Capturing Lightning

2014.07.17  (4a)







I had a dream. I was trying to catch up with two people who were walking ahead of me. No matter how fast I walked they continued to get further ahead, not noticing they had left me behind. The path in front passed under a brick arched railway bridge, but the arch was crossed through with metal framework and uninsulated electrical cables which were part of the infrastructure of the railway line that ran over the bridge. My companions climbed over and between the cables carried  on ahead. I tried to follow but, being smaller (I was a child in the dream, or perhaps I was a child when I dreamt it) I couldn’t make it over the live cables without getting entangled. A train was coming. As it passed over the bridge electricity surged white-blue through the metal framework. The electrocution jolted me awake with a start and I hit the bed like I’d fallen from a great height without moving from within my cocoon of covers.


Thursday and no sign of the rain that’s been forecast. Late afternoon and the sky begins to darken like it’s late autumn and the daylight’s fading. The water in Falmouth Harbour suddenly turns a strange greenish grey with a choppy surface like modelling clay or cement that’s been lifted all over with a fork. You can always tell the weather by the colour of the sea. Come six o’clock and the first rain drops. An hour later the thunder starts. I’m on the phone to my family two hundred and fifty miles east. They complain about the heat. Thirty degrees! I let out an oooh! but I’m not reacting to temperatures half as hot again as Cornwall: I’m leaning on the back windowsill whilst I talk and as my house is on a hill there’s a good proportion of vacant sky visible over the rooflines.

A fracture in the bowl of the firmament; one point of weakness that when tapped shoots a fissure across the surface.
The invisible fault in the glaze of a saucer that only appears when the tea spills and soaks through to the ceramic below.
A hair on the camera lens, so fine you cannot see it until the photos are developed.

Thursday is named for the Norse god Thor, god of, among many other things, lightning and oak trees. It is easy to see how the light and sound effects of an electrical storm could be attributed to a god before the physics of their synthesis was understood. Even though I understand it on paper, the reality of our sky generating its own wild electricals through particulate turbulence seems in some ways as far fetched as a bearded guy sending down thunderbolts from the heavens. Though this was lightning like I’d never seen: flickering lilac-pink across the sky like skeletal arms with bony fingers rather than flashing straight towards the ground.

Put a battery on your tongue.
Say the word
fractal. Taste its infinity. Press it between two sheets of metal to create a flat image then zoom in. And in. And in.

When lightning strikes bare ground it leaves a scar where the voltage is discharged into the non-conducting surface, forming a pattern like the splayed branches of a tree. A map of a river basin, tributaries, streams, rills. Arteries, veins, capillaries. A leaf skeleton. The arboreal feather-scarring branching across the skin of a lightning-strike victim in a temporary tattoo of terrible but fleeting beauty. Lichtenberg figures: these self-similar patterns that replicate at every magnification. Slow down that lightning forging its way east-west outside my back window and there you have it, the same pattern, endlessly repeatable, infinitely variable and too swiftly visible before you can press the shutter release on the camera.

Wait for the tide to go out on a sandy shore of gentle gradient.
Travel upriver inland from the sea, like an electron being shot down from an anvil cloud in very slow motion.
X-ray the lungs.
Dissect the nervous system of a small animal and pin it to a board.
Lie down with your head at the foot of an oak tree in winter, and look up.

Or go for an eye test, and look straight ahead – and to the left and up – and to the right and down – while the optometrist shines a torch onto your retina.


More on this?

Want to know more about Lichtenberg figures? See this website for lots more information and pictures and to see how some amazing lightning sculptures are made.

If you read one poem this week make it Lewis Turco’s excellent terzanelleThunderweather

You may also like:

2013.09.23 PanoramaSeason of… Mists and Unmoving Air, strange temperatures and uncertainties of outerwear: all in a day’s work when it comes to a coastal September.



*Note to readers: yes I have yanked the colour saturation up on the lightning photo but it was actually pink in real life (less pink but still pink) and no, my neighbours did not get struck, it’s just the annoying forced perspective of the view out of the back window when you live on a terraced street.




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