The Aurora Borealis
are like earbuds.
The winner of a patron-only offer to pick an analogy chose the aurora borealis for today’s topic. Become a patron to pick your own:
I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen the aurora borealis. So many things have to go exactly right for you to see them. You have to be in the right place at exactly the right time. It has to be cold and cloudless, and you have to be very far north. People used to say you could see them from my university in Scotland. When I was driving with a friend to the airport in the wee hours a few mornings before Christmas, we thought we might have seen them, hanging in the sky like large rectangles of fog. They looked more like shapes—shimmering and huge—than the brush strokes I was familiar with from photographs. If you looked long enough you started thinking you couldn’t see anything after all.
Scientists didn’t officially know what caused the aurora borealis until 2021, but it turns out they appear when “disturbances on the sun pull on Earth’s magnetic field. That creates cosmic undulations known as Alfvén waves that launch electrons at high speeds into Earth’s atmosphere where they create the aurora.” Though you can go places like Norway where you’re more likely to see the northern lights, you can never really guarantee them, because they’re dependent on disturbances in the sun: unpredictable and mysterious. They often only last for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time.
In her book Wintering, Katherine May tells the story of a trip to see the aurora borealis in Norway:
At that moment, I realised that every time of the lights I had ever seen had been misleading. I had been poring over photographs of neon displays as lurid as disco lights and watching YouTube videos of lights that struck out against the night sky, bold and distinct. These are invariably sped up, the luminous greens and pinks enhanced by long exposures. . . . Seeing them is an uncertain experience, almost an act of faith. You have to get your eye in, and I honestly don’t think I ever would have spotted them at all had I not been told they were there. . . . But then, eventually, at a pace set entirely by the firmament, we were given the gift of seeing them, as if in reward for our faith and patience. Then we seemed to see them everywhere.
Reading her description makes me wonder whether I actually did see them on that strange early morning. In a world of glowing screens, ones and zeros, we are used to cut-and-dry reality. You see things, or you don’t. We aren’t used to things that are sort of there and sort of aren’t. The aurora borealis are subtle, elusive, like music you can just barely hear from far away.
My first iPod was a tiny silver iPod shuffle. At age 13 I didn’t really have any music taste in particular, but I did have a few favorite songs and a CD of Celtic music from one of those CD sale kiosks they used to have in Target. I loaded a few Enya songs, “Concerning Hobbits,” and a few songs from the sadly-neglected Broadway musical The Secret Garden onto the tiny metal square. It was a first brush with the strange things that digital content does to your sense of physical reality: huge worlds can be contained in a tiny object, a strangely private object, like an enchanted locket in a fantasy story. It felt very different from listening to music on my alarm CD player. I could be curled up in a corner of the couch, in my own little world, letting the voices swirl around me.