Certain things touch so deeply into the human experience that they give us not only a clear, intuitive sense of the beauty, mystery, and grandeur of the reality we inhabit but also give us a glance into the deep connection we share with the universe around us. It has been noted by ancient philosophers from Greece, India and the Far East, stretching from before the common era until modern day, that all things in the universe find an interconnection in one source of things. As a result, human beings – and indeed all life – are an inseparable part of the cosmos, deeply connected by both the nature and structure we share with space and by the fact that we are the local example in which the fabric of the universe has become alive and aware of itself. We are a way for the cosmos to recognize itself.
A strong burst of auroral activity tears through the sky directly overhead, like sharp stabbing curtains flowing around the constellation Ursa Major (The Big Dipper). Equipment: Canon 5D Mark II, Tokina 11-16mm 2.8 @ 16mm
The explosion of public interest in space and astronomical events seems relatively new and has reached new intensities with the creation of extremely efficient personal media communications as well as affordable astronomy and imaging equipment. Of particular interest in the past decades have been comets, solar and lunar eclipses, and of course the jaw-dropping auroral events witnessed in higher latitudes. Of course, the sky and all things we associate with it – from signs of the divine and omens of Armageddon to all of our moderately substantial scientific knowledge, are far from new.
Faint but rapidly moving aurora causes a relatively short 8 second exposure to capture only motion blur of light in the starry sky as a backdrop to the boreal forest’s mixture of, among many species, poplar and jack pine. Equipment: Canon 5D Mark II, Tokina 11-16 @ 16mm
The spectacular shows of color and light that our sun wreaths around the magnetic poles of planet Earth with its high energy charged particle ejections have awed and dumbfounded human beings throughout our recorded history. I am confident that we have looked to the skies for much longer still throughout our development as a species. Through the millennia our science and mythology, the underpinnings of all things important to modern thinking humans – have been inspired and taught to us by the sky. We have learned much from the heavens and the rhythms of our natural world. Carl Sagan explains it well:
Human beings are good at understanding the world. We always have been. We were able to hunt game and build fires only because we had figured something out. There was a time before television, before motion pictures, before radio, before books. The greatest part of human existence was spent in such a time. Over the dying embers of the campfire, on a moonless night, we watched the stars…Like the Sun and the Moon, stars always rise in the east and set in the west, taking the whole night to cross the sky if they pass overhead. There are different constellations in different seasons. The same constellations always rise at the beginning of autumn, say. It never happens that a new constellation suddenly rises out of the east. There is an order, a predictability, a permanence about the stars. In a way, they are almost comforting.
A 28 minute exposure captures the path the stars trace out as the Earth rotates. The star Polaris is at the center of the concentric pattern. During the 28 minutes, faint aurora crossed the sky to the distant north creating the luminescent green swath near the bottom of the image. Equipment: Canon 5D Mark II, Tokina 11-16 @ 16mm
Certain stars rise just before or set just after the sun – and at times and positions that vary with the seasons. If you made careful observations of the stars and observed them over many years, you could predict the seasons. You could also measure the time of year by noting where on the horizon the sun rose each day. In the skies was a great calendar, available to anyone with dedication and ability and the means to keep records…
As ages passed, people learned from their ancestors. The more accurately you knew the position and movements of the Sun and Moon and stars, the more reliably you could predict when to hunt, when to sow and reap, when to gather the tribes. As precision of measurement improved, records had to be kept, so astronomy encouraged observation and mathematics and the development of writing.”
- Carl Sagan, Cosmos
And so, the great map, the bountiful guide – our sky – has since antiquity been a comfort, a source of myth and mysticism, a tool, a pursuit and the most profound of teachers. Our fascination and study of it has inexorably led to our fast paced development and current technological state. It has been the inspiration, in many ways, for the greatest adventure we know – the story of our species at large.
Wide Field view of Ursa Minor (the little dipper) through a 82mm focal length. To the lower left of the image, the brightest white star is Polaris, also known as the north star.
We are all, to generalize a bit, well aware of how deeply the internet, our most sophisticated communications and information management medium, has affected humanity and the way we view our reality. The vast sea of nearly all human knowledge – factual or more credulous – is literally at our fingertips. It may be decades before we fully appreciate the ramifications of this. It has been noted that the internet seems to be very quickly putting the pieces together and altogether alluding to the networked, interconnected web of reality that likely pervades the universe at large. We are all part of a time of unbelievable change, a time when human awareness is reaching incredible heights relative to our past, but it is also a time of danger.
Summer forest fires leave a haze of smoke in the atmosphere, giving the rising moon a deep red tint in this May evening portrait. A communications tower in the town of Fort Smith puts human engineering into this celestial portrait. Taken with a 400mm lens
As the clutches of ignorance, credulity, moral and ethical ambiguity and terribly unbalanced power schemes degrade all policital, social, ecological and personal health and well being, it is up to all of us to stay vigilant and to do what we can to uproot these old ways of thinking to make room for the new. Of course this is with the careful consideration that there are some old understandings of the world that are both deeply profound and relevant to reality as it truly exists. All in all, I am so excited and honored to exist in this time!
A small star party of a few friends observe early August auroras and star fields from the granite outcrops of the Slave River – on the horizon you can see that the sun’s light never completely disappears even this late in the summer, this time being when some of the earliest auroras of the year show themselves.
To touch back down to Earth (sort of), the internet has wildly popularized the aurora borealis (while its southern sibling the aurora australus has gone generally ignored, probably for a lack of access to photographers and adventurers.) For many that I have talked to, to view the aurora borealis is a life dream – something very close to the top of their “must do before I die” list.
Early August auroras over the Slave River, with Jupiter as the brightest star above center horizon.
There are a few misconceptions about aurora and aurora viewing that I would like to clear up, having been a long time imager of the events and an even longer observer. I often get asked questions about my own and other auroral images such as “were they actually that bright/colorful?” The answer is yes and no. Aurora manifests itself in an infinite variety of forms, intensities and dynamics. Sometimes it is a dull, barely visible greenish cloud that whips across the sky as fast as the eye can see; others the same dull haze does not appear to move at all. Sometimes it just shimmers, pulsating brightly in one spot as if it were some sort of standing wave and others it rips across the entire celestial dome as fast as you can follow – at times brightly enough to capture it on video flickering and pulsating with vivid light and color. I have seen aurora so intense, their movement so incredibly rapid that my eyes could barely track its movement and I thought for sure the sky was going to split in half – it was actually frightening! It is good to keep in mind that while fainter aurora shows up strongly in well exposed images, more intense aurora is harder to photograph very well. Also, not every image of aurora you see is a bad representation of what was visible, or could be visible, with the naked eye.
Some of the more intense and bright aurora I have seen – easily as bright as the full moon. The snow of the entire surrounding landscape gave off a faint green flow by reflection. It was an eerie show!
Another common misconception is that aurora only appear, or at least do much more frequently in the cold winter months, implying that the surface air temperature has something to do with geomagnetic and solar activity. This is simply dead wrong but there is a good reason to make the mistake. The closer you are to a pole the more exaggerated the tilt of the earths axis is in relation to its effect on the amount of daylight hours. Since aurora are viewed most often in circumpolar regions, and since in the summer time we northern folk have anywhere from 20+ hours of daylight per day around the 60th parallel to 4 months of daylight near the arctic circle, it just so happens that viewing aurora in the warmest months is difficult or impossible in most cases!
A particularly rapid and intense show of aurora on this August 6th morning, featuring the bright horizon that comes with summertime in higher latitudes.
While the aurora are surely fantastic – I have spent so much time around them, sometimes up to 150 nights a year and they never get old or boring – there is just so much more in the sky to see! Sometimes, in my experience, the most exhilarating thing is to dark adapt your eyes to view the objects of the sky in all their glorious clarity and brightness – whether it be to view the Milky Way, a (relatively) nearby nebula through binoculars, or distant galaxies through today’s inexpensive home astronomy telescopes.
Left, the milky way towers over the boreal forest of Northern Alberta. Center, one of the most unique manifestations of aurora I have ever seen. Right, another frame from the powerful auroral events of Aug 6, 2011.
I will pause for a minute here to explain dark adaptation for anyone who is curious. Dark adaptation is a complicated process performed by different bits of biological machinery in the eye to cover the 1,000,000,000 brightness levels that we can perceive with them. As you may know, we cannot perceive all of these levels at once. Your rods, cones and pupils all control how you perceive brightness but it is the rods that have the greatest effect on your night vision. The rods do this by accumulating a chemical called rhodopsin, which takes about 30 minutes to reach its capacity. Blue light causes the rhodopsin to disintegrate and red light generally has no effect, which is why red tinted dark adapter goggles are useful in helping create night vision. This process of dark adaptation, combined with fully dilated pupils can make the difference between seeing a little fuzzy smudge in your telescope’s view and the delicate spiral structure of a galaxy. Under a true dark sky – which, if any of you haven’t had the opportunity to see, I implore you to do so – you can see the bright swath of the milky way and thousands of stars. It is for me both endlessly beautiful and deeply humbling.
Distant aurora and the Milky Way hangs over the cliffs of the Salt River Snake Pits one late January evening.
I think that the sky calls to all of us in some way, even if we’ve spent most of our time in a city. After millions of years of gene selection, I think it would be a likely story if our brains were wired to be drawn to its patterns. And it is a life long adventure, getting to know the sky. To quote Carl Sagan once again, mostly for his eloquent lyrical style:
The wind whips through the canyons of the American South-west, and there is no one to hear it but us – a reminder of the 40,000 generations of thinking men and women who preceded us, about whom we know almost nothing, upon whom our civilization is based.
- Carl Sagan, Cosmos
As far as we have come as a people, humanity will always have something left to explore. Whether it be in the depths of our jungles, oceans, mountain ranges or space, there is an unlimited continuum and range of experiences to be had of reality through all of us. We will always have the opportunity to learn, to adventure, to be wild and free.
A wide view star field featuring the double open cluster near Cassiopeia, NGC 884 and 869. Because of the quality of the lens used (Canon L) the colors of the stars are clearly visible in this image.
The fundamental element of the cosmos is Space. Space is the all-embracing principle of higher unity. Nothing can exist without Space. … According to ancient Indian tradition the Universe reveals itself in two fundamental properties: as Motion and as that in which motion takes place, namely Space. This Space is called Akasa .. derived from the root kas, ‘to radiate, to shine’, and has therefore the meaning of ether which is conceived as the medium of movement. The principle of movement, however, is Prana, the breath of life, the all-powerful, all-pervading rhythm of the universe.
-Lama Anagarika Govinda, 1969
Auroras and the Milky way over a bend of the Slave River during the slow springtime melt. I have been asked if the reflection was naked eye visible as well…Yes it was! Equipment: Canon 5D Mark II, Tokina 11-16 @ 16mm
So I encourage all of you to feel the breath of life, to know that you are part of an intricate web of energy and to adventure through the sky with your eyes and with your mind. If you haven’t already, buy a small telescope or even a pair of good binoculars, a good astronomy magazine with a current star chart, and have fun as the deep personal journey of finding your way through the stars unfolds as your own unique experience. To observe reality and learn about it is the gift that keeps on giving, one we can pass down through the ages, as it pervades and generates each of us.
A fixed tripod (non tracked) telephoto image of Orion’s sword, featuring the Orion Nebula and the star Alnitak, which is 10,000 times as luminous as the sun which is the brightest star to the top right of the image.
My dear children: I rejoice to see you before me today, happy youth of a sunny and fortunate land. Bear in mind that the wonderful things that you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, and add to it, and one day faithfully hand it on to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common. If you always keep that in mind you will find meaning in life and work and acquire the right attitude towards other nations and ages.
- Albert Einstein in an address to a group of children, 1934
In closing, I offer to you these images and words in hopes that you find some wonder and imagination in them and also something in yourself that inspires you to learn, to teach and to continue on the journey that we all share.
Jupiter radiates light leaving its directional spire across the waters of the Slave River in this 105mm image taken from a granite cliff about a mile from the bank. If you look closely you might be able to make out a Jovian moon or two next to the bright planet.
All images included in this article can be made using only modest equipment coupled with careful visualization, timing, shooting techniques, and post production.
An 11 image panorama of the northern sky featuring a great “standing” display of aurora and the milky way at the Salt River snake pit area one beautiful April night in 2011. This image was pre-visualized to an extent and was inspired by the subtle principles of our reality.
Born in Whitehorse, Yukon and now living in the small town of Fort Smith in Canada’s Northwest Territories, Thomas photographs the land & sky – both of which are in ready supply in Canada’s cold north. You can view more of Thomas’s work here: http://octoberlifeimages.tumblr.com and http://octoberlife.devaintart.com If you have any specific questions about any of his photos, he encourages you to contact him!