In our Alaskan neighborhood up near tree line, we had a “northern lights phone tree.” You never knew when the phone could ring, at any time of night, with the greeting,”AURORA BOREALIS!” It meant, “look outside because the lights were dancing!” Tucked into a big curving bowl of a valley in the arms of the Chugach foothills, we were far away from the twinkling city lights of Anchorage and had big sweeping unobstructed views of the sky. One night when everyone was asleep, I peered out the window at my first glimpse of the notorious borealis. I had to be outside to fully witness the quiet symphony of color and motion. So, wearing nothing but a nightgown, a blanket and my trusty Sorels, I went out in zero below weather. It was eerily quiet. Where was the sound? What did I expect? Gregorian monks chanting? The Loner by Jeff Beck? Choral music? A rock Opera! I grew up in the 70’s where we listened to music with light boxes, and then MTV came along and gave us imagery to go with the music. This was the most amazing show I had ever seen and I was all alone with a deafening silence that was as magical as my crystallizing breath clouds, too intrigued to feel the cold creeping into my bones.
My second sighting was even more dramatic. I was on board a 70 passenger Bombadier plane, the kind with propellers on each side only seen in old movies. We were cruising along at 534 mph at 41,000 ft. towards Fairbanks, Alaska when the pilot announced that the Aurora Borealis could be seen out of the right side of the plane. Everyone on the plane left their seats to look out the window and my first thought was, will the plane just tip over, wouldn’t you be able to see something that big from any window? Like those maps with an arrow that points to, “you are here,” and there’s you, an invisible dot on the map of the universe.
With my brand new book, Aurora, A Tale of the Northern Lights tucked in my carry on, I wanted to run up and down the aisle of the small plane shouting, “Yes, it’s just like my book, my Aurora!” But I didn’t, I only told the person next to me in the seat as if being an author of a book was just something I did. I did not tell them that I was a small town girl from a steel valley where the only glow we ever saw was sitting high up on a river bank overlooking the river where the mill would glow when the hot steel cooled. We could hear the metal hiss as it hit the bath way up on the cliff as we sat drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon and thought about how we had to get out of that valley. My boyfriend learned how to weld. I went to art school and planned my escape.
And then, there I was, all grown up, bound for Fairbanks, Alaska, my eyes as wide as saucers like Alice gone down the rabbit hole. When I climbed back up no one would believe what I saw.
Part of my book promotion for Aurora, was to do a radio show from KBRW-FM-91.9 Top of the World Radio in Barrow, Alaska. I was on a call-in program with Shun’ichi Akasofu, Founding Director of the International Arctic Research Center of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Me, and a world renowned expert on the science of the aurora. Me, writer of fairy tales. Some of the callers told stories that moved the listeners to tears, unexplained tales of visiting loved ones, of hearing crackling sounds and even smells. Akasofu explained what we saw, but when he admitted on-air that there was indeed a powerful element of the mysterious, one that he may never fully understand, I gained immense respect for a man dedicated to science with an open mind. He says in his book, Aurora Borealis: The Amazing Northern Lights, “The silence of dazzling waves of auroral light – which seem worthy of accompanying thunder – can evoke strange feelings in the viewer of the night sky.”
Indeed. To see the lights above and below the plane did not seem scientifically possible. But that was me. On the book tour, and to my utter delight, I met several real life girls with the name Aurora. With a sense of place as big as a million acres for every day of the year, nature can get a hold on you and never let go. People are compelled to name their children after the highest mountains, or one of 3,000 rivers, or 3 million lakes or… the northern lights. As if they could ever forget the mystery and the magnitude. I know it will stay with me always.
I met Shun’ichi Akasofu on that visit to Fairbanks and was inspired to do another book on the northern lights. This time I wanted to speak to the science and the myth. I dedicated each page to a letter of the alphabet with watercolor collage illustrations. See a sample page below from Northern Lights, A-Z.