Recording the sound of the aurora borealis

Last night, I trekked out to Elk Island National Park, a forty-five minute drive east of Edmonton, one of the few designated ‘dark sky’ locations close to my home.

After a small adventure — missing the turn and on the backup, sliding into a ditch and getting stuck — I found out there is still such a thing as the Good Samaritan. Several people stopped; one with a tow-rope. A pull, a yank, and clunk into reverse gear, I popped out onto the main highway without further excitement.

Slowly making my way along the park road, I waited for the big show of the anticipated (and much publicized) aurora borealis after the sun burped and spit out a big blast of particles directed toward the earth (the Northern Lights are animated by the solar wind cresting over the tops of the world’s poles).

The night sky opened up after a cloudy start. Stars poked out, bright and shiny; a moon three-quarters full, casting wonderful shadows. And the aurora? Well, ummm…. nothing happened.

I wasn’t all that disappointed; it was pleasant to be joined by a pile of other people, late, late on a Thursday, cameras in tow waiting for the same thing. My intention was a wee bit different, I had my VLF (very low frequency) antennae hoping to record the aurora ‘radio frequency’ — the otherwise inaudible soundtrack that dances in time with the night sky. It was fairly quiet — some snap, crackle and pop (like you hear in this recording).  I had been hoping to capture something more akin to these whistles and chirps.

After I drove away from the crowd — far away from the digital cameras and buzzzz of electronic devices, mobiles phones, and cars idling — it was drop dead silent. And in the lead up to the wee hours, I heard an owl hoot in the bush. Once, twice, several times.

Then silence.

I quietly thanked whoever was listening for the pleasure of that moment in the cold night air.

A Burning Man writes about Thomas Hardy

INSIGHT TREKS has landed in a lot of out-of-the-ordinary spots around the world.  And during the Kickstarter campaign, I was pleased to hear from old friends, former associates, colleagues, and you!
Several years ago, I spent an afternoon in conversation with Larry Harvey, the co-founder of the Burning Man festival. Sitting on a log in the pine forest that skirts the side of the sacred Buffalo Mountain in Banff National Park (upon which the Banff Centre for the Arts sits in the Rocky Mountains), Larry mused out loud and left me with lots to think about; I recorded his remarkable ideas, some of which are included here in a documentary radio series.
Larry, busy as he is with Burning Man, kindly wrote back after reviewing my ‘crowd funded’ request:
     “Your video reminded me of this passage from Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native:

       “The wind, indeed, seemed made for the scene, as the scene seemed made for the hour. Part of its tone was quite special; what was heard there could be heard nowhere else. Gusts in innumerable series followed each other from the northwest, and when each one of them raced past the sound of its progress resolved into three. Treble, tenor, and bass notes were to be found therein. The general ricochet of the whole over pits and prominences had the gravest pitch of the chime. Next there could be heard the baritone buzz of a holly tree. Below these in force, above them in pitch, a dwindled voice strove hard at a husky tune, which was the peculiar local sound alluded to. Thinner and less immediately traceable than the other two, it was far more impressive than either. In it lay what may be called the linguistic peculiarity of the heath; and being audible nowhere on earth off a heath, it afforded a shadow of reason for the woman’s tenseness, which continued as unbroken as ever.

“Throughout the blowing of these plaintive November winds that note bore a great resemblance to the ruins of human song which remain to the throat of fourscore and ten. It was a worn whisper, dry and papery, and it brushed so distinctly across the ear that, by the accustomed, the material minutiae in which it originated could be realized as by touch. It was the united products of infinitesimal vegetable causes, and these were neither stems, leaves, fruit, blades, prickles, lichen, nor moss.

      “They were the mummied heathbells of the past summer, originally tender and purple, now washed colourless by Michaelmas rains, and dried to dead skins by October suns. So low was an individual sound from these that a combination of hundreds only just emerged from silence, and the myriads of the whole declivity reached the woman’s ear but as a shrivelled and intermittent recitative. Yet scarcely a single accent among the many afloat tonight could have such power to impress a listener with thoughts of its origin. One inwardly saw the infinity of those combined multitudes; and perceived that each of the tiny trumpets was seized on entered, scoured and emerged from by the wind as thoroughly as if it were as vast as a crater.”

Thank you for your pledge!

Welcome to the making of INSIGHT TREKS (the short films)!

Make sure you check in from time to time; I will be posting reports on the progress of INSIGHT TREKS and what-not (for instance, the outcome of late night sojourns in search of VLF (very low frequency) associated with the aurora borealis, the legendary Northern Lights that make the long winter nights interesting up here, north of latitude 53).

I’m also very interested and invite your comments . Please do tell me about your personal experiences with any ‘special places’ you have encountered or have a hunch about and think I should investigate (such as the ones I mentioned in the Kickstarter campaign). And try not to second guess what I might find of interest or feel obliged to edit the story you have to tell; the more details — no matter how trivial — the better!

You can also continue to support my work by passing along this link to PLAN B  (building from the 2013 Kickstarter campaign) to friends and colleagues via your social media of choice.

All the best for 2014~