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Outside Magazine, February 1995

By Patrick Clinton


A friend insists that the aurora borealis makes a noise. Am I going deaf? Dave Malinowski, State College, Pennsylvania

For a long time people have been "hearing" the northern lights -- a low crackling or hissing -- and today most experts believe it's real. It usually occurs on cold, still nights when the aurora is especially active. Strangely, the noise seems to come from the ground, not the sky. Probably what people are hearing isn't the aurora itself -- which after all is some 60 miles up -- but vibrations that the aurora produces in snow or pine needles. The signal may even bypass the ears and work directly on the brain, creating the sensation of sound. Like the Taos hum, some people hear it and others don't. "After 31 years in Alaska, I've never heard it," notes Neal Brown of the Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks. "But it's been heard by people I was standing next to."

Even if you can't hear the aurora, you can at least capture its low-frequency radio emanations: Rig yourself a 20-foot-long wire antenna, plug it into the microphone jack of your tape player, and hit record. As for your friend, next time he hears the northern lights, have him cover his ears. Is the sound still there? We await your report.

Eating red meat makes me dream weird. Do others share this affliction? Ron Ginger, Boulder, Colorado

Affliction? Weird dreams are God's way of apologizing for having created logic.

It makes sense that a juicy T-bone would make your evening's in-flight entertainment seem odder than usual. However, this has nothing to do with meat. "A lot of people believe what they eat determines their dream content," notes Harvard dream expert J. Allan Hobson, "but there's absolutely no evidence for it."

Most likely all that's happening is that you're having trouble digesting that big steak, and it's waking you up while visions are still dancing in your head. The more details you can recall, the stranger your dreams seem -- because, as Hobson says, "Dreams normally weird." It's just that indigestion is giving you a clearer glimpse of the Fellini films that regularly play up there. Next time, skip the Tums and enjoy the show.

Remember in "To Build a Fire," where the guy tries to kill his dog and crawl inside to warm up? Would that work? Gus Fitz-Gerald, Cleveland, Ohio

Jack London's anonymous protagonist wasn't trying to insinuate his entire body into Fido's innards -- just his hands, to warm them up so he could strike his matches. And though this trick probably would have worked, he would have gotten a lot more warmth from his dog if he'd just snuggled with him.

Other lore has suggested crawling into a bigger creature -- an elk or buffalo or whatever's handy -- but it's just not practical. Getting inside an animal is a lot of work. Soaked with the beast's body fluids, you'd become hypothermic in minutes. And in the 60-below weather that London was describing, even a big animal would freeze fast, so the benefits would be short-lived.

Experts at the Army's Northern Warfare Training Center in Alaska say London's character should have put his hands, matches, and tinder into his armpits or his crotch to warm them up. London should have known this basic arctic survival tip, since he'd traveled to the Yukon, but he was sailing in the tropics when he wrote "To Build a Fire." That's the trouble with sunshine and surf: It makes you forget.

Send your questions for The Wild File to Outside, 400 Market St., Santa Fe, NM 87501, or submit them here.


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