Northern Lights


The feeling’s not new, but it’s been a long time since he felt it. The feverish fear of being trapped by the orange lamplight and suburban curtains, a cage of dreary dinners and bad television, the flickering light making their skin look sick, his and hers. Familiarity has rendered them strangers to each other, and it’s now that he lies on the aging sofa and thinks of escape. The front door is right there, leading into a snowy city he barely knows, and beyond it lies the world. A world he could disappear into and never come back, and be anywhere new, anywhere but here, his face fading in the memory of those he leaves behind like the weather-battered photo on the homemade poster that hangs from the local streetlights after he’s gone.

He doesn’t do it, of course. He drinks himself apathetic and goes to bed instead.

The very next night, his phone chimes an incoming email; an alert he signed up for. The Aurora Borealis will be visible tonight, and it’s only partly cloudy, and not too cold.

She has to work early in the morning, and it’s already late; she’s not going. After thinking for a moment, he decides to go alone. He’s seen the Aurora once before, from a plane, in a different life with a different girl, and he has never forgotten the eerie shifting of the ghostly green sky. He wants to see it again.

The highway is almost empty so late at night, only the hulking shapes of trailer-towing trucks that growl as they shift gears sharing the ice-spattered road with him as he drives. The city glows orange behind him as he leaves it, the big-box stores and strip malls giving way suddenly to bare white fields and thin stands of spindly trees, and there’s a moment on the highway where you can see the change. The night seems to thicken as the streetlights end, and you can see a clear border where the city sky stained with light pollution gives way to the star-spotted canopy above the countryside. And right away, from the corner of his eye, he can see a greenish glow in amongst the clouds and the stars.

The darkness is thick enough that without his GPS to count down the miles, he’d never find the entrance to the park. It’s dark enough that the small screen of his iPod is too bright to look at, lighting up the cab of the truck as he skips songs while driving. It’s dark out here in a way that it can never be in a city, or even a small town. In his mirrors there is nothing, a featureless black void. Outside the cone of his headlights, nothing. His world is the lights on the dashboard and the ice sparkling on the road and the trees that line the road into the park, and nothing else. Inky black nothingness, his surroundings as impenetrable as the darkness between the stars. And it’s the light that makes the darkness so complete.

The dirt road through the park is a solid sheet of grimy ice, and he drives slowly. Frozen ponds line the road on either side, and how terrible it would be, he thinks, for the tires to lose their grip and for his pickup to slide into the water. His phone has no reception this far outside of the city, and for the first time he becomes aware of how vulnerable he is, a small bubble of moving humanity in a black wilderness. It’s not just the ice. The park has a huge population of large animals; elk, bison, moose; occasionally bears and cougars, too.  As big and powerful as his truck is, he knows a collision with a bison or a moose would push the engine into his guts. The last time he drove this road at night, a bull bison lay in the shadow of the trees, and you would not believe how hidden a two thousand pound animal can be until you catch one suddenly in your headlights, barely six feet away. He drives slowly.

Finally, he arrives at the lake. The truck powers through the dense snow on the shore, and he’s thankful for four wheel drive. Again he is struck by the vulnerability of his position; if something were to happen to the truck, he’d have to spend a night in sub-zero temperatures in a forest where he is the only human for miles.

Putting the truck in park, he switches off the engine, and now the only light comes from the stars and the dancing green sky. The black night is marbled with swirling streaks of ghostly green, a vision of another world in which cities do not exist and he is utterly alone under a haunted sky.

Abraham Maslow came up with the term “peak experience” to describe the rare, ecstatic state a person can find themselves in through deep meditation, intense love, great art or the majestic beauty of nature. Or mushrooms. Mushrooms will do it too. The peak experience is one of intense happiness, and often interconnectedness; there is a certain level of ego destruction that takes place. The walls of the self fall away, and you slip into the masterpiece. These are the moments in which a person can experience eternity. Get it now, or you never will.

The squeaking snow crunches under his feet as he sets up his camera and tripod. His hands are clumsy with cold as he switches lenses, trying to capture a vision unlike anything he has seen before. The light keeps moving like a sunrise on fast forward, and it’s so dark that he has to hold down the camera’s shutter release for a minute or more at a time so that enough light can reach the sensor to record an image. But he persists.

The photos come out, sort of. But while they manage to capture the star-studded, green-flecked night sky, the snow, the trees, they cannot capture what makes this moment a peak experience. The utter silence. The stillness. The complete darkness which somehow the eyes adjust to, until midnight in the forest feels as bright as noon in the city. The meteorites that streak across the sky like errant fireworks. The lonely howl of some animal from across the lake. The breath leaving his body in dense white clouds.

The mystery is not the strange lights in the sky. We know it’s particles from the sun hitting the Earth’s atmosphere, or something like that. The mystery is the feeling itself, the resonance of the human soul with these vast cosmic events, so that the infinitesimal becomes the infinite and vice versa. It’s not the frozen, indifferent stars peeking through the swirling green light that holds him there, transfixed, despite the cold. It’s the feelings he experiences as he stares up at the beautiful nothingness. The feeling that the ordinary miracle in the night sky is no greater than that of his own existence, that he should be alive and conscious in this particular place and time to experience this feeling of awe.

Off in the distance, he hears branches break under the trees; and this is part of the experience, too. Without the metallic edge of fear, the night would lose some of its delicate magic — he knows this. It’s because he’s alone that he feels both the fear and the awe, because they are ultimately expressions of a singular reality, the mystery dimension of existence without which life is hollow, the monster breaking through — and the realisation that to whatever is moving through the trees, he may be a monster too. This is the opposite of everything he wanted to run away from yesterday; the warm house, the sagging couch, the droning TV. This is fear and wonder and beauty and awe; this is life.

But when those branches start to break as something large comes towards him through the trees, he gets back into his truck and heads for home.

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