• Sue McDowell

Northern Lights...fill the skies...


I’m doing a very un-green thing today. I’m flying from the midwest to Boston and I’m giving myself a carbon pass because I’m attending a family funeral. I try very hard not to fly - aware that it is one of the top “do not do” for anyone with any environmental awareness. But time is short and the drive would take over a full day. I’m unable to give that much time to getting there and back. It makes me keenly aware of former generations - where the deceased was laid out in the parlor for days while friends and family arrived, by train or wagon or horse. I don’t live in that world. I try to make choices smartly. But this weekend, I have to give in to 21st century convenience. Because I’ve had to make these plans quickly, I’m driving myself to/from the airport and Death Cab for Cuties’ song, Northern Lights, has come up twice in my play list. I’m instantly brought back to Churchill and the Northern Studies Centre during our visit in 2016. Staying at the Centre meant we were 8 km out of town - away from any semblance of city light, though the lights from Churchill were dim and nothing to distract us. Before turning in every night, we identified if we wanted to be awakened in the event of lights. Given how thin the walls were between rooms, it was hard to image that any room could be identified without all adjoining rooms getting the word as well. Our first night, full of panoramic views of the Hudson Bay and good camaraderie and anxious to get another northern experience we put ourselves on the notice list. We'd just started to doze off when sharp raps on doors could be heard up and down the hallway, “Lights!” We fell out of our bunk beds and scurried to get into our winter gear and grab our cameras. With polar bears constantly around the building on the ground floor, the Centre had an exterior metal grid "patio" on the second floor. We gathered in the red glow of the adjoining stairwell where professionals warned us to turn our cameras and phones off flash (to avoid the jar or a flashbulb on everyone’s experience) and helped the rest of us with camera and phone settings. Already, most of the Centre - staff and guests - were on the patio gawking at the slim band of twisting green glow that wandered across the skyline from SW to NE well above the horizon.

I’d been fortunate to see Northern lights once in Maine when I was an undergraduate but nothing prepared me for the sky filling miasma that occurs in the far north at the right time. We stood bundled so that only mittened fingers and circles of pale faces emerged from our parka hoods. We took turns leaning against the building, our heads pointed heaven-ward in awe, quietly whispering to one another - some taking spots along the rail to stabilize their arms for photos and others alternating from platform to indoor foyer to warm up while the sky rolled in green ribbons with edges tinged in pink.

To whisper in the presence of Northern Lights is the only normal way to respond when the sky around you is colored with flexing, bending, weaving lights. And sound? Some of us said we heard a hum, others said there was an odd pulsating “tone” to the air. But whatever it was we are quiet, reverent as the lights morphed, congealed, re-formed like colorful clouds - but clouds you can see stars behind; clouds that seem to hum and vibrate. Someone mentions an old Inuit tradition but mostly we stare in silence. It takes only a few minutes to realize how little the average camera will capture of the green dragons, meandering horses, soft lightening bolts, and green feathered bird wavelengths and only the die hard stay to capture what they can. The rest of us alternate warmth and cold for another two hours - entranced by the constant shifting in the sky but painfully aware of what -14F feels like even with all the appropriate gear. We try to put what we've witnessed in context - "it's like being at Hogwarts", or "can you imagine not knowing what causes this?" We think about all the people we know who would love to see this - and all of those who probably never will. Deep inside, I wish I lived somewhere that I saw this spectacle so often it became trite, I'd reference it off-hand, "Oh yeah, the lights are active tonight." It would be similar to my growing up on Cape Cod - living on the ocean but taking it all for granted until after I moved away.

We were lucky in that trip and saw another night of northern lights before our departure. Memories of that and the steady dose of polar bear sightings, fox sightings, and the general unexpected expanse of Hudson Bay still fills me with awe about the amazing world we live in. I could have stayed on indefinitely. When we were in our car on the train I curled up on the lower bunk and realized, with surprise and joy that northern lights are still tickling the sky between Churchill’s station lights and the stars. I watched them until we they were out of sight - these awe-inspiring beacons wafting over this remote, intriguing town.

Why do I “wax poetic” about the Aurora Borealis on International Polar Bear Day when I’m demonstrating one of the highest “do not do’s” of climate awareness? To be honest, in part because I want to remember the awe of that visit to Churchill and the magic of those lights. I want to recapture my jaw drop reaction, my stillness in the presence of such a stunning display of something that can be explained by science but is responded to by the soul not the mind.

One of my professors in college was a firm believer that we lost one of the qualities of being human if we had nothing to be in awe of or mystified by. Modern neurology suggests that human brains are wired to believe in something bigger than ourselves. For some this is satisfied by religion. For others this is satisfied in a sense of the larger universe. For me, it will always include the memory of those lights, emerging out of the formerly dark sky and rending all of us mute in its presence. Our lives are so small and so temporary and yet we are cradled on a planet that has so much to share with us.

Happy International Polar Bear Day...may you find some piece of your own experience that brings you awe and reverence. And may you give yourself space to acknowledge that it is okay to stumble despite our environmental best intentions.


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