foot. All winter, Portland, Oregon, where I live, had been unseasonably warm. We complained about the early crocus, the small snowpack. I longed for cold, the kind that would make me sit up and pay attention. I went north for the aurora, but also this: the dark, the sky, the ice.

“Is that it?” someone asks, pointing at a small dome of brightness on the horizon. I think it is Yellowknife. Since 2016, the city government there has had a policy to protect dark skies. In fact, nothing much has changed, and the town is plainly visible from miles away.

“Is that it?” a woman says, pointing at a pale flash on the opposite horizon. But it is just headlights from the highway. We don’t really know what we are seeking, what we will see. I am braced; we may see nothing at all. The aurora follows its own subtle schedule, and aurora tourism runs on hope, on expectations deformed by Instagram and travel websites. Thousands of photos of emerald-green drapery and quivering ruby-red arcs—captured with cameras gathering much more light than human eyes can and then edited and enhanced—make false promises. I’ve tried to keep my own expectations tightly bound.

We watch, and over about twenty minutes, a cloud grows into a fine, transparent white arc stretching across the lower half of the sky, brightening until it is a river of pearl.

Back by the lake, little huddles of people mill about, like small bison. A few visitors stand alone, heads back, arms dangling. Others fiddle with cameras on tripods, never looking up; some sprawl in camp chairs. The cold is painful and exciting. I can barely walk, but I can’t stand still. My eyes hurt.

Back at the tepee, I drink some hot cocoa. Céline chides a woman who has been dozing in a corner. “You can sleep,” she says firmly, “when you can be dead.” Céline and I look for our own unheated, nonrotating recliners. In the end, we lie back on a pile of packed snow. She tells me of her restless journey from France to Vancouver Island to Yellowknife, of her desire to see narwhals in Nunavut and polar bears in Churchill. Céline is the first of many people I will meet here who came north as though commanded and found themselves unable to leave.

It isn’t easy to get up in our gear, so we lie there for a long time, growing colder, watching the glowing track cross the sky like the stroke of a painter’s brush. It changes without changing; a fraction dissolves and reappears, slides away, returns. The river cleaves into two puddles of ghostly milk. I can’t see it change, yet it changes. A vertical pillar appears, a straight line from the horizon. “The space shuttle,” says Céline. I feel satisfied. I am happy with all this. I have seen the aurora, and now I know.

Toward midnight, a half-dozen of us climb a hill behind the tepee. A woman slowly arranges a few people for a time-lapse selfie that will capture the elusive green. And at once the two wide swaths thicken and glow and swell and then burst out, flooding the banks until the entire sky is filled with vibrating light. A hundred voices shout from the darkness all around. Fluttering sheets of pale light, pinkish folds shifting as if from a breath, shimmering rays and billowing golden clouds, liquid and shining in all directions. Now, I know.

Clockwise from left: The northern lights near the Yukon–Northwest Territories border © Weronika Murray; Northern Lights, by Germaine Arnaktauyok. Courtesy Inhabit Education; a nineteenth-century diagram depicting Sir John Ross’s theory of the aurora borealis. Courtesy the Wellcome Collection, London; tourists in Aurora Village © Pat Kane

After the 2016 presidential election, my first urge was to burrow in, under the blankets. Instead I joined the Cloud Appreciation Society, an eclectic group of people around the world who like to look at the sky. I received a badge, a certificate, and a plastic cloud identification tool, and I began getting Cloud-a-Day messages in my email—explanations of phenomena like sun dogs or photos of unusual formations such as Kelvin–Helmholtz waves. Several friends have joined CAS since then. A few years ago, I met the founder, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, when Portland members invited him to come over from England and give a lecture at our science museum. Gavin is lean and bearded. He is trained in graphic design, and he can talk about clouds for hours. (So can I.)

Last summer, a friend signed up for a CAS-organized trip to view the aurora borealis in the Northwest Territories and invited me along. I don’t generally do that kind of thing: travel in packs, travel with guides. I’m too cheap for curated trips, too introverted for groups, and I much prefer to trace close to the ordinary daily life of a destination. I also saw aurora tourism as a trend driven by social media, and I’m resistant to both social media and trends. But two years before, on a beautiful August day, I had arisen at four-thirty in the morning and traveled to a shorn hayfield in rural Oregon, where I’d joined a cheerful, cosmopolitan crowd to see the solar eclipse. We’d watched the world become a burnished, golden place and then dim into shadow and silence, and like many of the others, I’d found myself crying. The eclipse didn’t care about my worries. In these painful years of loss and division, I wanted that cosmic dispassion. I wanted the eerie, the unpredictable, the tender reminder of how small our worldly concerns really are.

I found that I wanted the aurora. And viewing the aurora is a peculiar undertaking: best done in very cold places at night, far from cities, in an environment that doesn’t reward the solo traveler. I decided I would need to go in a group for safety’s sake, and if so, this was the group for me.

Yellowknife sits on the shore of Great Slave Lake, the deepest lake in North America and one of the largest in the world. It is also squarely under what’s called the northern auroral oval. A solar wind of plasma—a charged gas of electrons and protons, the result of the ceaseless nuclear explosions of our sun—blows past Earth at roughly a million miles an hour. Its force and ionization are strong enough to deform the planet’s magnetic field, stretching it the way water flows around a rock. When the field springs back, it pulls a few of the particles into enormous, snaking curves and spirals that form crowns around the geomagnetic poles. These are the auroral ovals: misshapen circles shifting about above the planet between 60 and 70 degrees latitude.

The Dene people have lived along the shores of Great Slave Lake for thousands of years. What is now Yellowknife—named for aboriginal copper knives—began as a fur-trading outpost. The first gold claim was established in 1898, and the town ignited with a gold rush in the 1930s. It’s now a diamond-mining center and the territorial capital. The twenty thousand residents of the city make up almost half the population of the Northwest Territories. Prior to the past decade, Yellowknife was not a tourist town; the whole region was inaccessible by road until 1960. Twenty years ago, perhaps a hundred people from out of town came to Yellowknife each winter—miners, trappers, and a few travelers seeking a hideaway. In 2019 there were almost six times as many visitors as residents. (Were it not for the novel coronavirus, I would have been sharing the sidewalks with a few thousand Chinese tourists during my visit in late February. As it was, China had banned most international travel for its residents shortly before I arrived.)

A third of all visitor spending in Yellowknife is related to the aurora, and more than a hundred tour operators offered aurora viewing this past winter. Many towns within the oval are aggressive promoters of what the NWT government calls its “aurora tourism product.” Multilingual services and convenient flights are now common in the far north; the city of Fairbanks, Alaska, another popular aurora-viewing town, has welcome signs in Japanese, German, Hindi, Korean, Mandarin, and Spanish. Luxury options for viewing the lights are available: a private yacht cruising the fjords of Norway, a chalet in Denali National Park. Dedicated sites like the Aurora Village or the famous glass igloos at the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in Finland offer mid-level comfort. Most people opt for the more affordable chase: fly in, find a hotel, and join a dozen strangers in a big van, driving for hours across dark back roads, following the direction of various apps that predict cloud coverage and geomagnetic activity. Every aurora tour operator knows the fickle skies, and the long days of waiting. They must sell a lot of other ways to spend one’s time: ice fishing, snowmobiling, igloo building. Many of the Japanese visitors I’d seen at Aurora Village were spending their days there as well, taking dogsled rides and sliding down the ice tube.

Aurora viewing is often promoted as a kind of primeval encounter with nature. One researcher believes that interest in the northern lights, meteor showers, and eclipses has grown so much that it constitutes an entire subsection of ecotourism, what he calls charismatic megacaela. Just as people yearn to see megafauna such as lions and elephants, we seem to have a collective desire for the cosmic view, for those things large enough to push us down into our place, close to the skin of the planet.

Clockwise from top left: The aurora borealis over Canada, as seen from the International Space Station. Courtesy NASA; the lobby of the Explorer Hotel, in Yellowknife © Kari Medig; a mounted bison head above the entrance to Aurora Village © Pat Kane; Dene-style parkas at a souvenir shop in Yellowknife (detail) © Kari Medig

Clearly, the Explorer Hotel did a lot of aurora business. On my first morning in Yellowknife, two young men assisting our tour politely rejected almost everything we had brought with us, emptying bins of mittens and boots and parkas until we were properly covered. In town, teenagers on fat-tire bikes and families heading to the supermarket or Subway ignored the shambling groups of tourists in rented parkas. (I was told that locals avoid buying coats in certain shades of blue and red.) The hotel lobby was often empty during the day. Evening was when the place got moving, as guests in heavy gear lurched out of the elevators. The buses and vans arrived; the lobby emptied out. Around 2 am, everyone returned, stomping down the long halls.

The Explorer and the crowded Aurora Village were my soft introduction to the far north. After two nights, I joined the CAS group for a trip to Blachford Lake Lodge, about sixty miles from the territorial capital, in the wilderness. We headed to Air Tindi, which flies turboprops off Long Lake at the north end of Yellowknife. The glossy snow heaped by the lake looked like meringue. The air was full of the fine glitter of what is called diamond dust—tiny, floating ice crystals sparkling in the sun.

Small bush planes are one of the most common ways to get around, in territory more water than earth. There were about a dozen people from the United States, England, and Australia going up. Gavin was there, along with his thirteen-year-old daughter, Flora, and so was the special guest, Dr. Liz MacDonald, a space scientist from NASA. They had already done a week of aurora watching, with another CAS group, and were ready to go out again. We had a Twin Otter plane for the flight to the lodge, which is closed during freezing and breakup, when the plane can’t safely land.

We crammed in tightly among luggage and supplies, and the unpressurized craft slid over a quilt of spindly trees, frozen lakes, and satiny mounds of snow in all directions. This was part of the immense Canadian Shield, where the continental crust was swept clean by ice and the oldest rock in the world was found, the exposed Nuvvuagittuq Greenstone Belt, on Hudson Bay. I saw a small piece, 4.28 billion years old, in a neglected corner of Yellowknife’s Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. The boreal forest of black spruce scribbled across the white in all directions, a fraction of a vast biome stretching around the globe. Except for a few snowmobile tracks in the first miles outside Yellowknife, there were no signs of humanity at all.

We landed on the lake; a smooth, fast slide between small islands. The lodge, at the top of a hill, was to be our living room for several days. Our cabins were down the long slope, along unmarked, interlacing trails, their paths compressed by snowmobiles. The surrounding snow was deep and fine; I learned to watch the trail’s edge the first day, when I stepped off and into powder up to my waist. (The lodge had required that we sign detailed waivers of our rights because of the “many risks, hazards and dangers [both known and unknown]” of the Arctic winter environment. When I asked one of the staff how often they save people’s lives, he said, “Oh, all the time. They just don’t know it.”)

Three of us from Oregon shared the cabin farthest from the lodge, near the shore. The low trees leaned every which way in the permafrost, small and dark and ancient, and the lake stretched out of sight around layered hills. Virgin blue sky, sunlight like a drug. I had expected the dark; I wanted the dark. I kept being surprised by the light, by such exorbitant, sinless light in a world of folds and undulations.

Our time at Blachford Lake was marked by shared meals and the conviviality of night. We gathered every evening in the lodge. One night, Liz gave a lecture on the physics of the aurora. She had been given a bunk in a staff cabin, with a common toilet in a shed nearby. Still, she told us how glad she was to be here. She spends most of her time on data. “I study the aurora,” she said, “but I don’t get to see it that often.” She is a big proponent of citizen science for aurora research, and created a website, Aurorasaurus, where people can submit real-time aurora sightings. “There is still a huge gap in communicating the science of auroras,” she told me later. “The aurora in person is hugely motivating.”

We see the aurora because electrons charged by the solar wind collide with atoms in the upper atmosphere, mostly atomic oxygen. A fountain of resulting photons spills across hundreds of miles in seconds. Atomic oxygen releases red light when high in the atmosphere and can emit greenish-white light at lower altitudes. Sometimes deep blues and purples appear from ionized nitrogen. (Protons also form a faint and diffuse aurora not easily visible to the human eye.) A furious discharge cascades down through the atmosphere into increasingly thick air until it is exhausted.

Liz clicked through slides illustrating how the solar wind stretches the planet’s magnetic fields, and then showed us a short film about a newly identified kind of aurora, a narrow purple arc with occasional green fingers or stripes. This particular pattern was discovered by amateur aurora chasers in Alberta, who affectionately named it Steve. (Only later did scientists invent a technical acronym for it: Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.) Steve is visible at lower latitudes because it appears at the edge of the auroral ovals and as a result of a somewhat different interaction of particles and magnetic lines. Steve was a big surprise.

The power of the aurora can be as high as one hundred thousand megawatts, and ultraviolet light, infrared light, and X-rays are released as well as visible light. The solar winds that propel these particles are a part of what is called space weather—conditions outside our atmosphere that are able to interact with humans and human technology. Spacecraft, radio, and navigation systems can be disrupted by geomagnetic storms; and a measurement called the K-index, a short-term, localized reading of such disturbances, is used to predict likely problems. New research shows that such space weather may not only affect humans. A group of biologists has found a correlation between high solar activity and gray whale strandings, suggesting that the mammals’ magnetoreception may be disrupted by solar activity.

For eons, people have said the aurora makes noise, that it swishes, whistles, cracks. One polar explorer described it as having “the sound of field-ice, then it was like the sound of a water-mill, and, at last, like the whirring of a cannon-shot heard from a short distance.” It has been long thought, however, that whatever audible sound reaches a human ear at ground level could not be an immediate effect of activity at such a high altitude. People wondered whether the distant but gigantic energies released could cause subtle downstream effects, or whether it was perhaps something only heard internally—a transmutation of vision into a perception of sound. But in 2012, Finnish scientists were able to capture faint hissing, popping, and clapping during an aurora, and proved the sounds were coming from the sky. A geophysicist in Alaska reacted to the news by saying that auroral sound was “scientifically unreasonable,” but admitted that he has heard it, too.

The tourism industry often trades on the auroral oval’s traditional cultures: visitors can fill their days with reindeer encounters and drum circles. To indigenous communities of the region, the northern lights are familiar but worthy of respect. Many Inuit people in the Arctic share a myth of the lights, and call them aqsarniit. They are said to be the spirits of the dead playing football, usually with a walrus skull. The aqsarniit were traditionally considered dangerous because they move so quickly and heedlessly in their pursuit. People whispered in their presence so as not to call attention to themselves. The Sámi people, of Fennoscandia, believe that the aurora, called guovsahasat, could swoop down and burn a person. Women cover their heads to keep the aurora out of their hair. People kept silent to avoid irritating it, and bells were taken off reindeer when the aurora was bright. Early European and Asian observers thought the aurora was a heavenly battle, a line of enormous candles, or a fissure in the sky. The astronomer Edmond Halley theorized that it was the result of water vapor released during an earthquake and somehow ignited.

For a long time, people believed the aurora was close to the ground; many European polar explorers felt it was almost upon them. The aurora is strangely thin, only a few hundred yards thick, as it follows the lines of our planet’s magnetic field. But it is also immense, hundreds of miles wide and high, and it occurs between sixty and six hundred miles above the earth, in the ionosphere. The International Space Station flies through this range. The lights cannot form lower in our skies because the energy of colliding particles is lost as the atmosphere becomes denser.

A modern scientific understanding of the aurora developed slowly over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the growth of many disciplines, including plasma physics, solar physics, and electromagnetism. During the International Geophysical Year of 1957–58, scientists were able to use an “all-sky camera” to photograph the aurora minute by minute; from this, the auroral oval was discovered, and soon it was understood that the appearance of the northern lights—the shape, size, color, and intensity—depends literally on where you are standing. Your position under the oval and the direction in which you are looking determines what you see.

The aurora can appear to be smooth or deeply pleated, almost transparent or opaque, uniform or streaked with black holes and stripes. The bottom edge of a faint curtain can billow like enormous clouds or break into pulsating patches. Vertical stripes, usually called rays, may appear. When they form what look like folds in a curtain, this is known as a rayed arc. From directly below, the aurora appears as rays emanating from a center, like a fountain’s spray; this is known as the corona. (These aren’t scientific terms; such descriptive words are commonly used.) As the planet rotates below the auroral oval, the viewer comes under wider and more active areas, and the shape of the lights changes again and again.

Each evening at Blachford Lake, we waited. The intensity of the aurora depends on many factors: the roughly eleven-year solar activity cycle and its many effects, whether the solar wind is steady or gusting, the rotation of the sun in relation to the rotation of the earth. In the end, viewing is a local problem. Maybe you need a treasure to trade, good luck or good karma, a blessing. Once you are in the right place at the right time, all you can do is wait.

After lectures, we mingled in the lodge, an artificial family. I joined games of Trivial Pursuit while Gavin played Scrabble with his daughter. I hung out with the doctor from Melbourne and talked to the retired social worker from Maine. We shared notes from the previous night’s watch and photos from the snowmobile trip; we made glancing, careful comments about the news. The Canadian version of Trivial Pursuit was hopeless for us all, and we went back to Scrabble.

About nine-thirty, someone would say, “It’s starting.” We would get dressed and go out, and move slowly from one viewpoint to another, from one small group of chunky silhouettes to the next, from the bluff in front of the lodge to the tepee on the far side of the hill. A few gentle arcs would gradually widen and join and become an arch with trailing ribbons, wavering, glowing, seeming to shimmer.

One night, the aurora was particularly strong to the northwest. Wide arcs of bluish light shifted overhead, evanescent bands spreading into rays, little ghostly snakes and wisps of smoke. I found Liz sitting in the hot tub. She wore a winter hat because the steam in those temperatures will condense and freeze in your hair. As we watched several long, luminous stripes, a swirl of iridescence spun near the horizon. Liz was trying to balance her camera on the edge of the tub. Dr. Liz MacDonald was having a pretty good time.

Before I had seen an aurora, I had imagined it erupting above me, an abrupt display of light spilling out of the sky. As we are wont to do, I put myself in the center. But I was just spinning slowly beneath an enormous event. It is happening all the time, this torrent of ionization and spectral light: mostly we don’t see it. We glide along on a planetary merry-go-round underneath. For a few hours each night, I was granted a fractional view of cosmic forces, by the benevolence of darkness and clear sky.

Temperatures dropped to around negative twenty-five degrees Celsius. Céline taught me the French saying “Ne pas avoir froid aux yeux,” a way to describe the brave: “They do not have cold eyes,” she said. But mine were, always. Each night, I tromped up and down the trails, suffering from the freezing air but also from desire. I would rest in the lodge and then go out again, until at last I was too cold and too tired to go on. Then I would stumble down the narrow, steep trail past tiny Christmas lights winking on a rail almost buried by snow. Where the lights ended, several thin trails disappeared behind black trees. I followed the spotlight of my headlamp through the forest, in radical solitude, feeling as though I were the last person, or the first.

The days were clear and bright and flagrantly cold. After breakfast, people would break into pairs and small groups to go on snowmobile rides or ski across the lake. A few tried to play hockey on the corrugated ice of a small rink. I read, napped, played more Scrabble. I went for hikes, stomping along packed snowmobile tracks in several layers of insulation. The trails passed through mounds of glittering snow dappled with velvet-blue shadow, broken by the marks of other travelers: snowshoe hares, caribou, lynx. Walking was cacophony, every step an unholy chorus of squeaking snow, swishing pants, and creaking ice. But when I stood still, silence. A single bird’s note. Then silence again.

I was waiting. We were waiting; we were biding time. One night, there was a sing-along in the lodge; I drowsed on the couch on the mezzanine, waking to hear the chorus of “London Homesick Blues.” Another evening, we gathered around Gavin for a polished lecture on clouds and atmospheric light effects. Periodically, he sent Flora out to check the sky. She was learning the family business. I asked Gavin after our trip if he worries that the current interest in aurora tourism creates unsustainable booms in small towns like Yellowknife. What happened there has happened across the far north. In 2008, the BBC broadcast a reality show in which the actress Joanna Lumley traveled through Norway, looking for the northern lights and finally finding them in a small city called Tromsø. Tromsø is now one of the most popular locations to view the aurora in the world. Even now, tour operators there speak of “a time before and after” Lumley. Though he is an advocate for what we could call megacaela tourism, Gavin admitted he is concerned. More than anything else, social media has propelled the trend, and he bemoans the tricks used to beef up photos. “Bumping up the saturation of the colors, boosting the brightness levels, whacking up the contrast”—these all interfere with the actual experience. But, he says, “We are all feeling a need to re-create the links to the natural world that are written in our genes. Hopefully, one thing that will diminish is the current feeling that you only have an experience when you have shared it online with as many people as possible.”

I was trying to grasp what I was seeing, half lost in meridional sheet currents and azimuthal loops, the westward electrojet, the magnetic reconnection in the cross-tail current. One afternoon I cornered Liz and peppered her with technical questions, many of which, I learned, do not have clear answers. Her scientific response to one of my descriptions was: “There’s a whole set of crazy stuff” going on. “Turbulent stuff.” The aurora is a generator in a way—its discharge shifting like an oscilloscope, improbably complex and still mysterious. The physics aren’t static; they vary from place to place, from particle to particle, moment to moment. From body to body across space. Other planets in our solar system have auroras: Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Mercury, and Uranus. On Jupiter and Saturn, the auroras are pink because of the high concentrations of hydrogen in their atmospheres. We can seek oxygen-based life elsewhere in the universe by searching for green and red auroras. The science is still very young. Steve is one of a few newer forms of aurora identified in recent years. Another, called the dunes, may be a visible manifestation of atmospheric waves. A rare phenomenon called the cusp aurora is seen only at very high latitudes, in parts of the atmosphere directly exposed to the solar wind. “We don’t know,” Liz told me, many times. We don’t know.

It’s starting, someone says. And we bundle up and begin. This is the last night at the lake, and the temperature is negative thirty-two degrees Celsius. I can handle about twenty minutes at a time. We are all dopey from lack of sleep, reckless in the cold. I crawl into a tepee near one of the hiking trails to warm up by the dim campfire. When I crawl out again and try to stand, I fall on the hard-packed snow. No one seems to notice; they are looking up. I can sleep when I can be dead, so I just sit for a while, thinking that might be soon. At the moment, I am willing to take the chance.

Hours later, I am back in the cabin with my roommates; we are in our pajamas, trying to pack. Another group will arrive in the morning, and our group will evaporate, and I can go back to being cheap and introverted and on my own. But I want more aurora—I will want more aurora for the rest of my life—and so at midnight we bundle up again and carefully shuffle to the edge of the frozen lake.

We stand at the ice’s edge in the bracing purity of subzero, under the black sky. The snow, which is everywhere, which is the whole world, reflects the faint fog of starlight, and yet we see one another only as shadows. Above us the sky is a wash of white. The edges soften, disappear, reappear. I have not heard the distant clap from the sky. But such a display must have its own inevitable music. When I first arrived in Yellowknife, I kept reminding myself that I might not see an aurora at all, that it wouldn’t look like the pictures, that the real thing would be less than I expected. And I was wrong. I am not sorry that I couldn’t see what is in the photos. I am sorry that the photos don’t capture what I could see.

Wallace Stevens called the aurora “a theatre floating through the clouds, itself a cloud”—and I think I feel as he must have, to know that “It is like a thing of ether that exists / Almost as predicate. But it exists, / It exists, it is visible, it is, it is.” I am spinning beneath a crown of elementary particles, matter of a kind, a peculiar kind, the hollow core at the heart of matter—not solid, not vapor, discrete and particular. Light is a quantum vibration with local effects; it is a wave and a particle and neither and both; light and our bodies and this wide, hard earth, pulsating in our private fields.

The wash glows, widens, brightens, and begins to spin over my head, a luminous cyclone of pearl and dove and alabaster, suddenly so thick and near I could pluck off a tuft in my hand. Faint flashes of pink and green and blue, barely there, gone. I am glad, now, to be with the group, to not be alone, to have others who know: It exists, it is visible. It is, it is. We spin and crane our necks, gasp and laugh, and then one of my companions points. A fox has come out of the trees; he stands there, staring at us a moment, his copper ears tilted. Then he turns and disappears over the edge, his mind on other things.

| View All Issues |

March 2018

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now