It’s official. We live in a magical universe.
I have always known this, somewhere. In my heart, in my belly, in the places where the onslaught of modernity’s cynicism has not been able to reach. But now it is confirmed. Because last night I was privileged to watch – awed and humbled – the dance of the aurora borealis across a crystal clear Arctic sky near Tromsø in Norway.
As the atmosphere erupted into shimmering sheets of light above us, I heard Francesco, a self-professed aurora addict from Italy and tonight’s Arctic Guide, say ‘words are not adequate to describe this’. I agree. Nonetheless I will try.
I saw rainbow snakes curling and unfurling: huge elongated forms suspended unimaginably high above, stretching from dark horizon ahead to bright moon above the snow-dressed mountains behind. Immense curtains of travelling light chased each other across the sky. Sometimes these consolidated into tendrils of numinous intensity that reached out as if to connect with each other, only to dance apart again in starbursts of green energy. They became horseshoes, hearts, circles and spirals – looping whorls of brightness that opened into fans and umbrellas of falling light that filled the sky and bathed us in luminosity. Mesmerising slow undulations were followed suddenly by dancing waves of florescent pink and green light, cascading urgently through space and weaving around the moon, as if possessed by the joy of possibility itself.
Science tells us that these performances are caused by solar flares on the sun’s surface. Highly energised particles burst into massive bubbles on the sun, each up to a hundred times the size of Earth. These bubbles of excited energy push photons and electrons out into space and towards Earth’s atmosphere. Here they collide with Earth’s magnetic field.1 This magnetic field happens to be perfectly formed so as to shield Earth’s biosphere from being torched by this energetic onslaught. The moving particles constituting Earth’s magnetic field are pulled into a torus-shaped strange attractor that forms concentrated rings of magnetic energy around the latitude degrees of the high 60s and low 70s, as in the image below. It is this concentration of energy that makes aurora activity visible around these latitudes in both north and south of the planet. Amazingly, although separated by thousands of miles, the shifting forms of the borealis and australis auroras are identical.
All of this is astonishing enough. But there are silences in science’s explanations. Science cannot tell us why the auroras dance as they do. Why they form shapes that evoke snakes, birds and rainbows, and why their tendrils of light seem sometimes to race towards each other – to reach out as if to greet and connect with one another.
Science cannot predict aurora movement, or even forecast aurora activity with exactness. And it cannot explain why the aurora affect is one of the experience of consciousness, sentience, vitality and heart-opening beauty.
The stories and explanations of peoples living ancestrally with the aurora point towards different understandings.
I hear that indigenous peoples of Alaska see their ancestors in the dancing lights of the auroras, reading guidance and approval for human activity in their shifting shapes and changing energetic intensity. Those of the Scandinavian Arctic regions see the souls of unborn children in the lights, as well as warning young children to behave well lest they be snatched away by the giant snakes in the sky.
Whatever the variations, they seem to amplify a sense of human connectedness with the mysterious dance of the aurora. To fold the immensity of the aurora into a cultural poetics that entangles human significance with cosmic sustenance, and that reads the appropriateness of human action in aurora entrails.
Science at its best also affirms this resonance of human and cosmic. Subatomic physics tells us that we too are made of the same dancing particles of light that form the aurora. That we are simultaneously matter and energy, our bodies an ephemeral borrowing of particles that have been around for billions of years. And science also speaks of our actions bringing forth the worlds we then see.2.
But the instrumentalist and capitalist ethos in which scientific curiosity surfaced and succeeded has pulled our attention away from these connecting meditations. In emphasising controlled environments and new orders of discrete categories it has made a fissionable world poised for capture and circulation as capital. It has unbound the bonds connecting nature’s entities, and unwoven the fabric of long-maintained cultural land-, sea- and sky-scapes. It is an orientation that makes a mockery of magic, and that creates cynics of us all.
Perhaps we can live instead as if each sound, each step, each word, each action is redolent with connecting meaning and significance. As if each moment is a possibility for re-membering the privilege of being an utterly unique and magical constellation of atoms, memories, flesh and choice-full consciousness; inhabiting an equally unique and magical universe – where an aurora of the particles of which we too are made dances regularly, and beautifully, across the sky. Affirming a capacity for wonder as a necessary human capability, and confirming the yearning to live with and be nourished by mystery as key for human flourishing.
This, for me, is what I am calling the aurora affect. A reminder of the privilege of being a part of – not apart from – a universe whose unfathomable meaning communicates through the experience of magic.
- As illustrated in this computer graphics reconstruction.
- Fritjof Capra 1975 text The Tao of Physics. London: Wildwood House.