Monday, March 8, 2010

Green Flash

The atmospheric phenomenon called the green flash fascinates me.

Sometimes at sunset, over an undisturbed horizon, one can see a spectacular flash of green light. Anecdotally this phenomenon can be bright enough to light the horizon. The event occurs just for the briefest of moments; often compared to the duration of a lighting flash. It has sometimes been described as being like a great green beacon, from a lighthouse just over the horizon, which quickly scans the sky and goes out.

I am a bit guilty, when I speak of the green flash, of a mistake in terminology. It is a willful mistake and could intentionally lead people astray slightly. The phenomenon I call the green flash (because it is a green flash) is more precisely called the “green ray”. The properly termed green flash is a common phenomenon that can be as spectacular as a separate blip visible just at sunset. I call this phenomenon the green blip.

The green blip can be seen often. If one is able to properly image the sun one can often see a greenish tint to the trailing edge at sunset. When the atmospheric conditions are ripe (often over the sea) a mirage-like situation creates a rippling effect on the setting sun. The ripples can be so pronounced that the sun’s disk is transformed into a series of stacked bulging bright splotches. This looks like the image of the sun is passing through a series of fun-house lenses. When the green trailing edge of the sun passes into a lens while the majority of the sun’s disk is obscured (having set) one can see a separate blip of green.

The green blip is a nice phenomenon. It is quite photogenic. You can find many pictures of it on the web; just search for “green flash”.

The green flash on the other hand is rare to the point of mythical.

One of the problems with searching for the green flash at sunset is that it occurs so very near the sun. Looking towards the sun as it sets can result in the appearance of many different color flashes. These flashes fade slowly and obscure portions of one’s vision. I have been assured that having after-images burned onto ones retina is bad for one’s vision. Certainly they make it difficult to see any potential green blips.

The fact that looking for the green flash is potentially damaging, and may make it more difficult to see the green flash, makes the search for it fertile stuff for metaphorical discussion.  I like the idea that looking for something could make it harder to find.

Once, while living near the beach in Southern California, I ran into an attractive young woman outside my apartment. She wore one of the polyester two piece sari-like outfits that were popular with semi-westernized Pakistani women in the early 90’s. Hers was more form-fitted than the sack-like outline the outfits usually presented. She wore a headscarf, but loose locks of blond hair artfully framed her face. She had a very pretty face, and the electrically blue eyes possible only with the help of tinted contact lenses. When she passed me I caught a whiff of something more complex than sandalwood or patchouli.

I knew she was headed next door.

The dilapidated cedar shingle sided house next door was ground zero for some sort of East-Asian cultural conflagration. Several families lived in the house and there were three hastily constructed studio apartments clustered in a white single-story architectural afterthought in the backyard. Music of all sorts, as well as indistinct screaming in several languages, came from the house. At times the noises blended to create the impression of depraved horrors and inhuman suffering. The landlord (who lived in the house) once allegedly took a garden hose to the occupants of one of the apartments out back. He found out that they were Buddhists and was heard yelling that he would wash the filth of their depravity off them and everything they had brought onto his property. Later that day the family from the apartment was seen dragging their soaked belongings into a van which had come to take them away. The look of fear and anxiety on the little girl’s face was haunting.

Once while returning to my apartment I saw an older woman, I assumed her to be the matriarch, smoking a cigarette in front of the house. She held the iron gate open by leaning her back against it. She had the heal of her right shoe propped on the gate so that her right knee stuck out slightly in front of her. She was affecting a classic vamp slouch. Her headscarf was pulled back from her forehead.  She finished a long drag on her smoke, caught my eye, and gave me one of the most practiced “come hither” looks I have ever gotten.

Our apartment had a small balcony that overlooked the same street the house opened onto. After passing the blond woman I went upstairs to my place and headed out onto the balcony for a cold soda. We did not have air-conditioning and so spent a lot of time sitting in the sea breeze on chairs we had put on the balcony. I could see the blond woman in front of the house. The come hither woman was on the inside of the closed iron gate, and the two women were ending an agitated conversation.

As come hither woman walked back towards the house blondie yelled after her:
“Every day I look into the sun. Each day for a few seconds longer. I do this so at the end of the world I will be able to glance into Alah’s face.”
When blondie turned to leave she saw me sitting on the balcony above her. I tried to give her a convincing “come hither” look, but it probably just came off goofy and pathetic. Some things, like glancing at the face of god, obviously require practice.

I’m fairly sure that glancing at the sun for ever-lengthening time periods would be detrimental to seeing the green flash. I can only picture a progression of burning a temporary afterimage onto one’s retina one day, and then making it larger and more permanent as the days wore on. Eventually one would be seeing multi-colored flashes on everything. The widening visual occlusions would obscure the green blip and might even blur the image of a real green flash. Worse, if one began thinking that the multi-color flashes were the phenomenon of interest, one would stop looking in the correct place to even see the green flash.

Most people, when confronted by a traumatic event, learn something. They can develop an intense memory, a twitch, a subconscious behavior pattern, or an emotional response mechanism. Often times these fade like the blotchy afterimage caused by looking too long at a bright light.

What happens to that emotional afterimage when it is strengthened by repeated exposures to a traumatic situation? When the parent sees their child’s daily suffering from a chronic disease? When the child looks into the eyes of their parent sliding into neurological dementia a little more each day? When the spouse in an abusive loveless relationship climbs into her bed of fear hoping sleep will not be too far away?

Do the afterimage effects remain indistinct or does one begin to see patterns in them? Since the subconscious damage obscures and taints everything that is perceived, does one see the effects as a universal pattern? What do we call a pattern that shapes what we see, hear, say, think, and feel? Do we call it god, or angels, or fairies in boots dancing to strange silent tunes?

It is most certainly the case that for too many people a belief in god is a result of personal trauma. The damage from the trauma will not be fixed by simply dispensing with the concept of god that they have developed. There most certainly are things that will address and heal the damage better than a belief in any supernatural entity. One should approach these people with compassion and caring. We must realize that they are hurt and need our help.

As for my search for the green flash….Perhaps I will see it one day. I have more beautiful sunsets to look forward to. I will look forward to the occasional green blip. The search itself is delightful and fabulously worthwhile. The search for the green flash would only slightly, and very briefly, be enhanced by ever actually seeing it.


Anonymous said...

Are you familiar with sundogs?

adult onset atheist said...

Sundogs are especially interesting when something is blocking the sun (like a tree). Then it can look like one is on an alien planed orbiting a binary star...