Being Present to the Starlight

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Annette S. Lee and Travis Novitsky’s new book explores our relationship to the night sky

Before he sets up his camera or presses the shutter button, photographer Travis Novitsky will have spent hours scouting locations around his home on the Grand Portage Reservation, near the Canadian border. He’ll snowshoe along ridges, drive dirt roads or hike along shorelines, looking for interesting features, trying to visualize what the place might look like at night. Sometimes he’ll visit a location multiple times, in different seasons, familiarizing himself with the area before ever taking out his camera. 

A silhouetted figure looks out from a BWCA lake shore out at the Northern Lights. Photo: Travis Novitsky

One of Novitsky’s passions is photographing the northern lights, or the aurora borealis. For Novitsky, these are both stunning natural phenomenon and have a deep significance with his Anishinaabe heritage. 

When he arrives in a location and waits for the day to recede into night then watches the stars appear, he becomes increasingly aware of a personal and cultural connection with the sky.

Once the dance of the northern lights begins, it’s not just about clicking away to record a mirror image of the auroras or the night sky. His process is active, participatory. The long preparation of scouting a location, then being active and present in the moment, brings an immense reward. 

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Our relationship to the sky might be the most fundamental relationship we have. All the atoms and nearly all the elements in our bodies were made in stars. We are, quite literally, stardust. More immediately, life on earth would not exist, humans would not exist, if not for the star we call the sun. Any yet, because the sun affects us every day, it’s a relationship we can easily take for granted.

Perhaps because of their sheer beauty and rarity, the northern lights easily inspire a sense of awe, and serves as a stunning reminder of how the sun interacts with Earth. 

Stars and planets visible through silhouetted trees overhead. Photo: Travis Novitsky

The northern lights have their origins as solar flares bursting off the sun and sending charged particles out across 93 million miles of space. Most of these particles are deflected by the earth’s magnetic field, but many manage to spiral through passages on earth’s magnetic field, passages that tend to be clustered around the north and southern hemisphere. On route, these particles collide with the nitrogen and oxygen in our upper atmospheres, creating an explosion of light. 

The scientific explanation of this phenomenon is complex, even beautiful, but it is by no means a complete account of our relationship with the stars and the sky. There are, of course, other ways to encounter natural world. Whether through one’s cultural inheritance or personal experience, there are ways of knowing that make this relationship more immediate and more dynamic. 

The multiple ways we enter into our relationship to the sky, from scientific, personal, and cultural perspectives, is explored by author Annette S. Lee in Spirits Dancing: The Night Sky, Indigenous Knowledge, & Living Connections to the Cosmos, published last year. Complemented by dozens of stunning photographs by Travis Novitsky, the book is both a visual and written statement of the diverse ways we are connected to the sky. 

One of the central ideas of the book is Etuaptmumk, or two-eyed seeing. The core of this teaching has to do with cultivating the ability to see with the strengths and success of western knowledge with one eye, and at the same time, use the other eye to see the world through the lens of Indigenous knowledge. The idea is to use both eyes, both systems of knowledge, for greater personal, social, and ecological benefit. 

The auroras and Milky Way offer dramatic opportunities to learn to see from both perspectives, and to reexplore, through multiple perspectives, the rich complexity of our relationship with the sky.

A frozen waterfall centered on a horizon of trees and stars. Photo: Travis Novitsky

In many Indigenous traditions, the Milky Way and auroras are not just abstract points of light that can be explained by equations, but deeply connected with our life on earth. 

For instance, one of the Anishinaabe terms for the northern lights is Jiibayag Niimi’idiway, which might be translated as “spirits dancing.” This is related to the Jiibay Ziibi, which roughly means something like, “The River of Souls,” and is used to describe the Milky Way. Many Anishinaabe have traditionally seen the Milky Way as a celestial reflection of the great shining river we all go to after life. Here a soul encounters relatives and loved ones who dance in celebration of the reunion. We see this dance as the northern lights.

In this telling, the northern lights and the Milky Way are emblematic of a spiritual journey we all must take. There is a wider connection between us and cosmos, between the living and their ancestors, and the loved ones who have passed. This could be seen as a poetic way to explain not just the phenomenon of the night sky, but the profound feelings, that deep sense of connection and wholeness, that arises when under the stars.

This immediate, personal connection to the starts, to the sky, is felt throughout Indigenous systems of knowledge, is a way of knowing that, paradoxically connects us to phenomenon that are incredibly far away, but part of who we are. 

Novitsky recounts the sensation of going out in a canoe in on a clear night, the reflection in the water made the stars appear both above and below him. This produced a feeling of floating through the universe, when he was unable to know which way was up or down. Feeling both very small and deeply connected, Novitsky says, “It makes you feel insignificant and large at the same time … it makes you feel part of all that, part of the energy that ties everything together.”

Likewise, discovering that she is “anchored to Earth by starlight,” has provided the author of the book, Annette S. Lee, with a practice where her spirit can come alive. “There is a great deal of importance in simplicity, in stillness, in taking in a celestial shower. … It is the simplest and most powerful way to reconnect with our center; to gain focus, clarity, and strength; to ask for guidance, and have hope at a time of scary hopelessness.”  

Unfortunately, this indigenous view of the sky above us, in which we are intimately linked to the cosmos and creation is becoming, quite literally, hard to see. 

It is estimated that ninety-nine percent of people in Europe and North America live with artificial light pollution coming from streetlamps, building, homes, traffic, and elsewhere. A significant effect of light pollution is that it blocks out the evening stars. Light pollution has become so prevalent and so intense that eighty percent of people living in North America cannot see the Milky Way. 

Of course, even in a major metropolitan city, flooded with lights, you can still look up and see some stars. But bring someone to a place like the Boundary Waters, or near Novitsky’s home on the Grand Portage Reservation, and they will be astonished. Not only is the light pollution gone, but one can be wholly present to the night sky. 

Green curtains of aurora borealis hover over the Northwoods horizon.

In the past five years, Novitsky has seen an increase in interest around the northern lights and a leap in the number of people eager to see the Milky Way. He estimates that he has done more presentations on night photography in the last six months than in the last six years, combined. “I think that message of the connection with the stars, the spiritual sense of being out there at night, really resonates with people,” Novitsky says.

Whenever a solar storm is predicted and auroras are in the forecast, Novitsky gets a flood of emails and social media messages asking him if he thinks it will be worth going out to see the lights. His answer is always yes. 

“I try to tell people not to get hung up on seeing a major aurora event. Unless it’s overcast, you’re going find something valuable out there, just by being out under the starlight. When we get too focused one thing, like seeing a big aurora storm, it closes off to other opportunities.” 

It’s a simple reminder that it’s not always the goal, not always the perfect photograph, but the experience of a place, and being present to what is around that is the true gift of the night sky. Being able to experience such awe in our busy, over-lit world is one of the many gifts of the Boundary Waters and of wild places throughout northeastern Minnesota.

Spirits Dancing: The Night Sky, Indigenous Knowledge, & Living Connections to the Cosmos

By Annette S. Lee with Photographs by Travis Novitsky

Minnesota Historical Society Press | 160 pages

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