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Aurora Borealis...Icy Sky at Night

By Will Baker

My wife was out of the house last week visiting with a friend, and my three-year old daughter had drifted off to sleep in the middle of the bedtime story that I was reading her. I poured myself a glass of wine and settled down with the novel which I had hopes of finishing. We have a little beagle that adopted us a few years back, and as I sat there, book in hand he made it clear that he needed to go outside.

I finished my wine, poured myself another glass, put my overcoat on and brought him out the front of the house into the darkness. It was a cold evening without cloud cover. It was the night of a New Moon, and the stars shone brilliantly. We have a large back yard, so wine in hand; I called the dog around out back to give him some exercise. I was standing there in the darkness sipping wine, when the northern sky suddenly burst into sheets of living color. It was as if a bank of colossal searchlights, perched on the horizon was probing the sky. The white light was intermingled with hues of pink and blue. It was spectacular.

I have seen the Northern Lights on several occasions, yet for me; each time is like the very first time. For those who have never experienced this phenomenon, I can only describe it as otherworldly. And even that falls short of the mark. Witnessing this spectacle is similar to watching a hearth fire burn, in that it is a very fluid viewing experience, yet on a huge scale. The very sky seems ablaze. And no matter what thoughts one might be having, or experiences one might be engaged in, the Aurora Borealis will stop you in your tracks. It is nature’s showstopper.

I forgot the cold, my dog, and my wine and just stood there…mouth agape as the sky shimmered and sheets of changing colors danced before me. I knew from past experience that the moment would probably be a fleeting one so I just stood there, almost afraid to blink. I have never traveled to the far north where it is said that the Northern Lights dance all night, but here in Vermont they usually appear suddenly and then disappear with out a trace. Except of course for the feelings of astonishment and exhilaration that the witness is left with.

The colors danced on for a time, and then gradually faded until they were gone. The dog was dutifully sniffing around nearby, clearly unimpressed so I called him and went back into the house. It felt as if I had been outside for hours, yet only ten minutes had passed. Time had slowed down. While I was out there I was truly living in the moment. I tried to read my novel, but it was no use. I just couldn’t concentrate. I went back outside to check the sky, but except for the twinkling of the stars, two planets (Saturn and Jupiter) and the Milky Way there was nothing to be seen.

Of course there is a valid scientific explanation for the Northern Lights: it is the result of interplay between the Earth’s electromagnetic field and the solar radiation emanating from the star we call our sun. Yet for me, being able to explain something like the Northern Lights does not diminish the experience. But we do seem to have an innate need to categorize and explain things. Perhaps so that we might feel a little bit more in control, a little bit more significant.

I wonder what the ancient folks thought about the Aurora Borealis. Was it a portent for them, and if so, I wonder what they thought that it meant. Did they marvel at the strangely beautiful spectacle, or did they lay quaking on the ground, thinking that they had displeased one of their Gods? Of course we have no real way of knowing exactly what their reactions were. However I do suspect that, even if they were afraid, their mouths must have hung wide with wonder, while the dancing colors were reflected off of their faces.

It seems to me that our world is a strange, dangerous and beautiful place. And the danger and beauty can come upon us quite unexpectedly. It occurs to me that, try as we might, we are simply incapable of planning for the most important things in life. Birth and death are two obvious examples that come immediately to mind. These were the thoughts that crossed my mind as I stood there shivering in the cold, scanning the northern sky. The show was over, yet I felt fortunate to at least have happened upon it.

 (Essay Collection)