The first time I saw the aurora borealis, it might have been in the mid 80’s as an infant in a stroller, napping outside on a midwinter day as is common up here. Maybe it was as a toddler, curiously looking out the window one dark afternoon.
Since we can’t remember these things I’m going to say it was in the early 90’s, I would have been 6 or 7.
My friends and I laying flat on our backs on a mountain of snow in the early afternoon. Exhausted from digging tunnels through the white gold all day. Feeling the cold air against our faces like a thousand tiny needles, hearing the squeaking and crunching of snow under boots passing by.
We’re looking up at a starry sky between apartment buildings around us when something suddenly happens above. It’s almost as if music starts playing.
It’s not the kind of song you would hear on the radio, not a billboard hit to dance or sing along to.
No, this is different.
This song is not heard, for this phenomenon is completely silent. This tune is experienced, felt only inside and this music is just for you.
Faint green veils flowing across the sky, building in brightness then fading again. Little patches of sky lighting up and fading, flickering, like the gentle tapping of keys by a brilliant piano player.
It appears to take a deep breath before flaring up again, the soft green veils converge overhead and we know what’s coming.
In an instant the soft piano score turns into a symphony. The corona, spikes of pink and green electric light shooting out of the darkness overhead and I worriedly wonder if it could possibly reach us down there on top of our snow cave.
It’s exhilarating and deeply soothing all at once.
Those are my first clear memories of seeing the aurora borealis, as a child outside playing during polar night in subarctic Kiruna, Sweden.
I would look up in awe at the starry sky every chance I got during those childhood years, not having a clue what it was I was looking at. Not equipped to comprehend the sheer scale of it all.
As I entered my teenage years the fascination had gradually turned to fear.
Learning about the almost incomprehensible size of stars when we see them as the tiniest points of light in the sky, that scared me half to death. Trying to imagine the scale of the entire universe weighed heavy on my shoulders, who are we and what’s the point of us? Where does it all end, is there even an end? I knew that no one could answer these questions so they went unasked. They were kept deep inside in a little locked chest until that chest grew into a black hole that devoured me. I stopped looking at the night sky, my eyes were fixed on the ground when I had to be outside after dark.
A whole decade and plenty of therapy later, my eyes finally dared look up again and that childlike sense of wonder and fascination came right back. This time in a body better equipped to tackle the existential dread that had destroyed that little girl. This time with tools readily available for learning about all the things we see. Nebulae, galaxies, star clusters, meteors, the aurora – they were no longer frightening to me, with an understanding of the processes at work they became even more beautiful.
I fell in love with the night sky all over again.
Looking up at the aurora now, I know I’m watching our planet’s defense system at work. Our magnetic field, this invisible shield all around us, protecting us from the high energy particles in the solar wind beating down on our planet. As those particles travel along the magnetic field lines to the poles where they collide with oxygen and nitrogen in our atmosphere, we see the light show that is the aurora.
Without this invisible shield, we would be subject to a much, much higher rate of radiation down here on earth so what was once frightening is now comforting.
The fear of the unknown has turned into relief, the starry sky into a weighted blanket. It’s ok not knowing everything, it’s even freeing. I no longer feel a need to know what our greater purpose is, for I don’t believe there is one. I now think it’s ok to be content with the thought that maybe it’s all just random. Perfectly chaotic but ordered by the laws of physics, everything continues to evolve whether there is a greater purpose or not. That’s the beauty of it all, this stunningly beautiful universe doesn’t care.
There is nothing like watching the aurora dance against a backdrop of a million stars to put things in perspective. Our lives down here on earth are but dust in the wind but at the same time they are everything we’ll ever have.
Many years have passed since I got the help I needed to let go of some of that existential dread. It was a long process of accepting that no one needs to know everything, I don’t need to know exactly when our universe will end. Knowing would not put me at ease or make me happier. I don’t need to search for a greater purpose of our existence, just like we don’t typically obsess over what the greater purpose of a slug might be.
The universe is vast, it’s unimaginably humongous, we will never see it all but the bits we zwei can see are mind blowing so why not spend as much time as possible enjoying the view.
I still take the time to lay down on my back to watch the starry sky when I’m out photographing. It’s easy to be somewhat removed from the scene when you spend the whole time working with a camera. That’s why I make it a point to spend at least the same amount of time just enjoying the show as I do using my camera to capture it.
These days I take every chance I get to stargaze, feeling like I need to make up for the years I missed.
I started taking pictures of the night sky to preserve those memories forever, because every single night spent under the stars is special. I missed a decade of northern lights, I don’t want to miss any more, not a single display.
Living up here far north of the arctic circle is a luxury when it comes to that. Up here we don’t really need apps or forecasts to tell us if there will be aurora that night, we simply turn our lights off and look out the window. One might think that this commonality would desensitise a person to the wonder of the aurora but in my experience it’s quite the opposite. What I’ve learnt from so intensely watching the aurora for the last seven or so years is that it is ever changing. It’s never ever boring. Yes, the various shapes and structures of the aurora are well known, we know that we will probably see an arch of green or those flowing veils but that arch and those veils will never be the same as the ones we’ve seen before.
It will never cease to amaze me when the sky above looks like a celestial ocean. Waves of green flowing overhead and you can see the stars through them like tiny organisms under the surface.
I’m afraid of the dark but the allure of the aurora draws me out alone into the night, once there I don’t feel alone. The aurora becomes a companion, it walks with you, talks with you. It fills you up, sometimes puts a tear in your eye from its beauty alone. A religious person would probably call it a spiritual experience, I call it a moment of the purest joy, true excitement, overflowing with childlike wonder, love.
I wish I could give that back to the terrified teenager who was afraid to ask questions.