Essay: Surreality

First posted in December, 2006

I was sitting in the library at approximately seven o'clock yesterday evening with Sam and other members of the Writer's Group. They were reading an essay of mine when the librarian opened the door and said, "I hate to disturb you, but there's a good aurora outside."

People will do this from time to time. Often, it's a friend who'll phone and wake you up to tell you that the lights are out there, even when it's nothing particularly special (in so much as the aurora can ever be considered "nothing particularly special"). Not that green and white curtains of dancing light aren't fantastic, but after awhile you do reach a point where being interrupted by a well-intentioned person who's asking you to drop everything and step into the cold becomes a touch annoying. Generally, I'll thank them, hang up, and glance out the window. If I can't see anything too spectacular from the warm side of the window, I rarely bother getting dressed to go outside. Grossly unfortunate apathy? Perhaps. I no doubt miss a good aurora now and then.

But on this night we all looked up at the librarian, and then at each other, and without speaking each one set my essay aside, and we donned our coats. Perhaps because she was right there in front of us, not someone on the telephone, and we somehow felt obligated. We stepped out into the night, into the unfortunately light-polluted night of Skagway... and the first thing I noticed was the noise.

Not the noise of the aurora - I've only ever (thought I) heard that when standing in the wilderness without the noise of the city around me. This was the noise of excited people. People up and down the city blocks oohing and ahhing with the occasional outburst of true delight. It reminded me of how people react when viewing a particularly impressive fireworks display.

And we immediately understood why - this was no ordinary aurora. The light above us in the eastern sky contracted, hovered silently for a moment, then slowly smoked outward, taking on the appearance of a diffuse nebula, its edges slowly shifting, its heart shimmering white and green, drawing our eyes, inducing the trance... and then suddenly a tendril of white exploded from the heart of it, streaking in an arch to the opposite horizon, where it gave birth to another, albeit smaller, cloud of light. The arch between them hung solidly in the sky for a moment, the line straight, then taking on an appearance reminiscent of a French curve, and then the white of the arch began to streak away into green, and then to red, and the arch collapsed suddenly - white into green into red into nothing, the two clouds segregated by the suddenly dark sky, each hovering close enough to its horizon so as to backlight the jagged mountain peaks.

It was the best aurora I have ever witnessed, and it is not the first time this week I have been reminded of how much I adore living here, of what a truly special place Alaska can be.


N.B.:  From, December 15, 2006: A geomagetic storm that sparked Northern Lights as far south as Arizona last night is subsiding. The cause of the storm: a coronal mass ejection (CME) (the result of an X3-class explosion from sunspot 930 on Dec. 13th) which hit Earth on Dec. 14th. Our planet's magnetic field reverberated for more than 24 hours after the impact.

For images from around the world of the December 14th show, visit their December 2006 Aurora Gallery.