by Megan Baxter
Thunderstorms have always made my feet itch. When lightning strikes near by, I can feel it in my neck. When I was younger, I would lay out under a sumac tree that stood alone in our hay field. I’d watch through the blushing leaves as the sky bruised and the air died, then slowly became a low wind, combing the grass and causing the birches to bow their green heads to dry ground. I wondered where the deer went in the rain; so I curled up, as I had seen them do in winter, and weathered the storm. Something crawled up out of the part of my brain that produced the black and red terrors that danced in my room before I fell asleep. I could not rationalize the lightning, or the thunder that rumbled through the earth like a stomachache. This made me very happy, like peeling an orange, eating the slices and finding in its core a tiny orange heart, the sweetest flesh of all. School had taught me the science of storms that usually blanketed much of my awe. Beneath that was my father’s Christian Science teaching, which let a bit more wonder in, but was nonetheless rational. Hidden away under all the things I had been taught was something ancient. Something I think the deer might have felt.
In our culture we seek to explain everything. We think this is a new idea, but fail to recall the thousands of civilizations before us that gave reason to the heavens, to the moon’s cycle, to tides. So, as a believer in some events that have haunted human existence since the dawn of time, I find I need to do my reading. Once I have found a scientific reason for ghosts (usually a combination of intersecting electromagnetic flows and psychic imbalance in the observer) many more friends will nod and say, “So that’s what it was all this time.”
A few months ago, I went driving in a storm with my Midwestern cousin. As we came to rest at a four-way stop, wipers spitting rain off the windshield of my family’s mini, I looked out into the field to my right. Lightning had struck nearly a minute ago as the storm was moving west towards Lyme, but between bales of freshly cut hay a ball of light was floating steadily toward the road. For a few seconds it hovered, a sort of glowing mini yellow soccer ball three feet above the ground. Then it vanished without a sound. By the time we had wrested our hearts out of our throats, a Jeep was rumbling behind us. We jumped back into motion, adrenaline spilling silly explanations from our heads.
I had done research on swamp lights because such things are commonly reported near the Burlington area, but around that hayfield there wasn’t a swamp for miles. So I went back to the books. What I found was an odd collection of theses by metrological physicists and reports from starry-eyed UFO hunters. Lightning research is a new field and lightening seems to have thrown the scientific world a few curve balls.
Sightings of these floating orbs have existed throughout history. The term ball lightning is used to cover a range of phenomena that scientists are beginning to believe are not as closely related as formerly thought. Already, divisions have been made. Fairy Lamps, the same lights seen near Burlington, are the product of a swamp releasing excess gas, methane among other things, into the air where it reacts with oxygen and burns. St. Elmo’s fire was a phenomenon observed by sailors. Early Mediterranean fishermen believed that the ball of flaming light that moved along the masts and rigging was a manifestation of the saint himself. Today, St. Elmo’s fire moves along charged particles, telephone wires, cables, and cars. It is seen during thunderstorms, as is ball lightening.
For the rest of this essay the term ball lightning will be used to refer to a free-moving orb. It is, of course, a sister phenomenon to St. Elmo’s fire, as waterspouts are to tornados. However, science is still a bit cloudy on their origins. To cut through the fog, I will focus on ball lightning. And this must be narrowed down even more. Some viewers say ball lightning has burnt holes in houses, proving that whatever chemical reaction is taking place is exothermic, or produces heat. Others say ball lightning passed over the hoods of cars, creating a thin layer of ice. This reaction is endothermic, or cold, because it pulls energy out of its surroundings. This must have been what I witnessed, as the bales did not burst into flame. So, I will now speak of this form of lightning. Weeding out the theories of electricity-crazed teenage geniuses and ghost-busting gangs, I came upon a theory, introduced two years ago by Australian scientists, which has been accepted as tested and true.
In my backyard there is a field with two tall trees and a picket fence. The house is two-stories tall, but, sitting in the living room, there is no fear of a strike because of the rod on the roof. The underside of the thunderhead outside the window, heavy and purple, contains charged particles. These positive and negative forces want nothing more than to be neutral. Before the flash of lightning, a ladder of negative charges climbs down from the cloud towards the positive forces in one of the trees. It can’t reach all the way, but knowing that the negative charges will neutralize it, the tree reaches up with its own ladder of particles and touches the tip of the cloud’s ladder. The flash of bright light results from the two forces mixing, rushing down the bolt to the tree where the power of the strike is absorbed into the ground and then neutralized.
In the earth under the tree that has just been hit, there are different elements. Nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, all the things that help the tree grow, all the products of the tree’s parent that fell many years ago. When lightening penetrates the soil it converts tiny grains of dirt into silicon and silicon’s compounds with oxygen and carbon. Grains only a tenth of a micrometer in size link together into a cluster. The cluster is heated enough that it can rise into the open air where it is carried by air currents. Silicon buns relatively slowly and emits light in the process. Yet this light does not flare up until the last stages of the ball’s life, so that it appears that it materialized from thin air, as many accounts state. If wind in the backyard carries the lightening ball to the porch, or kitchen door, it is able to pass through. The silicon grains are flexible enough that the ball can squeeze through the glass in a window and then rearrange itself indoors.
If my cousin and I had lingered, and the ball’s life had been a few seconds longer, it could have passed through the metal siding of my trusty, Japanese-made van. This thought caused things to hatch in my stomach. They thrashed around, protesting this phenomenon’s tendency to intrude. The idea of a ball of light — blue, green, yellow or red — buzzing, spiting or floating in silence, moving as if a puppeteer’s string carried it over the landscape, into homes, into cars, was terrifying. Simply put, the ball I saw at the four way stop looked unnatural; it behaved in a way I been taught things didn’t behave.
Ashamed that I failed to understand the phenomenon in my gut — as I had with thunderstorms and the haunted house up on Muster Square — I put away the science books and read up on lore. For many cultures, ball lightning was a form of demon energy, a reaction that I couldn’t help but feel. Unlike the benevolent light of St. Elmo, floating orbs were historically akin to the comet and eclipse, which were believed to herald death and destruction. In Ireland and England, swamp lights and ball lightening often found their way into local lore as the lanterns carried by little people as they passed through the night. In times of paranoia, ball lightning was associated with witches and devil worship. Nicolas Camille Flammarion, the founder of the Astronomical Society of France, published L’Atmosphere, in which etchings depicted natural events. This was in 1887 when romanticism abounded. One print depicts a partially clad woman and her woodcutter husband rushing away from a glowing ball of light that looks as if it has been tossed at them by a professional pitcher.
Western thought has long been obsessed with the darker side of nature. Compared to Native American views of such astronomical events, Europeans appear morbid. Eastern religions and cultures accept the supernatural with more grace than our western forefathers. In Japan, the unseen is present in everyday life; houses are constructed to keep evil out and facilitate prosperity through simplicity. When the name of a deceased friend is spoken, it is customary to clap your hands three times, once to reassure the relative that he is remembered, once to ask the spirit for guidance and a final time in case the soul harbors any malice. There, ball lightening, or hitodama, represents the souls of powerful samurai who return to protect the coast from invasion. The modern paper bill currency, if held to the light, reveals an oval of ball lightening around emperor Hirohito’s head.
I dismissed the self of my collective history, who was curling about himself in a dark shack of fear. Though the liveliness of burning silicon seems unnatural, it is not. And if it passes in our homes, perhaps it is someone checking in on things. This reassured the ancient hunter in my head; it comforted my gut’s instinctual fear. My cousin received my letter, which provided a sufficient scientific explanation. She called to thank me for rationalizing the incomprehensible event we had witnessed. I told her that was one way of explaining it, and if it satisfied, it was enough.
That night I dreamt that I had allowed my hair to grow to my feet, that I could feel my life pulsing through its jet-black strings. It was spring and I was wearing a kimono with seven layered sleeves, a luxury that only a lady like Murasaki Shikibu could have afforded as she wrote her Tales of Genji. But I was married to a fisherman. We lived among spruce and rocky shores. As I scaled his catch, balls of light appeared out in the stormy ocean. They hovered there like the eyes of sea dragons.