Uncanny Skies

What Indonesia's red skies have in common with Edvard Munch's Scream

Earlier this week, I found myself fixated on footage of red skies over Indonesia. Over the past week, videos and images from the Jambi province in central Sumatra depicted a deep orange or blood-red sky, a result of sunlight scattering through the haze of human-caused forest fires.

The Jambi province is facing a health crisis caused by air pollution, with clinics seeing a surge in patients, many of whom are children. The number of fires burning in Indonesia this year is growing at a rate similar to that of 2015, when the region experienced an unprecedented air pollution crisis termed the worst environmental disaster of the year. The carbon emissions from this year’s fires are also at a record high, with nearly a million people affected by respiratory problems.

These images depict a surreal and eerie sight, bringing into focus the deep strangeness of our current predicament. In an era where we apply digital filters to dial up the vividness of natural scenes, it seems uncanny to have to remind ourselves that there are no filters. This color palette seems more befitting of dystopic science fiction than reality.

In an essay about the sensation of uncanniness, Sigmund Freud wrote that “the uncanny is that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar”. The German word for uncanny is unheimlichkeit, literally ‘un-home-like-ness’.

This view is echoed by the novelist Amitav Ghosh. In The Great Derangement, a book about climate change and literary imagination, he writes, “It is surely no coincidence that the word uncanny has begun to be used, with ever greater frequency, in relation to climate change. […] No other word comes close to expressing the strangeness of what is unfolding around us. For these changes are not merely strange in the sense of being unknown or alien; their uncanniness lies precisely in the fact that in these encounters we recognize something we had turned away from.

Seen through this lens, the images of red skies in Indonesia are unsettling not because they’re unfamiliar, but because they bring the familiar and the unfamiliar together in jarring contrast.

Our current era is defined by a growing tide of strange and unlikely events, from thousand-year storms that revisit cities every few years, to wildfires that destroy towns and counties, to rising tides and shifting sands, to massive colonies of coral reefs bleached away, and dramatic bird and insect extinctions across the globe.

The unlikely is becoming likely. What were previously low probability events are now commonplace. It feels like rolling a dice 10 times in a row and ending up with a series of 1s.

And yet, if we look back far enough, there are often historical precedents for similarly strange and eerie events.

In 1883, the island of Krakatoa (situated between current-day Java and Sumatra) exploded in a volcanic eruption that killed tens of thousands and sent shock waves around the world. In the months that followed, people across the world witnessed dramatic, unusual skies, streaked with a fiery red caused by sunlight scattering through the volcanic haze.

(More recently, many people in the Northern hemisphere have been witnessing violet and purple colored sunsets, that were likely made more intense by a volcanic eruption in Russia in June. I remember seeing an unusually purple sunset about a month ago, and now I’m wondering if that might be related.)

In the years following the Krakatoa Eruption, the painter William Ascroft sat along the banks of the River Thames, obsessively sketching more than 500 pastel drawings of these unusual skies.

Red skies caused by the 1883 Krakatoa eruption. Wikimedia (Public Domain)

Describing these sunsets, he wrote,

“The first strong afterglow was observed November 8th, when a lurid light was seen about half an hour after sunset. It was so extraordinary that some fire engines turned out.”

In 1883 and 1884, the scientific journal Nature ran a column entitled ‘The Remarkable Sunsets’, where people wrote letters to the editor documenting their sunset observations. As the author Richard Hamblyn pointed out, the poet and priest Gerald Manley Hopkins wrote in, noting

The glow is intense, this is what strikes every one; it has prolonged the daylight and optically changed the season; it bathes the whole sky, it is mistaken for the reflection of a great fire […] more like inflamed flesh than the lucid reds of ordinary sunsets.

Meanwhile, in Norway, a painter was walking along a mountain road near current-day Oslo along with a couple of friends, when he described the following scene:

“the Sun went down … it was as if a flaming sword of blood slashed open the vault of heaven — the atmosphere turned to blood — with glaring tongues of fire […] I felt something like a great scream — and truly I heard a great scream.”

In another account, he wrote,

“My friends went on, and I stood alone, trembling with anxiety. I felt a great, unending scream piercing through nature.”

The painter was Edvard Munch, and some scholars argue that the scene he witnessed was a consequence of Krakatoa’s eruption. Years later, inspired by this incident, Munch went on to paint ‘The Scream’, one of the most iconic images of western art.

Figure on cliffside walkway holding head with hands
The Scream by Edvard Munch. Wikimedia (Public Domain)

I find it interesting that the language these artists used to describe Krakatoa’s sunsets was often one of being struck by horror. It shows them grappling and trying to come to terms with the strangeness in the everyday.

In a way, Edvard Munch’s ‘Scream’ is the late nineteenth century analog of ‘This Is Fine’ — a meme that has come to symbolize our modern sense of anxiety, unease, and helplessness, as the very threads that tie ecosystems together unravel before our eyes. You hear a similar metaphor when Greta Thunberg says, “our house in on fire”.

From Munch’s Scream to the burning house meme, from Ascroft’s countless sunset drawings to the many social media posts on Jambi’s red skies, these outpourings of human expression chronicle our increasing discomfort and unease with a world that both is and isn’t familiar. They capture our enduring existential scream, our sense of no longer feeling at home in our only home.

The difference, however, is that while Krakatoa was an unavoidable natural catastrophe, the climate crisis is an accelerating problem of our own making, one where we have the benefit of knowing what we need to do to prevent the worst possible outcomes.

So scream, even panic. But also act.