Aurora borealis

It was a spectacular show that was enjoyed by everyone. Were it to be given a Rotten Tomatoes rating, it would be ranked as “super-duper fresh.” Best of all, this over-the-top production was free.

Yes, the recent display of the Northern Lights was pretty special. It was leagues better than any computer-generated special effects that Hollywood could cook up.

Maybe this was because the price was right. Or maybe it was because it was a communal experience that could be savored by almost everyone in the Northern Hemisphere.

The aurora borealis — those weird, swirling, pulsing neon lights that brighten the night sky from time to time — were extremely visible recently. They treated Earth’s inhabitants to a celestial celebration of colors.

The Northern Lights occur when the sun ejects high-speed gobs of plasma directly at our planet. The earth’s magnetic field interacts with the energetic particles, causing atoms in the upper atmosphere to fluoresce. In essence, these gigantic sky shows are the result of the sun letting out a big old burp.

My first experience with the Northern Lights happened when I was a teenager. It was a bitterly cold winter night, and I was filling five-gallon buckets with silage from the pile located near our dairy barn. I was incensed by the injustice of it all and looked up at the starry sky in a “why me?” gesture.

Glowing ribbons of emerald met my gaze. I watched, slack jawed, as the dazzling streaks danced and flickered. The farmstead was silent save for the occasional jangle of a stanchion as one of our Holstein cows fidgeted. She was probably annoyed that her room service silage was late.

I stood and watched for a long time — the fog of my breath mingling with the lazy steam rising from the silage pile — until the cold crept into my fingers and toes and I developed the sudden urge to finish chores quickly and find someplace warm.

The recent aurora appeared in the midst of springtime, which is a comparatively amicable season. Unlike the Northern Lights that arrived unannounced all those decades ago, these came amidst a blizzard of breathless media reports regarding a solar eructation that had blasted a mass of plasma directly at the earth.

Night falls late at this time of year; it was nearly ten o’clock before the sky was well and truly dark. Even though this was past my wife’s bedtime, she stayed up to witness this phenomenon for herself.

It was difficult to see much in the sky while standing on our farmstead due to the light pollution from our yard light, so I strolled out to the north side of our shelterbelt. Bella, our dog, sprinted ahead of me, extremely pleased that we were embarking on a nocturnal adventure. Perhaps she was hoping that I was finally going to investigate some of those midnight noises that she has been barking at.

An eerie glow emanated from the northern horizon. My gaze followed the glow upward to reveal radiant streaks of neon green and red that stretched for as far as the eye could see.

Bella and I stood there for a long moment, soaking in the sight, bathed in the balmy warmth of a spring evening. Nighttime has a way of distilling and concentrating smells. I had tilled and planted the garden earlier that day, and the fragrance of freshly turned soil wafted on the air. This marvelous aroma was enhanced by the perfume of blooming lilacs.

The odds are astronomical that we would be blessed with a planet that has a breathable atmosphere and a magnetic field that’s strong enough to protect us from the outbursts of our local star. Our existence is nothing less than a series of miracles.

Watching the aurora made me think about the scale of time and space. It reminded me of Carl Sagan’s observation that when viewed from afar, Earth is just a mote of dust floating on a sunbeam.

I memorialized the cosmic lightshow with smartphone snapshots. The pictures share my camera roll with photos of our grandson and grand meals.

The geomagnetic storm was so powerful that it interfered with GPS navigation and some farmers had to halt planting operations. Maybe this wasn’t such a bad thing. Maybe it caused those farmers to pause, look up at the sky and think to themselves, “What a wonderful world!”

While walking back toward the house I glanced at our chicken coop and saw crimson streaks reaching upward, as if the coop’s red paint was bleeding into the cosmos.

Bella, who is colorblind, was thoroughly unimpressed.

“Let’s go to the house,” I murmured. “We both deserve a treat after all this excitement!”

— Jerry’s book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at http://Workman.com and in bookstores nationwide.


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