My street glows with character

I live in the poorest neighborhood in my central Maine town. Stretched out along the Penobscot River, the houses here are very old but, for the most part, solid, kept in shape by the labors of people who likely inherited the homes from their parents. Sometimes ownership goes back to grandparents, or great-grandparents.

My neighborhood – "the Basin" – is bisected by a freight railway. Trains rattle walls and windows twice a day, like clockwork. The Basin used to be occupied almost exclusively by millworkers and their large families. These people were not held in high regard by those who lived up on "the hill," giving rise to attitudes which, to some extent, persist. From time to time, when I tell a new acquaintance where I live, I watch as one eyebrow makes its slow ascent.

Many of my cohorts – college professors like myself – live up on the hill. I live in the Basin by choice. Not as a social statement, and not because I can't afford the hill. There are two other reasons.

One is the joy of being part of a work in progress. In order to make my meaning clear, I need to point out that my old, ragtag neighborhood is juxtaposed with a spanking new development that sprang up – complete – almost overnight. Thirty large homes, each of them structurally perfect, each with a lawn that lives and grows under a decree never to exceed two inches in height, never to sprout a dandelion. All the street trees are evenly spaced. In short, there is nothing for the homeowner to do beyond moving in. And then what?

Compare this with my beloved Basin. Every home seems to be involved in some sort of process. The uninitiated observer might conclude they're either being improved or slowly dismantled. It's hard to say, when one sees a place with some of its siding hanging off and flapping in the wind. In the abutting development nobody ever seems to be out working on their homes, because everything has already been done. But the Basin is a veritable hive of activity: There's always a hole being dug or filled, a roof going on or coming off, rain gutters being installed – and reinstalled after the ice dams of yet another Maine winter have done their damage. This leads to a great deal of social interaction as neighbors inspect one another's work and offer their solicited or unsolicited advice.

Which leads me to my second reason for choosing to live in my neighborhood: the drama. I have found that people of modest means who have not had access to a great deal of formal education have rather meager skills of subterfuge, of pretending that their lives are something other than they really are. For this reason, life in the Basin is highly externalized: occasional shouting matches split the night air; the neighborhood bottle and can collector hauls her heavy plastic bags up and down the steep hill; our token teenage hot-rodder is repeatedly told to slow down; a hefty old-timer makes his annual spring march down the street, asking one and all if the river will exceed its banks this year, and if so, what shall we do?

Contrast this with the abutting development with the twin banes of cash and college educations. How can one ever know what's going on within that picture-perfect landscape? People are too skilled to let on. Like a nonstop playing of "Silent Night," all seems calm and bright, from day to day without end. I have had occasional cause to visit this "other" neighborhood and find myself longing for a discouraging word, the roar of a broken muffler, a weed-choked garden, a discarded bathtub reincarnated as a planter. But no. The new place is a calm lake, designed to stay that way.

By contrast, my neighborhood is the North Atlantic in winter: wild and unpredictable, with whitecap following whitecap like rows of sharks' teeth. But because it is such an uneven place to live, the moments of calm it provides are striking.

Such as last night, when a spectacular aurora borealis billowed in red and white and green over my neighborhood, a dark place thanks to its paucity of street lamps. In the middle of the celestial display some friends from up on the hill called to say they had heard about the northern lights. "Can we come down to you and watch it?" they pleaded. "The streets are too bright up here."

I mulled the request over for a moment, and then told them, "Well, OK, but be on your best behavior. This is an exclusive neighborhood, you know."

What are the northern lights?

An aurora is a natural phenomenon during which the night sky glows with red, green, or blue lights. The lights swirl and ripple in the sky, looking like a curtain blowing gently in the wind. The colors blend and change until the aurora fades.

Auroras occur irregularly, always near Earth's magnetic poles. In the Northern Hemisphere, they are called the aurora borealis; in the Southern Hemisphere, the aurora australis. Auroras result from the interaction of energetic particles (electrons and protons) with atoms in the upper atmosphere. The charged particles approach Earth from the sun as part of the "solar wind." These particles are captured by Earth's magnetic field and conducted downward toward the magnetic poles. As they do so, they collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms. The collisions strip electrons from these atoms, leaving ions in excited states. These ions emit radiation at various wavelengths, creating the different colors of the aurora.

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