Friday, November 23, 2012

The Aurora Dance Overhead

The aurora dance overhead.  Towards the cabin, I see the overlay of a picture perfect postcard:  golden light shines from the windows of a log home in the dark, bright stars, streaks of green in the sky overhead. 

My back on a snow bank he made for me.  We look up to the sky. 

Orion just above the western horizon, he strides the night sky.  To the southwest, there is near-half moon just beginning to clear the trees.  It has moved from east of south to southwest since I got home.  And to the north, hovering above the ridgeline of our roof, hangs the big dipper.  There are other constellations, writ large across the sky.  This far north, the sky is seems bigger but the scope is both smaller and enlarged.  The star clusters that I remember from my childhood as being recognizable but easy to lose amongst the vastness of the firmament, here seem as if they could step out of the sky onto land, already larger than life size.  There are other star clusters I recognize... is that Cassiopeia?  The Gemini?  I want to find the scorpion that chases Orion across the sky, the hunter being hunted.  I want to remember the details of the story of the mother who turned into a bear and was hunted by her own children.  Each constellation has a tale to tell.  At least one.  I spent many many hours reading the Classical Greek legends and stories of the constellations.  But other cultures have other names for the stars.  I wonder what stories were once told in Scandinavia, on the steppes of Siberia, here in this cold land by the first people?  Ethnoastrology.  I believe my sister once toyed with the idea of developing a dissertation on the subject. 

I breathe into the cold.  Relax within my puffy down coat and fox fur hat and watch the dance of the lights.  A tendril crosses into the big dipper, and then a wave of curtains falls through the center of the cup and slowly moves across the sky.  Suddenly the sky between the stars of the dipper is a clear dark again.  The lights move with a time and rhythm all their own.  It is slow and graceful, and yet suddenly, the patterns will have entirely shifted.  Sometimes they seem to dance beyond and behind the stars, and sometimes I would swear they are a dancing bridge I could step onto to walk into the sky.

The aurora is the deep magic of physics.  It manifests visibly and seems both so immediate and so distant.  I imagine looking at this display without the knowledge of the solar and atmospheric interplays, without an intellectual understanding of electro-magnetism, and my breath catches with awe.  It is beautiful and a bit eerie and uncanny as well.  I can well understand the native stories I have read in the archives at the Rasmusen.  The aurora is a bridge to the spirit world.  The aurora is the spirits of ancestors and the dead – do not look at it lest the spirit ghost of an enemy hurt you or get jealous of your vitality.  The aurora is the manifestation of wars between spirits, and if you know how to read them, they can tell you what the future will bring.  One year in college I took a course on Alaska Native Literature, and we read a number of traditional stories.  I wrote a paper on the shaman as a figure in stories, and in researching that paper in the stacks, I read so many beautiful stories.  And so many terse stories.  And so many chilling stories.   I read a number of different taboos and warnings against watching the aurora, and as many or more descriptions of what the aurora is.  Some said that it was only safe for a shaman to watch the aurora, for only they were strong enough or protected enough to engage with the spirit world in that way.  All I can say is that, had I lived in the time of these stories, I doubt I could keep myself from watching the lights dance overhead, no matter the danger.  

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