The delight of the dancing lights

To live in the rural North is to partake of starkly contrasting seasons, to learn to love the winter, to be acutely aware of the slow contraction and expansion of day length, and to have a sense that one is living "at the edge of things," at a frontier.

But any region of the country has its assets, its charms. This brings me to ask myself: What is the icing on the cake that distinguishes the North from the other compass points? For me the answer is clear: the aurora borealis.

Most people don't say "aurora borealis" anymore. They use the more pedestrian "northern lights." But I cannot get away from "aurora," from the aural sweep of the word with its harbored "roar" sound. (Ironic, considering that the phenomenon, for all its chromatic brilliance, is utterly silent. But oh, the visual roar!)

Before moving to Maine in 1981, I had never seen the aurora; though, as a devoted sky-watcher, I had often looked for it. But as a denizen of New Jersey, the situation was hopeless. Only the most brilliant stars managed to wink through the smog cover; something so diaphanous as the northern lights would never have a chance.

Then I came to Maine, and that very first year a friend told me that there was heightened solar-flare activity - possibly presaging a display of the aurora. So, on a frigid night in late March, we set out for a dark and lonely road that ran through the flatlands of a bog. We alighted from the car and peered up at a sequined, coal-black sky, the Milky Way laid out like a carpet of diamond dust.

An hour passed with nothing except an occasional shooting star to retain our interest, counseling us to persist. And all the while the cold crept in, and the fatigue, followed by doubt.

But just at the moment when we considered turning back, my friend thrust out a finger and pointed to a distant rise in the road. Streamers of white light began to wave across the night sky from just beyond it. My friend, his voice cracking with emotion, cried out, "It's the aurora! The aurora borealis!"

The streamers intensified and began to curve down toward us, as if they were coming to earth. Which is exactly what they did as the light flattened out and flooded our little outpost, followed by the roar of a jeep engine in bad need of a tuneup. Were we the first to mistake headlights for the northern lights?

But I have always believed that when one sets a goal and presses toward it with faith and determination, one actually creates the necessary conditions for success. That success, for me, came almost exactly one year later, when I was walking across the campus of the University of Maine.

Another bitterly cold, but clear, night. I recall the crunch of ice beneath my feet as I made my way across an open field, my books clutched tightly to my chest. Then I paused and looked up, and there, waving seductively like a tulle curtain in a modest breeze, was the aurora.

Unmistakable this time. It flickered, it danced, it faded and intensified. The whole white sheet sometimes drifted to the right, and then to the left. Eventually I found myself indulging in the pleasant fantasy that the display was exclusively for me, that I was its sole observer this night.

I watched without letup, thinking that the show would too soon be over, and that if I continued on my way I wouldn't see it all, and I wanted to see it all.

But then tiredness began to overtake me, perhaps induced by the aurora itself (for wonder takes energy), and I took solace in the words of Robert Frost, when he wrote:

Still it wouldn't reward the watcher to stay awake

In hopes of seeing the calm of heaven break

On his particular time and personal sight.

That calm seems certainly safe to last tonight.

And so I returned home, under the pall of the aurora, which danced above me until I had left it alone and gone inside.

That was 18 years ago. And now it is 2000. A propitious year for aurora-watchers, because it is the apex of the cycle of solar-flare activity. Just last month there was a magnificent flare that licked out deeply into space.

I told my teenage son, Alyosha, about this event, and he must have caught the edge of my enthusiasm. The following night (allowing for the charged solar particles to transit to earth and tickle our atmosphere), I took him to a dark and remote place. This time we didn't have to wait long. There, to the northwest, the aurora danced.

Alyosha locked his gaze onto it, but didn't say a word, as if he understood, with the instinct of a philosopher, that no speech was necessary. We watched for the longest time before moving on, the cloak of silence still wrapped tightly about us.

And this calm, too, we carried home, and it lasted through the night.

*From 'On looking up by chance at the constellations.'

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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