Aurora Borealis

text by Jessica Stammen
top photo by David Wright

When massive solar flares erupted the day after Valentines the potential for a rare aurora borealis sighting in Maine occurred.  My friend Kathy texted me with many exclamation points.  “I’m sick,” I texted back.  She replied instantly: “Perfect!  Sun plasma – that’ll cure your cold!”

February was not very adventure-filled for me.  Early in the month, after two nights in a row of traveling long distances to go contra dancing and arriving home in the wee hours of the morning, I promptly came down with the worst flu bug I’ve experienced in recent memory.  For a solid week I was flat out: headache, fever, chills, and a cough so forceful it made my collarbone ache.

I don’t sleep enough.  Getting sick was a matter of time considering the amount of activity I sustain.  I wish common sense had set in before the flu; and yet I’m thankful for the wake-up call that sent me back to bed.  I have slept at least nine hours a night, every night during the past three weeks and I have to say: it’s pretty amazing.

And pretty funny considering that the only outing I went on this month happened, by definition, at night when I should have been home sleeping.

On the evening of the 15th I went to bed at nine, having awakened from a nap only two hours earlier.  When my cough syrup wore off around 3am I padded to the window in my slippers.  While waiting for ibprofen to make it safely down my throat I stood watching and straining to see something.  Wait – I squinted – were those faint horizontal bands of light I was seeing across the sky?  Or Robitussin-colored hallucinations?  Or just the light reflecting off the plastic covering my old, drafty window?  I couldn’t say.  I had never seen the northern lights before and now, maybe, I still hadn’t.  I went back to bed.

In the morning I awoke to an email from my friend David announcing a hike up the backside of Mount Battie the following night.  Apparently a possibility for the aurora borealis would increase over the next couple days.  So would the possibility for “hot toddies and some form of snack at the top.”

“Yes please!” I responded.  Even though I knew better.  A relatively manageable event for most became a challenge for me; I was so sick.  I had 36 hours to prepare myself with inordinate amounts of sleep and a super-tonic my friend Reuben said would “teach any self-respecting germ a lesson.”  Try chugging a smoothie made with garlic (a whole bulb!), onion, ginger, cayenne, horseradish and apple cider vinegar and then tell me who’s tough.  Admittedly I only forced three big gulps down before the gag reflex set in. The instant boost to my immune system was followed by extreme garlic seeping from my pores.  Good thing I was housebound until the hike – and that hikes generally take place out where the breeze blows.

Cough drops, camera, ginger-agave roasted cashews – check.  I took a late afternoon nap and I was ready.  Sarah arrived at my house with two pairs of socks on.  Smart girl.  Even though the temperature was unseasonably warm (blame it on the solar plasma burst) it was still February.  I had only one pair of socks on (and I’ll blame this on…the garlic), so I revised my preparedness with another layer of Smartwool and we called David to make a last-minute route revision.  We drove out to Beech Hill instead of Mount Battie. It would be a quicker hike.  Although not as high, the whole bowl of the sky would visible from its gently sloping bald top.

From the embrace of tall, dark pines that grew up around our cars in the parking lot we traversed the edge of snow-covered blueberry barrens single file and shimmering in the full moonlight.  Our footing in the snow was intentional as we wound our way to the top, our conversation drifting away out of hooded earshot now and again.  As we rounded toward the hill’s coastal side and the blinking lights of the windmills on Vinalhaven we stopped to gaze back and name the Camden Hills, Ragged Mountain and Pleasant Ridge.  David spotted a fox, its movement like a calligrapher’s mark – silky, fluid.  It was beautiful, and so quiet.

It was still beautiful, but not so quiet when the cameras came out.  David and Sarah are both very accomplished photographers.  They shared quick banter about camera models and ISO settings, remarking on moonlight and digital noise while comparing screens.  I just smiled; I kept my camera in my pocket mostly.

It was remarkable what they were able to capture.  First of all it was night; and though we worried clouds would threaten to mask any chance of seeing the northern lights, the full moon and lots of moisture put on a show to rival.  Fast moving, lower level cumulus clouds massaged moonlight as their shadows pulsed over the hill and toward the horizon.  The patchwork quilt of high cirrocumulus clouds above a stand of pines reminded me of the dark brilliance of a Wyeth painting.  An incredibly huge ring surrounded the moon at intervals; a result, I think, of veil-like cirrostratus clouds.  Though only a visual phenomenon caused by light passing through ice crystals, it was fun to imagine the ring as an actual physical presence in outer space, its breadth threatening my capacity for awe.  How amazing this evening was.

©2011 Sarah Szwajkos Photography

At the crown of Beech Hill David spread his father’s old army blanket over the icy surface of the snow and we all situated ourselves north facing.  Out came one, then two thermoses of warm, healing teas.  Out came the ginger-agave cashews.  (Out came my cough drops and apologies for garlic smells when in close proximity.)  But the star treat of the night?  David presented a tinfoil package.  As he opened it the moonlight caught on its crinkled facets and the light of Sarah’s smile and mine caught on the pink and white frosted Valentine cookies within.  Baked by David’s mom, they had been sent from New York.

It was ten o’clock at night.  It was below freezing and we were wrapped in layers and surrounded by snow.  But there we were, sitting together enjoying cookies and tea on a moonlight picnic.  I was sick.  My voice was gravelly. But sitting on the cool earth calmed the heat of the virus in my body and I felt so simple and present.  There wasn’t a wisp of color to be seen to the north, and no plastic window covering to play the trick of maybe.  But the changing clouds and full moon treated us to a dynamic spectacle of light and atmosphere.  We couldn’t imagine how the aurora borealis would have made the evening any better.  It seemed just as it should be; and maybe this is perfect definition of health.  Visible or not, the sun plasma was working.

©2011 Sarah Szwajkos Photography

©2011 Sarah Szwajkos Photography