A chat with Travis Novitsky about his new book, “Spirits Dancing”
Grand Portage-based night sky photographer Travis Novitsky released his first book, Spirits Dancing – The Night Sky, Indigenous Knowledge & Cultural Connections to the Cosmos in collaboration with Annette Lee, on November 7, 2023 from the Minnesota Historical Society Press. WTIP spoke with Travis about the book at a Drury Lane Books event on November 25, 2023. The transcript and audio of the interview are below.
Hi everybody. My name is Travis. I am Bear Clan and I come from Grand Portage.
Excellent. And what brought you to Drury Lane books today?
So today, it’s a beautiful day outside, November 25th, 2023. And I was invited to come down to Drury Lane in Grand Marais today to sign copies of my new book, Spirits Dancing. And we ran out! So I guess it was a successful event today.
So tell me about this book. How did it come about?
It’s been a long time in the making. Of course, if you think in terms of the photographs probably 20 years or more since the first photograph was taken that made it into the book. But it was close to almost seven years ago when I was approached by Ann Regan, the editor at Minnesota Historical Society Press who said, you know, we wanna do a book about Northern Lights and we wanted to feature your photography. So it’s been a while in the making now.
So that was seven years ago. And is there a point where you decided that – I’m ready now? We’ve got a book worth of photos?
Actually at the time, Ann already thought that I, you know, she said you already have a library of images worthy of a book. Which of course, at that time, I didn’t necessarily feel the same. I felt like I needed to have more images. The reason it took so long is there was an author originally signed up to do the text. But that author backed out feeling like they weren’t qualified to write a whole book about Northern Lights. So there was a delay there of a few years while the press searched for another author and eventually found Annette Lee who was the founder of Native Sky Watchers and the collaboration that Annette and I have had in making this book a reality has been just an awesome process, and I feel like really creates a stronger book overall with our complimenting writing. Because I do have some writing in there myself, just in the form of stories about some of the photos. So with Annette’s writing about the science of the aurora and the Indigenous connections, the Indigenous knowledge that’s shared in the book, it really is a strong overall theme, I guess you’d say.
A collaboration between you two. And do you just wanna talk a little bit about the title and the significance of that?
Spirits Dancing, it comes from the Ojibwe term which is Jiibayag Niimi’idiway, which literally translates as “there are spirits in the sky and they’re dancing.” And we felt that being that the book is largely about northern lights, it’s about the night sky in general. But the overarching theme is the aurora. That’s what most of the photos are. And that’s what a lot of what a bulk of the text talks about is different Indigenous peoples and what the aurora means to them. Felt like a fitting title, fitting theme for a book.
For sure. We’re lucky up here to, to see them a fair amount, especially with going towards solar maximum. Is it special every time for you?
Oh, for sure. I still, I do not take it for granted at all. Anything really–where we live, the lakes, the woods, Lake Superior. The views of the Milky Way, the opportunities we have for northern lights. It’s anytime I go out to look at any of these things, it means just as much now as it did when I going back to my earliest memories of seeing any of these things. Never take it for granted.
I couldn’t agree more. Try to be in the moment and just feel how lucky we are to live here and to see what we get to see, and share it with people.
It’s easy to be reminded of how lucky we are because, you know, I obviously spend most of my time up here on the north shore, but I was just down in the Twin Cities last week and it, you know, it’s nice to visit the city once in a while, but I’m always like after a couple days, “Ok, I’m ready to go back to the woods and the lake.”
Yep. I know I feel pretty good when I see that Cook County sign. Is there any particular favorite photo of yours that’s in the book?
Kind of, I would say it’s actually this image that’s on the cover and in the back cover, that’s one image that wraps around. It’s kind of become my iconic image of all of these things that we’re talking about, all of these things that are in the book. Because it has the Milky Way in it. It’s got the northern lights in it and it has the reflection of all those things in the lake as well. Here it is. So this is actually Esther Lake in Grand Portage State Forest, but this kind of illustrates everything that is special to me about the night sky. It shows that mirrored reflection, which in the book talks about the Dakota term Kapemni, which means the mirrored relationship between earth and sky. And the simplest way to describe what that word means is, “As it is above, so it is below” and it just shows that the the term and this image show how the two are connected.
I love it. You seem to be particularly good at finding water to reflect aurora and stars.
I mean, we do have a lot of water up here in Cook County. Yeah, we’ve got a lot of lakes. We’ve got a lot of streams and rivers. Of course, we have Lake Superior, but Lake Superior is kind of hard to get reflections because that water is always moving so much. And so the reflection kind of gets blurred out. The inland lakes are better for that. And I guess arguably you could say the smaller the lake, the better because the bigger the lake, its more exposed to wind and, and currents. But it is still a challenge because we have a lot of lakes, but we have a lot of forests too and a lot of time, a lot of these lakes are not that easily accessible. So yeah, it definitely takes time to seek the places that…
And it has to not be covered with snow.
True. Yeah, there is that six months of the year where the water isn’t water, it’s ice with 3 feet of snow on top of it. Yeah, that’s right. Well, that’s the other thing too is, a lot of times having a good spot on that lake to view because so many times like the trees and the brush will be overhanging the water and we can’t actually get to a vantage point on that lake where we can have a nice open view because it’s too brushy or too forested. There’s that too.
So, you’ve been on a bit of a book tour. Has there been any favorite place that you’ve visited or a conversation you’ve had on your book tour?
Oh, well, it’s just kind of starting, it’s gonna be going for a while. We had, what I mentioned today is the 25th. So on the 15th, 10 days ago, we had the launch event for the book at Mill City Museum the Twin Cities. And that was very cool. I had a Q&A after a short presentation I did. And one thing that stuck out is, I think one of the coolest questions I’ve ever gotten about my work is, someone in the crowd asked, “Can you think back on a time when you went out with an expectation of getting a particular photo and that maybe didn’t go at all how you thought it would at first, but eventually it did turn into something that was special.” And I thought, well, that’s a cool question, you know, and I had to think about it for a minute. I couldn’t think of something from Cook County or the north shore right away.
So, what I thought of was an instance from Utah where I was in Capitol Reef National Park. And I had this expectation. I’m in a dark sky park. I’m going to this cool place within the park called Cathedral Valley wanting to capture the Milky Way over this formation called the Temple of the Moon. And it was stormy, there was lightning and thunder on the horizon. It was totally cloudy almost the whole night. And I sat there all night long, like waiting for it to clear and I didn’t think it was going to and just getting really disappointed and kind of dejected and like it’s not gonna happen, you know, and this is my night here. It has to happen, right? This is when I’m here. And finally at like 3:30 in the morning after waiting all night, the clouds parted – the Milky Way was there. It was right over that formation and it just – bang. It’s one of my favorite images from my trips for sure, but probably favorite images overall.
One of my favorites, and just a lasting memory and a cool thing about that is – I mentioned it was in Cathedral Valley as I was driving out of the park. The next day I was listening to the TED radio hour where they were interviewing an author by the name of Boyd Varty. And in his book called Cathedral of the Wild, which I’d never heard of. But in his interview, he said in Cathedral of the Wild, we get to see the most beautiful parts of ourselves reflected back at us. And I thought, how serendipitous, right? I was just in Cathedral Valley, had this amazing experience that kind of fulfilled me, and hearing that quote just – it really meant a lot.
That’s a beautiful turn of phrase, and probably a little lesson in there about expectations and patience.
Don’t give up!
That’s right. Well, Travis, thanks for chatting with WTIP and congrats on your book.
Thank you. Appreciate it.