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My iPhone 5 had no hope of picking up the ethereal power of the Northern Lights, so after trying twice, I left my camera in my pocket. The photos here are courtesy of BigStock.com, but they are a close approximation to what we saw.
When my husband and I signed up to go on a boat ride to hunt the Northern Lights, I thought:
1: It will be extraordinarily cold (it’s December in Reykjavik on a boat in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, on the edge of the Arctic)
2: We will see giant, spectacular, multi-colored lights that look like the photos in magazines (we are in Iceland at the right time of year, and the forecast was for a rare cloudless night).
3: I will think of Leonardo da Vinci. The Northern Lights, after all, are a scientific phenomenon up in the sky. Leonardo, with his curious mind and obsession for flight, would surely have been obsessed with the lights.
I was wrong. On all three counts.
1: Yes, it was cold, but I didn’t even put on the special warm coveralls they provided. Long underwear, winter coat, hat and gloves were enough. My nose got cold — especially when the boat turned and the wind kicked up — but I was never freezing enough to leave the top deck of the boat, where we had the best view of the lights.
2: The lights were not as bright nor as tangible as I expected. I thought we would walk out, look up at the night sky and BLAM, there would be colorful Northern Lights dancing in the sky. I was wrong. First, you have to be patient — waiting for hours without any guarantee that they will arrive at all — and when they do come, they aren’t bright and sudden, but ethereal and fleeting. The lights are like the breath of yoga — deep, ever-changing, and heightened through focus.
3: It was not Leonardo who sat next to me, but the other protagonist from my novel, Michelangelo, who settled in for a long night of staring up at the stars.
It was a clear night; there was not a cloud, even on a distant horizon. It was dark. I’m certain I saw stars I’ve never seen before.
Ancient people thought the Northern Lights were spirits of the dead, but today we know that the lights occur when the sun releases charged particles that collide with gases in Earth’s atmosphere. It takes those particles 2 days to travel from the sun to Earth. We were standing outside hoping the sun belched two days ago.
We did not know if the lights would come at all. We waited for hours, with no sign.
While our guide read Icelandic poetry and asked dead poets to blow the lights our way, I felt Michelangelo’s quiet focus and his passionate faith in God the Creator. The night was lonely; it was a time to be by yourself. It was a kind of solitude built for Michelangelo.
Michelangelo whispered, “Whenever the lights come…”
“If they come,” I corrected.
“When they come it will be the right moment.”
Just like when marble finally speaks to a sculptor (or the page speaks to a writer or the tune speaks to a musician or the paint to a painter)…
Finally, a vague green cloud started to hum on the horizon. It was so dim, even the guides didn’t know whether it was the lights. Perhaps it was only our eyes playing tricks on us… But then, the line of green grew brighter. Wider. It started to move. We all gathered on the railing of the boat. We laughed. We cheered — the moment had arrived!
But then the light faded. We thought it had gone.
Michelangelo, I noticed, didn’t lose hope. “Maybe you’ll have to wait hours or days or months, but wait long enough and the lights will always return,” he said.
And he was right. The lights came back. That’s just how they are. They fade, but then they come back. You cannot control them nor harness them. You have to let them come when they come and enjoy them while they are here.
The green grew stronger. The cloud formed a line, then a circle. A green glow on one side of the sky, yellow storybook moon on the other.
The lights grew and faded, danced and moved… I was never quite sure when or if they arrived. They don’t have an on-off switch. No strict yes or no, happening or not happening. The lights aren’t so set in stone…
Just like Michelangelo’s marble isn’t so precisely defined. His process is like the lights — slowly arriving, breaking the surface over time, coming, going, pushing out, not all at once, but always in a state of becoming…
Since that night, my husband and I have talked to other people who saw brighter lights by traveling north, far away from the city lights of Reykjavik — but they described their experience the same as ours: the lights are not as solid, constant, nor as bright as professional photographs suggest. (Pros use special lenses and often stay in the field for five months hunting for the perfect picture; and sometimes they use time-lapse technology to try to capture the dynamism of the lights).
The reality of the lights cannot be captured on film — whether still photography or a movie. They can only be captured in person.
We are lucky we saw the lights. Not everyone does. It is often overcast in Iceland, and even on a clear night, you are not guaranteed a sighting. Travel guides, after all, do not control the whims of the sun.
But we saw them, hinting, winking, tempting us to imagine what is possible… We got to experience just how fleeing and special those lights are.