THERE'S A NOCTURAL SPECTACLE that I can’t recall seeing in the flesh before I moved to Kitchener, Ontario, a couple of winters ago. I’d take post-work walks to gawk at the bruised sky at dusk, and often as darkness fell I’d stumble across an enormous murder of crows. Thousands of them would congregate to roost for the night, floating along unseen cyclonic paths to a small group of bare deciduous trees. They’d settle on empty branches in droves, their dense black jackets becoming indecipherable leaves, a low garble in the air. The brooding, illusory energy of so many mysterious animals would always stop me in my tracks.
Obviously I’ve seen flocks of birds before, but never like these. They remind me of the uneasiness and wonder that I felt many times (and came to greatly appreciate) while watching huge bats cross the sky at sundown when I lived briefly in Brisbane, Australia. But they also bring to mind an older time, when I imagine our ancestors were more accustomed to the presence of so many beasts – not to mention bigger crowds of them, and much bigger beasts. Likewise, the crow encounters always leave me with questions I can’t answer. How do all those crows know they’re supposed to be here, now, tonight? What’s it like to be up in those branches? Do they have any idea how spellbinding and intimidating they appear to be while simply trying to get some sleep under a collective security blanket?
Those encounters also hint at the night’s immense capacity to amplify our surroundings. Think of how the first drops of a furious evening rainstorm can come on like a cavalry of archers. Or how the wind feels larger in the dark, turning the creaks and wheezes in an old home or building into echoes of the undead. Beneath a startling canopy of stars, a crooning loon out on the lake can be as euphoric as any intimate live act. A sudden flashlight beam a kilometre away at midnight can completely hijack your enjoyment of an open space you thought you had all to yourself.
When our senses attune to the moonlight, we enrich and inform our waking lives under the sun. If we investigate ideas that resonate deeply at night, like the many facets of light or our sexual compulsions, we can illuminate concerns that might otherwise bind us during the day – or keep us awake into the wee hours. Given humanity’s fascination with the cosmos and our deep reliance on the night sky as a navigational device, we’d also be smart to hold on to that codified wisdom as our perseverance on this planet arrives at an uncertain horizon.
In this issue, cultural historian Giles Slade looks at the cosmic activity behind the northern lights (which hit the peak of their 11-year cycle this fall) and discovers that North America’s energy grid is vastly under-prepared for a serious geomagnetic storm. Fresh off an internship with A\J, Ben Williamson dissects a controversial yet wildly popular attempt by a trio of synthetic biologists to soften the image of genetic modification by selling glowing plants and giving citizen scientists a chance to grow their own. Rob Thacker breaks down how the planet’s most powerful new telescope works, and offers a closing riff about the disappearing universe.
We also capture the perils of light pollution (and relay some great mitigation strategies), profile Canada’s trailblazing effort to recycle sex toys, and retrace Joshua See’s intrepid footsteps as he photographs student-supported field research by one of Canada’s bat gurus in the rainforests of Borneo and Guyana.
Some of these stories do get into dark territory. But I hope they spark as many questions as chills down the spine.
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