northern light, northern darkness
December 10, 2009
If Canadian English is a language of its own—and I’d say it is—we need new words to describe northern light.
I am not talking about aurora borealis, but the soft twilight that descends on northwestern Canada through the days of late December. What should we call it?
We have inherited or borrowed a language from another continent that can’t get its tongue around a northern Canadian environment. Twilight isn’t the right word for something that happens at the beginning of a day. How can we talk about sunrise when the morning sun never rises above our heads?
We need a new word for the luminous glow on the eastern horizon that reminds us of the sun’s existence two hours after breakfast.
When we’re standing inside a shadow beneath a blue sky, we need a new way to describe the daylight at noon.
We need a new word for the colour of a human shadow on the ice of the Yukon River. Is it a shade of blue? Or is it white?
And what about sunset? How can a sun set if it hasn’t risen? Here in the Yukon, I like to take pictures of the soft red-streaked orange shadow on the hills in mid-afternoon. What should we call this?
We need an extra word for the blush in the sky in late afternoon that means a snowfall is coming the next day. Children recognize the colour of snow clouds they way they understand the texture of snow. They have their own definitions for snowball snow, tobogganing snow, stay-home-from-school snow, and snow-cave snow. We need that precise definition for different formations of light that keep us alive in winter when the sun abandons us.
Most of all we need new words for darkness.
Outside my window, it is midnight-dark at nine o’clock in the morning. Two weeks before winter solstice, we can count on about four hours of something like daylight here. I want different words for the energetic darkness of the morning and the intimate darkness of the afternoon. December is not one long night, but something more beautiful.
I came to the Yukon with hopeful expectations of aurora borealis, and wild streaks of blue and green across a night sky. As it turns out, those northern lights are hiding this year. One recent afternoon I was listening to CBC Radio from Whitehorse, and heard a geophysicist explain the mysterious disappearance of the northern lights.
Aurora borealis happens when energy particles from the sun collide with the Earth’s magnetic field. Solar activity runs on a 22-year cycle, with eleven positive years and eleven negative years. When the solar activity dies down, aurora borealis vanishes from the night sky in the north, and no amount of whistling can bring the lights to Earth. Scientists call this the “quiet time” for solar activity, and it disappoints a lot of people, especially international travellers who come here for the aurora alone.
I haven’t seen aurora borealis once since I arrived in the Yukon, but I can’t say I’m disappointed. Here I’ve discovered new formations of northern light and northern darkness, and the shadows that define our lives between dawn and dusk. For once I have time to think about them.
If only there were new words in English to put northern thoughts into language. If you have ideas, I’d love to hear them.