I met a man in Kotzebue who told me he was sure it is possible to hear the sound of the aurora borealis. He said you had to wait for a night when the air was perfectly still and you had to take yourself far out where there were no other sounds whatsoever. The kind of quiet he said where you are suddenly aware of the sound of your heart beating and then as the light descends toward you you can hear it crackling through the atmosphere. It's an idea that was long discounted by scientists, until very recently. The force of an aurora is literally tangible in unexpected ways as I learned myself during a particularly vivid aurora in 2014 when my camera began firing off bursts of shots that would not stop even after I switched it off. I had to rip off my gloves and remove the batteries and then and only then did the camera stop taking pictures. I hardly could believe what was happening and believed it only perhaps because I had read about the fantastical aurora in September of 1859 when an auroral storm was so fierce it blew south all the way to Mexico. Telegraph operators reported being shocked as electrical currents rushed out of the atmosphere and into their machines. Even after the operators disconnected the power the telegraphs continued transmitting off of the energy of the aurora alone. If I hadn't been so caught up in the drama of my camera I wonder if I might have heard it that night. It's not an experience I expect I will ever have, it happens so rarely even to those who live under the prime auroral zones. I respect the power of the aurora, both its mythical portent and its literal force. It is wind made visible, after all, solar wind, the kind of wind that would desiccate the planet to were it not for the protection of our atmosphere.
I thought about what the man in Kotzebue told me the night I walked out on the sea ice by myself and set up under a beautiful bright ropey yellow green pulse of light. It was blissfully quiet. I could hear myself breathing though I couldn't hear my heart. I couldn't really hear anything at all given that my hoodie and face mask and balaclava and the puffy hood of my coat were pressed against my ears. It was quiet--too quiet--so quiet I was afraid I couldn't hear well enough to keep myself safe out there on the ice in the dark so I pulled my ears free and listened for anything and everything: I heard nothing. I thought of the clicking hissing sound the man made as he imitated the aurora he had heard. It was a sound we have no word for and even though he had lived there all his life and had seen the aurora many times it was clear he had felt it was a blessing to have actually heard it, to have the sound from a otherwise soundless realm enter his ears. I set my camera up and took some shots in a hurry to catch the red glow of Mercury descending below the horizon as the full moon rose behind me bringing up a curtain of bright white light across the sea before me. The fog bank rising from the open water to the west looked like smoke through my lens, a wall of broken ice and open sea water burning. As I was shooting I felt something bump deep in the ice below my feet. I thought of the pictures I had seen of whales and walruses and seals living beneath the ice. I was too close to shore for this to be them. The ice was four feet thick. I was just a quarter mile off shore. I thought I might be imagining things. And then I heard a scratching sound, like claws, followed by a burbling, and when I wheeled around to see what was there there was nothing. I went back to shooting--and listening--and then the scratching and burbling happened again--but this time it was clear that a snow machine was zooming across Kotzebue Sound from Cape Krusenstern and the ice had telegraphed the approach long before I could hear the engine. I had heard the sound of its weight on the ice. I had heard the water below the ice as it was displaced beneath me. As the moon rose the sky washed from black to turquoise. It was a more subtle aurora than some I have seen, but I loved the light of the moon glowing in the snow. I lost an $80 flashlight somewhere out on the ice that night. I like to think it contributed to those pictures somehow, a sacrifice to the gods of light or some such. It feels now like $80 well spent to be treated to such a quiet, cold solitude, to revel in the the light of a solar wind washing across the top of our planet, our one and only home.