Fire in the sky

I’ve wanted to see the Aurora, the Northern Lights, all of my life. I never had a lot of chances – and the one time I came close, on a September night inFairbanks, Alaska, things didn’t pan out.

And then, on the tenth day of May of the year of our lord 2024, the Sun did a massive burp and sent a gigantic solar flare toward the Earth. And suddenly… right here where I was… the chances for a glimpse of what I had yearned to see for a lifetime were right there for the taking.

I’ve slowed down in the last couple of years, though. There have definitely been times that I have gone so far as to pick up the car keys and stand at the front door and then decide not to go out after all. WHich is to say, I had to psych myself up to pick up my phone, my good camera, my cane, and the weight of that yearning… and sally out just as the sun was going down.

I parked at the Marina Beach, in Sudden Valley, and I was one of the early arrivals. One other guy turned up with a set of serious equipment – a tripod and a semi-professional cameras – and we got to talking. He said he’d seen the phenomenon before, back when he lived in Alaska, but never really this far south – and yet, on the Aurora app, the probability of seeing the lights climbed to 95% and stayed there; it climbed from a G4 to a G5 storm; and the bar measuring the intensity glowed a solid red and suggested the highest possible number, a 9, for the foreseeable future. We glared at the sunset together – the longest sunset of our lives – and waited for it to get dark. He played around on his phone and said that people were sending in pictures from Spokane already. But also from Arizona. From Savannah, Georgia. From FLAGLER in FLORIDA.

Our sky darkened, but remained blank.

I whined.

He said, wait, wait until it gets darker.

No-see-ums flew into our noses. Small bats flitted by in the deepening dusk. More people started arriving, young people, old people, kids, dogs, courting couples, serious photographers with lenses that looked like they could capture the next galaxy and people with cellphone cameras pointed at the sky.

And then, about half an hour of peering into the heavens as they deepened from sunset-streaked dark blue into indigo into blue-black with twinkling stars, my Alaska friend pointed to one of those stars and said, there, under the stars. A streak. See it?

Well sort of. It didn’t look much like I thought a level 9 event woud look like but yeah, there was a streak. My good camera picked up very little but when I tried clicking the cellphone camera in that general direction…

“Oh. WOW. Yeah.”

The “streak” was real. And it had a faint green tinge to it.

It was here.

For the next THREE HOURS I stood rapt and watched the sky begin to dance. First the pale white streaks deepened into a definite green. Then my Alaska friend pointed his cellphone straight up and got an unexpected burst of light directly overhead, something not even visible to the naked eye as yet. And after that I just kept on pointing and snapping, and the sky… turned green… turned pink… turned purple…in the beginning it still felt oddly hit and miss and you kind of thought you saw a streak and took a picture (and were rewarded by glory) but then it started being visible to the naked eye, the sky painted crimson and bubblegum pink and pale green, dancing ribbons, streaks of light, swirls of colour as though you were sitting in the heart of a nebula. For the first time I viscerally understood the Star Trek universe propensity to hurtle towards any “space time anomaly” for further exploration, no matter how many times it went badly for everybody – the human spirit cannot turn away from this, from something that looks like this. It is irresistible. It pulls you in and wraps you up. Never mind the greatest Gothic cathedral thrown up by the hands of man – if ever anybody believed in the existence of God it was in an hour like this, under an open sky.

And then something truly extraordinary happened. The sky turned a milky white, with mother-of-pearl overtones of pink and gold and green, like somebody had stabbed a pearl in the heart and its lifeblood had spilled out. And the sky BURNED.

There was no cat calling, no shouts, no whoops. Instead, something like a sigh, almost a moan, swept the gathered humanity under this unearthly light, and we all stood there, rooted, our heads tilted up, never wanting this to end.

For another hour the sky coruscated and danced and I just kept on taking pictures. Just one more. Just one more. Just one more. I took more than 120 photos in the four hours that I was there, mostly because it kept on changing so fast and I just wanted to keep it all, to gather it all, to never forget a moment of it.

Fire in the sky. I had met the Aurora. I was different now. Being touched by that light… changes you.