We were a neighborly network of sky watchers

I grew up in a rural area where there was a true effort at neighborliness. It helped that most of the families within a quarter-mile also had young children, some of whom were best friends and all of whom played reasonably well together. But it wasn't the children who created the sense of unity so much as the cooperation of the parents, which filtered down.

We went through stages in the development of our neighborhood. Our parents put in a swimming pool. They'd sold half their land to afford such a luxury, and that created more near neighbors. My mother decided it was only right to get to know them and share our good fortune by having a pool party.

The pool parties became a regular event for a good five years. The whole neighborhood got together for a swim and a regular menu of grilled hamburgers, Mrs. Gadberry's macaroni casserole, Mr. Tison's baked beans, Mom's potato salad, Mrs. Morris's cinnamon rolls, fresh corn from Mr. Morris's field, and Mrs. Nelson's Jell-O salad.

These events began in the afternoon and lingered into the evening. While the last few kids were lined up on the front porch drying off for about the fifth time, eating watermelon and spitting the seeds into the lawn, the remaining adults were on the other side of the windows, laughing over raucous card games such as Peanuts and Spoons.

Three couples enjoyed the card games so much that they began to meet every couple of months to play. My parents were among them. At these more intimate gatherings, they discovered that everyone found the northern lights fascinating. So began the ultimate proof of neighborliness: permission to call and wake people up at any time of the night to tell them to look out their windows. We developed an informal northern lights alert network. It started among the card players, but the word soon spread.

We lived in southeast Michigan, where northern lights aren't uncommon but are hard to catch. In our family, children learned the words "aurora borealis" at an early age. Our mother also fostered a "wonder culture" among us. Any natural phenomenon was cause for an exclamation, pointing, pause – over and over again. We were never surprised to be awakened in the middle of the night, have blankets thrown around us, and be ushered out onto the dew-sodden lawn to stare at flickering lights in the sky.

At first, the alert-sounders were strictly the adults, coming home after a second shift or having awakened from sleep. As the children grew, we got into sky-watching ourselves and began getting our parents out of bed. We loved making the calls, getting a groggy hello and thanks, and returning to the lawn to see dark forms emerge from nearby homes. Depending on the display, people would stay out from 15 minutes to half an hour. "Great curtaining effect the other night," we'd say to each other when we next met, or "Boy, if you'd just stayed up another couple minutes, it got all green and red on the edges."

Eventually we tried to anticipate displays. As evening set in, a disinclination of the northern sky to darken would alert us to check back at midnight. We'd let others know. "Might want to check the sky tonight if you're up for any reason." My brother, who eventually took a scientific interest in the night sky, gathered information about solar-flare activity, which is likely to result in northern lights displays.

Unfortunately, a trailer park grew up near our neighborhood, and the artificial-light glow from it interfered with our ability to detect the early glimmers of a display. Only something stretching well above the horizon could be clearly seen.

The ambient light of civilization has prevented me from seeing many displays since. Once, when camping, I awoke to discover northern lights and was happy to carry on family tradition by awakening my camping companion from Kansas, who'd never seen them before. And one night in Marquette, Mich., I walked out of the university computer lab at midnight to see sharp streaks of color dancing above the trees. But by the time I got home, all fired up to alert my roommates, the display had ended. Not being able to share my excitement was as disappointing as the disappearance of the lights.

A roaming lifestyle has also prevented me from developing the kind of neighborly association I grew up in, where multiple sets of eyes watched for the same rare moment. Nowadays, my neighbors and I seem to have no time to get to know one another, let alone discover whether we share a wonder culture.

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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