Friday, September 14, 2018

On Top of the World

There was something in the quality of the light that glowed on the green slopes of Mount Fairplay. For one, it was evening light, which is something that’s been rare in the land of the midnight sun. That, plus the clean scent of fresh pine boards in the latrine, and the fact that it wasn’t raining, made me pause and decide to spend the night at this rest area on the Taylor Highway on my first night driving homeward out of Fairbanks.

A few hours later I woke with a full bladder, rolled out of the sleeping platform in my station wagon, and grabbed a headlamp. Relieved, though blinking and squinting as I walked back, something bright caught my eye. A full moon was rising over Mount Fairplay. After turning off my headlamp to see the moon, my eyes adjusted and a sheet of twinkling stars emerged from the dark as well. I’d almost forgotten they existed. For the first time, it really sank in that I was on my way home. A deep breath of gratitude filled my lungs.

As the fog of sleep cleared and more stars appeared, awe began to expand in my heart. Then it exploded. Curtains of vibrant lights were moving just above the horizon. The aurora! My jaw must have dropped as I stumbled backward to lean against the car, and tears welled up as I tilted my head back for a better view. The moon hung full and bright on my east. To my west, spruce trees were silhouetted against the faint, rosy afterglow of the setting sun. And all across my southern sky, northern lights danced in curtains of green and white and pink. The curtains were woven of many wispy streaks, as if I was seeing the individual particles of solar wind blazing through our atmosphere.

Northern lights dance over spruce trees in Alaska. Photo by Emily Stone.
The shimmering sheets swirled and then faded to a gentle fog across the stars, like the smoke that hangs in damp air when the glitter and crackle of Fourth of July fireworks have ended and cars stream away down the dark road. Was that all?

A little spot of light near the top of the sky appeared and intensified. I fixed a gaze of hope on the glow, and it grew before my eyes into a dancing swirl of pink and white and green that showered down all around me. I used to love ducking inside the dangling twigs of my grandpa’s weeping willow tree to find a secret world filled with soft light and magic. That willow went down in a storm years ago, but its glowing ghost now held me inside the same world of light and magic.

Magic indeed. The sky looked as if someone was blasting the Earth with a spray of fairy dust. Which in fact, was nearly true. Our Sun, though, is not some benign sprite. It is like a young wizard who does not yet know how to control his own power. The Sun’s light gives life. The sparkling shower of solar wind and radiation that he shoots at us threatens destruction. Mostly, those charged particles curve harmlessly around the force field of the Earth’s magnetosphere.

Near the poles though, where the magnetic field dips and our defenses are low, some of the solar wind rushes in. Here, the gasses in our atmosphere intercept the marauders, capture their energy, and transform it into colored light. When the solar winds are particularly strong, they can burst through the Earth’s defenses and interrupt radio communication, disrupt power stations, and damage satellites. Northern lights are not just an awesome benefit to living on Earth; they are an absolute necessity to our survival. Our Earth defends us. And the result is unspeakable beauty.

The most magical part to me is that it’s not magic at all. It’s physics, and chemistry, and nature. And we (or at least the scientists) understand what’s happening.

What a miracle that is. What an amazing gift to both have this incredible beauty surrounding us on Earth (on Earth, which we sometimes think of as rock and dirt, and politics and pollution) and to understand it. The Earth receives magic dust from the Sun that makes light dance upon the sky. That’s what we get for living on Earth. That’s what we get.

Emotions I couldn’t name welled up inside and spilled over into hot streaks of tears on my cold cheeks. The lights were dancing and streaking and changing colors like a time-lapse video of clouds streaming off a mountain peak. Moving curtains faded to smoke and came back. They quivered. Ghosts shimmered in front of the stars.

Then I noticed a humming in the air like the buzz of electricity through a wire, like the buzz of a bumblebee on fireweed, like a classroom light that’s trying to turn on. I cocked my head and also heard a chord, like choir holding a note. As the lights faded to smoke the sounds grew louder. It changed. It moved, coming from a different angle. It formed a higher note, and then it stopped. A sleepy bird peeped from the spruces.

I was sleepy, too. My toes were cold, my fingers were numb, and I ached to crawl back into my warm sleeping bag just as badly as I ached to stay out here all night so as not to miss a single instant of beauty. Lights were dancing, falling, streaking, coming together and bursting apart like fireworks. When they faded a bit, sleep won out and I crawled back into my warm cocoon. I knew that more gorgeous vistas awaited me in the morning on my drive over the Top of the World Highway. More beauty awaits me every second of every day.

Anyway, we will never be able to experience all of the splendor that this world has to offer. There is just too much of it. And there will always be more. But I am grateful for this abundance of beauty. And I am also grateful that on clear nights my body has ways of getting me outside to see it.

Emily is in Alaska for the summer! Follow the journey in this column, and see additional stories and photos on her blog:

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Bee Amazed!” is open.

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