W-e-e-e-e-e-ell, said the man, saying his vowels in between shallow breaths as he stroked the deep cleft in his chin, a cleft so deep that it looked as if it might hold a penny or could snare a paper airplane.
Have you ever seen the Northern Lights?
No, I shook my head. My tee shirt was white and had nothing spilled on it and I liked how the moisture clung to my forehead because I could see how it shone in the part of the mirror’s edge that was streaked with copperish rust. And I liked the rust, too, it made our situation look like the night itself was nibbling at the mirror’s edge and I liked that thought, that the night itself might be hungry or even hungrier than I was but for what I did not know.
Then I turned to the man, weighing his question in milligrams.
No, I told him. But if I am lucky, I will try. I’d like to see the Northern Lights. Someday. Before I die.
You should, he told me.
Derek, he said. My name is Derek. You can call me Derek. Don’t bother around with any of that doctor business.
Oh, I said. Are you a doctor?
Not really, he said. But, technically: yes. Who cares about technically, though? Right?
Sure, I said. But so what about your Northern Lights, then?
He kind of flinched when I said that, the way a mama bird flinches when you trod too close to her eggs.
Well, he said. Harrrrrrum. Yes. So the auroras are fascinating phenomena. Aurorae. If you had to pick an atmospheric light event that had the lucidity to be called a kind of crypto-sentient organism, they’d be it. They. The Lights, I mean. Not organic, but organized. Self-organized. The aurora borealis.
Oh? I swallowed my little plug of beer. It tasted bitter and I shivered in the close-hung atmosphere of San Juan’s tropical winter. The other patrons in the bar were pucker-eyed, speaking too quickly in Spanish. There were some old signs tacked onto the wall advertising vintage shaving and drinking products. Divey as hell. There was a cracked-up little jukebox in the corner. I don’t even remember what the place was called, or if it even bothered with a name. The old bar, we had called it. It even smelled old.
Derek straightened up, tapping me on the shoulder. He scratched a little shaving nick in his chin.
Not that this is official or anything, but there are messages. Okay, not messages. Patterns, really, I should say. That’s the word I’m looking for. They change year to year. But you can track the changes and using a pretty unsophisticated computer program you can model and extrapolate those patterns. See what they’re really about, what they’re saying. That’s what I do, in my spare time, when I’m not launching weather balloons or getting beer-drunk with strange kids here in the pits of Old San Juan.
I asked Derek, I said: What do you see?
It’s not what I see. I mean, I shouldn’t be telling you this. Me being a scientist and all. I’ve never put much stock in the mystical. Like, any kind of fortune-telling or that kind of thing. But this isn’t exactly a pattern so much as… well… it’s like a symphony. And you know the sound? It’s not just lights but sound, a kind of snapping, tapping, clapping — it sounds like it’s coming down all around you. There was an old Inuit legend that said that if you heard a snap when the lights came you must whisper because otherwise you’d risk getting spirited away to the afterworld. Up and away to beauty itself. It’s that purest kind of radiance, written in glowing curves against the darkest darkness — all around you the wind is whistling and your nose is turning into an icicle, but all you can do is look. And the lights are speaking, I think. Singing. To you, to me. To all of us. Think of a musical score written by a tremendous and extremely fragmentary hand of ice, a flurried archipelago suspended high above the earth, writing and writing. For us. Can you even imagine, what I’m telling you, what I’ve seen?
That’s a nice sentiment, I said, trying to imagine what the Northern Lights actually looked like, and if they even potentially resembled a large, atomized hand of tiny ice crystals. In my head they came out wavy, like colorful TV static, blotted and green.
Oh, believe me, if you follow this thing all the way down, I mean talk about layers within layers. You know, geologists have this wonderful sediment that functions as a kind of lithic archive, where they can see how the gestures of the land itself writes the passage of long-count time down into the deep places of the earth. But for meteorologists? We don’t have that. We have a lot of recorded data, although not as much as you’d think in some places, and we have eyewitness reports and also a lot of sophisticated observational technology, sure. But our events are impermanent. And we don’t have that lithic archive. Ours is a library of clouds, of vapors, and those don’t tend to leave too many decent fossils. I’m what they’d call a speculative meteorogists and I’ll tell you that I do more speculation than I’d like, even more than paleontologists do when they try and tell you what color the dinosaurs were. Because do they know? It’s all guesswork. For me now, take the timing of ancient weather events. Those are still a kind of black box, nearly as much as future weather events. Sure, there are exceptions. But if you asked me to say if it rained or whatever on a certain longitude/latitude coordinates anywhere in North America say, a million years ago, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you.
So I guess I don’t get it, I told Derek, leaning a little bit down on my elbow against the scuffed-up hardwood of the bar’s edge. What does all this have to do with the Northern Lights? I don’t see the connection.
Hey, how about you buy me another beer, kay? I’m getting a little dry-mouthed over here.
I looked at this Derek fellow, wondering if he was full of shit before deciding that I didn’t want to miss out on finishing the most interesting conversation I’d had all night.
Okay, sure. I’m all ears. Dos cervezas, señor!
So, Derek continued, not missing a beat: how about we think about the Northern Lights as a kind of meteorological event but with more genuine in-built regularity. Because it’s related to all kinds of different off-Earth events, like the placement of the planets at any given time and the way that, say, solar flares deal with the terrestrial magnetosphere and so on and so forth. The point is, we actually have a bunch of data about these off-Earth events because they are inter-related and fairly long-count themselves, a lot more than on-Earth events, and with a few major exceptions, correspond to the location of different planets and celestial bodies at different times which, by looking at the planes of rotation, etc. etc. we have a pretty good idea of say, where Venus was a hundred thousand years ago. Even a million years ago. And we know what the tilt of the Earth relative to the Sun was, thereabouts. And from some geological records we can make some good guesses about what the terrestrial magnetosphere was doing about then — nothing super-exact, but way more ballpark-level than say, what the rain in Spain was doing on a given month a hundred thousand or a million years ago. And all of these things, these things correlate with each other in different ways that we are still learning about, and they influence the observable behavior of the aurora borealis. Got it?
The Northern Lights.
Yeah, exactly. There are all these inter-relationships, and we have more and more data that we can use to check our models against, both for historical and future prediction. Not necessarily cause-effect or direct correspondence, but these things all have at least semi-defined inter-relationships. Now a lot of this is complex, dynamic shit, right here. So no guarantees. Some of these we are just beginning to understand. Others, like between the Winter Solstice and the Lights or between meteor showers and the Lights, we have understood pretty well for a while. You get me?
I get you.
Derek smiled a kind of crookedy jack-o-lantern smile, revealing a set of teeth that had hopefully seen more hygienic days.
Good, because I’m about ready for ceveza número cuatro over here. So to the earlier point: think about a player piano. There’s a roll of round bumps, like the thing that goes in a music box and a little gear turns it and then the piano makes music. In this analogy, the Northern Lights are the music. We get treated to this crazy symphony of light every year and for a long time we have mostly just been paying attention to it for aesthetic reasons, you know, and now there’s some interest in seeing how the aurora is responding to climate change so they pay jackasses like me to send weather balloons up with arrays to gather atmospheric data. The thing is, these balloons are only like, partial pictures of what is happening with the Lights and that is due to an interesting fact which is that the real action is not in the atmosphere at all, but in space. Because the Lights are not really constrained so much by gravity in the way that, say, water is, they go way up, like, we’re talking thermosphere, mesosphere territory. They arch down to wave before us, and they… well, they, up there… that’s where the heart is…
Well, you know what I mean. There’s a place, and most of the people who study this stuff don’t really believe me and think I’m just some kinda quack, but my basic belief is that there are, like, incredibly important messages written in the afterglow of the Northern Lights that could tell us a lot of things about the planet, about the infancy of the planet and about geologically ancient geomagnetic activity and, like, even some stuff about the planet’s future. I’m not saying that it holds any kind of magic bullet for climate change or ocean acidification or extreme weather volatility, and I’m definitely not saying that it could have like, meaningful predictive power for like, extreme weather events to crop up in one year more than another, because we already know a lot about those things and it’s the Greenhouse effect and anyone telling you otherwise is an oil man or getting money from an oil man one way or another. Sorry, I digress. That last bit is just a little editorial, but I mean as a scientist I don’t want you to get the idea that this mumbo-jumbo I’m spinning about the Northern Lights is going to muck with the basic premises of climate science, at least not as we currently understand the models. But what I do believe in here is the message, you get me? That there’s this place in z-axis space that we’ve never stuck a camera-telescope and it is my suspicion, call it a hunch if you like, that if we were able to look at the Northern Lights from this place, from the heart, then we’d be able to make observations about the relationship between terrestrial magnetism, the carbon cycle and really the overall spectral history of the planet. It could change a lot of things. Not in any small part because it is furthermore my belief that from this heart-space up in the aurora borealis we would be able to observe an image that would be the most breathtakingly beautiful image that our planet is capable of producing. And that alone… well, everything costs money.
Wow. So that’s what you do when you aren’t drinking here in the pits of Old San Juan?
You got it. Well, it’s what I’ve been trying to do for the past eight years. Build a rocket pod, launch an atmospheric instrument array. Time and money. I’ve got it maybe 60% finished. What’s neat in the design is that the first stage is a weather balloon and then the rocket has a pressure-based ignition switch that will launch it from the lower atmosphere, then it climbs up to a higher level and there’s a pressure-based switch that then opens a broad superfine parachute that has a kind of interior bubble in it and there’s a little hose that re-inflates it using a bladder of compressed hydrogen after the rocket engines have cut. So in essence my model requires less fuel than most rockets because it can, like, take breaks in the flight plan using this hydrogen bladder ballooning system. Then when it gets to the place where it can open the instrument array and the camera system, all of that housing and stuff is inflatable, using a wall of ultrathin carbon fiber, which is also ultralight. So even though the third stage of this rocket is pretty small, once it gets up above the stratosphere it can bloom into a geometrical observation pod like three ex or four ex that size, and all of the other observational tools are built using this inflatable clothwork so that a small bladder of compressed hydrogen actually activates the signal array. And boom, it starts broadcasting hi-res data back to my research station, like, pretty much right away.
So wait, do you make all of this stuff yourself?
Well, yeah. Actually the main thing I’ve been doing these past eight years is figuring out how to reverse-engineer different meteorological devices and then fabricate them using this inflatable carbon-fiber system and then doing tests with little rockets to make sure that they inflate properly and then can transmit with a half-decent degree of reliability. Lots of micro machine-sewing lessons, because I’m building it all as small as possible. And let me tell you, if the compressed hydrogen overheats, then it goes *blam*. Lost my fair share of equipment to overheat on test flights. Thousands of bucks, woomp, down the drain.
That’s part of your job?
Ahhhhhh, Derek sighs, pushing the beer up to his lips for a pull. No. No, this is my passion. My love. The Northern Lights are the most perfect being in our world. They’re all I have. And I, your sad, newfound drinking buddy here, am in love.
With the Northern Lights?
If it were legal man, if it were legal I’d go out and get the marriage license right now. You’d better believe it. Every night I dream about their heart, these coordinates of z-axis space, and when I’m sleeping its like I can fucking *taste* that beautiful nacreous veil of light. For most of my life, getting into the aurora has existed only as a kind of fantasy. Now, for the past eight years, well, I’m really trying to get there. Three years and I should have a working rocket. Launch costs are around a hundred, two hundred thousand dollars. I’m trying to figure out a way to borrow against the value of the data, like a bank loan but that’s how much houses cost, not an amateur rocket launch. Plus, I’m not exactly sterling in the way of credit rating, as you might imagine.
Right. Well yeah, that does sound like a lot of money.
You’re goddamn right it’s a lot of money. Well, nice talking to you and thanks for the beer but I better be shoving off. Talking about the Lights always gets me in a strange mood. I think I’d better be alone.
You gonna be alright?
Oh, I’ll be alright. Two decades of heartache and I’ll survive this night. Be well, kid.
And you, Dr. Derek. I hope you get to the aurora’s heart some day. I’d love to see what it looks like.
The most beautiful, hic, the most beautiful image the planet has created. How can we miss out on that, knowing that it’s there? So. Adios amigo!
Buenas noches, señor.
I drained my beer and left the bar, seeing behind my eyelids the bright streaks of something loved, curled up faraway.
Edmund Zagorin‘s prose has appeared in Joyland, Voiceworks, Writing That Risks (Redbridge Press, 2013), and elsewhere. He snail mails stories to strangers via @storiesbymail and will begin an MFA in Creative Writng at CalArts’ School of Critical Studies this Fall.