Wonders of the Glorious Night

Awakened in the middle of the night, I get out of bed and stumble, blurry-eyed, to a large picture window. Hours earlier the sky had been dark and clear, filled with sparkling stars and the faintest trace of northern lights.

Now, just above the dark hills, a pale, green, luminous band arches gently across the Alaska sky like a flattened rainbow. The arc seems to be flickering, but I'm not sure, at first, if it's the aurora borealis or my eyes. I rub them and watch more intently. Now there's no question: The band is slowly wavering. This goes on for five or 10 minutes.

Then the aurora explodes and fills the whole western sky. Bright green curtains of northern lights, tinged pink along their edges, ripple wildly above the hills.

I've seen northern lights many times before, but I'm shocked by the deep, flashing brilliance of these.

The bright curtains abruptly vanish, leaving as suddenly and mysteriously as they appeared, but faint patches and bands remain. Paler than the original green arc, they nearly disappear, then grow more intense. Now they are shimmering and jumping around the sky. I try to put words to what I'm seeing to make it more comprehensible.

The lights shimmer, flicker, pulsate. They ripple, explode, undulate. At times they are the embers of a heavenly fire, flickering on and off. At other times they are flames, leaping across the sky. There are moments when they remind me of exploding fireworks. An electric arc. Cannon fire. Or psychedelic lights, of the kind used in discos.

Now they are rippling waves that appear at the horizon and move upward across an oceanic sky. They are the shimmer of sunlight on a river or a lightly rippled lake. These northern lights captivate me in a way that few others have. I lose track of time. How long have I watched? An hour? Two?

I recently finished John Muir's "Travels in Alaska," which includes a chapter on the aurora. Never one to avoid discomfort - or an adventure - Muir in 1890 witnessed an unusually dramatic aurora borealis display in Southeast Alaska: "Losing all thought of sleep," he wrote, "I ran back to my cabin, carried out blankets, and lay down on the [glacial] moraine to keep watch until daybreak, that none of the sky wonders of the glorious night within reach of my eyes might be lost."

I, too, think about going outside. But the view is good from here, and I don't wish to pile on clothes or watch the sky in tonight's 20-degree cold. I'm content to sit inside with bare feet, short-sleeved shirt, and sweat pants. I lean against the window to watch, then sit in a nearby armchair.

I tell myself to simply sit and watch and appreciate the aurora. No description, no analysis. It's hard to do. Words and images keep coming to mind.

I think about the origins of northern lights and the science that explains them. I appreciate the insights that scientists have gained in recent years; but on a night like this, with wild fiery lights burning across the sky, I eventually - perhaps inevitably - choose rhapsody over rational thought, poetry over physical phenomena. These lights hint of forces larger than we can imagine, of worlds beyond our physical one.

IN my watching, I begin to see a rhythm in the flashing, flickering, shimmering lights. Or at least I imagine one. I can also imagine why the peoples of so many cultures have created myths to explain the aurora. The lights take on a life, an energy, of their own. What began as patches, arcs, bands, curtains, and spirals has been transformed.

Now the lights are wispy, vaporous, human-like figures in the sky, drumming and dancing and singing. At other times, lights exploding along the horizon are the traces of distant battles.

The lights are still glimmering, flashing, pulsating when I return to bed. While I don't have Muir's all-night stamina, I've been touched in unforgettable ways by the "sky wonders" of a glorious Northern night, as he was more than a century ago.

What Are The Northern Lights, Anyway?

'Aurora' comes from the Latin word for 'dawn'; 'borealis' is Latin for 'northern.' In the Southern Hemisphere, the nighttime phenomenon is called 'aurora australis,' or 'southern dawn.' In ancient Roman mythology, Aurora was goddess of the dawn.

The aurora, a luminous phenomenon seen at night around the magnetic poles of the earth, is a gift of the sun. Charged atomic particles shoot out of the sun in a 'solar wind' that constantly blows through the solar system.

Particles passing by the earth are attracted by its magnetic poles and pulled downward. As the particles collide with various gases in the atmosphere, they emit different colors of light depending on the gas and its form: blue (hydrogen, nitrogen), red (nitrogen, oxygen), and green (oxygen).

For more information, see 'Auroras Offer Clues to Mysteries of Solar Activity,' by Peter N. Spotts, Jan. 22.

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