Monday, March 4, 2013

my first northern lights

My husband has been spending some time trying to google "why can't I see the northern lights?" For some reason, he kept getting "why can't I get pregnant?"

There's a surprising connection, actually. The Japanese believe that a child conceived under the Northern lights will have a lifetime of luck, and so there are entire tour companies set up to bringing Japanese tourists to the best spots for watching the northern lights, and, I guess, getting some privacy.

We heard Cambridge Bay is one of the best places to watch the northern lights, and that 2013 is the the peak year out of an 11 year cycle to view the aurora borealis, but we hadn't had a chance to catch a glimpse of them yet. Until last night. I pulled the curtains back and peeked outside. "Honey, is that a cloud outside?"

It was not a cloud. The sun had gone down seven hours ago. There were no clouds in the sky. Instead, what I was seeing was the aurora borealis, for the first time in my life.

listen to this song by Sigur Ros while reading

We quickly threw on our Canada Goose and our Baffin boots and slipped outside to get a closer look. By some miracle, the streetlamp outside our house was broken, leaving our street in darkness, and so there we were on our own front porch, watching the northern lights hovering over the frozen Arctic Ocean.

  I'm sorry I don't have a camera that is nearly good enough to capture the northern lights from my home. Watch this video taken in Iqaluit by my friend polarbarrister instead. His blog is full of beautiful aurora borealis footage.

Because I'd never seen the northern lights before, I hadn't quite known what to expect. I had envisioned something like lightning, or those ambient screensavers we had on Windows 95. But instead, what I saw was a slow streak of faint light across the sky, that transformed in colour and shape so much slower than anything we're accustomed to in city life. In my mind, I understood what they were, scientifically, but in my heart I still felt awe at the mystery of the sky.

And I felt cold. Unfortunately, it was freezing to be standing outside exposed; with the winds picking up, it felt like -50°C, even with all our winter gear. Reluctantly we went back inside.

And that's when I discovered that we could watch the northern lights from our own living room window.

I've been feeling the effects of the small town lately; I've been missing some things like my family, shopping malls, fast internet, and pubs. But that night, I realized that nothing in the city could replace the experience of turning off all the lights, shutting down all the computers and phones that wire us during the day, pulling up a chair by the window, and watching the northern lights while munching on cheese toast and listening to Sigur Ros.

Last week, a question by Aboriginal activist Daniel Bernard Amikwabe showed up on my Facebook feed: "In this world of ever increasing knowledge, why is it that the very thing that sustains all life is ignored and taken for granted the most? I mean our planet, the natural world which is part of our existence and the key to a better life."

A day earlier, my sister-in-law's friend Adam had lamented in form of a comment on my Facebook wall that we have no real culture of our own anymore. My sister-in-law suggested that when we listen to the land, we are home, and we have meaning and connection. Adam responded, "1000 years ago my Celtic ancestors knew the language of the trees and understood the deeper teachings of the wheel of life. Now its little more than St Patricks day for so many displaced Celts. Consumerism's job is to kill culture and replace it with the culture of vacuous greed, isolation and exploitation. Most people go their lives without discovering what you know, Julie. That's why we are not-so-slowly killing ourselves."
also courtesy of the polarbarrister

These little Facebook conversations were at the back of my mind while I went through my day as a lawyer, but now, as I sat at night as a human being, the impact of these statements began ringing through. How many people go through their lives without ever seeing a sky like this? Do we spend most of our time being too busy to look up? And even if we took a moment to look up, could we see anything through the city lights? I was suddenly made aware of how lucky I was to be able to see this from my own living room.

What I was watching was a series of lights dancing, like a light show put on by the sky, telling a story that I was trying to understand. They were at times so faint that I could barely tell them apart from a cloud, until they gradually grew so bright that they were blocking out the canvass of stars in the sky (and if you know my love of the stars, this is significant). And then - so gradually I barely noticed it happening - the halo around the earth faded as a brilliant orange moon rose higher into the sky, and I was left with a painful aching that comes with knowing that all beauty is ephemeral.

I came away from my first encounter with the northern lights with a feeling that I couldn't directly translate into words. It was an appreciation that views like this are rare, accompanied with a small sadness that most people in the world do not see sights like this, and a sense that our priorities in life, in general, are skewed, because our perspectives are limited. But most importantly, I felt like this town is not that small, because the sky is just so big.

Superintendant Chalmers: Good Lord, what is happening in there?
Principal Skinner: The Aurora Borealis?
Superintendant Chalmers: The Aurora Borealis? At this time of year? At this time of day? In this part of the country? Localized entirely within your kitchen?
Principal Skinner: Yes.
Superintendant Chalmers: May I see it?
Principal Skinner: No.